Although the video is rather short (and somewhat poorly edited), I was able to find a lot more information in the Archives of Appalachia as well as other sources concerning this topic.
As I mentioned in the video, the start of my research really began when I discovered Clyde H. Ray’s paper, “Images of the Southern Appalachian in America from 1920 to 1940.” I’m unsure of when this was written, but it is full of interesting information regarding the origins of the hillbilly image. Unfortunately, this piece is not available for online viewing, but you can request it at the Archives of Appalachia (and I highly recommend checking it out).
What I found to be the most interesting of this piece, which I addressed in the video, is that there are “3 principle groups of Appalachians,” as Ray states:
“First, there was a small class of relatively wealthy valley farmers and a substantial number of urban residents gathered into the somewhat isolated cities; there was a large middle class of small farmers; and finally there was a small lower class of the poor, many of whom lived on subsistence level. The tragedy of the Southern Appalachian during this period was that this third class, in all its perceived poverty and ignorance, was viewed by the greater America as generally typical of all Appalachian people.”
This large quote is found on just the second page of Ray’s document, and it basically says it all–the stereotype of the hillbilly, according to Ray, started in the United States around the 1920s into the 1940s, where people began to generalize all Appalachian people as poverty-stricken and uneducated. Another source, “The Word ‘Hillbilly’: Linguistic Mystery and Popular Culture Fixture,” written by Julie Baxtor, claims that the word “hillbilly” itself might have originated in Scotland, where most of Appalachian culture actually originates. (This is also a fun read and I recommend it.) While the history of the word is quite an engaging research topic, my focus is on the use of the image we know now in pop culture and how it impacts people today.
To get an idea of what local Appalachian people feel about the image, I conducted a short, ten-question survey via SurveyMonkey. If you’d like to take the survey for yourself, follow this link. All the responses I’ve received thus far have surprised me–I’ve personally grown up with parents who consider themselves to be hillbillies, but of varying degrees (my mother was born and raised in Louisiana while my father was born and raised in West Virginia; we now live in the mountains of East Tennessee). Because of this, I’ve never been offended by the hillbilly image per se, but I’ve never been a fan either. In contrast, the responses to my survey tell me that people who are from the Appalachian region are generally heavily offended by the image and all the stereotypes that go with it. Regardless, even locations within the Appalachian region continue to capitalize on the stereotypes because it’s still entertaining to those who are not from the area.
This also rings true in Hollywood, of course. The examples I used in the video are
- Deliverance, a classic horror film that uses the hillbilly as the monster,
- O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a personal favorite that is actually loosely based on the Classical piece “The Odyssey” by Homer,
- The Hillbilly Bears, an older cartoon that features a family of bears that live, speak, and behave as the very basis of the hillbilly stereotype,
- and The Beverly Hillbillies, a classic television series that depicts a family who lived out in the Ozarks who struck it rich upon finding a crop of oil, and thus moved to Beverly Hills to live a “cultured” lifestyle.
These are not the only instances–as I mentioned in the video, even the Johnson City Press of Tennessee itself caught on to the inaccurate depictions of the Appalachian in film in the 1940s, specifically calling out Hollywood on the top of a page (“Hollywood’s Hillbillyland”). These newspaper clippings are available in the same vertical file as Clyde H. Ray’s paper.
While not all instances of the hillbilly image being presented are meant to be harmful, the impressions they leave cause the negative connotations that are attached to Appalachian culture (i.e. no shoes, dirty clothes, corncob pipes, poor education, et cetera). Yet our capitalist culture has yet to recognize the problems this has caused, and will most likely continue to milk the stereotypes until the cash cow runs dry (that is, when people finally no longer find it funny or otherwise entertaining). But I don’t see this happening any time soon.
Want to check out my sources for more information? This list also includes the media used in my video:
“The Appalachian Region.” Subregions in Appalachia – Appalachian Regional Commission, www.arc.gov/appalachian_region/mapofappalachia.asp.
Baxtor, Julie. “The Word ‘Hillbilly’: Linguistic Mystery and Popular Culture Fixture.” Appalachian History, 2 Mar. 2012, www.appalachianhistory.net/2012/03/the-word-hillbilly-linguistic-mystery-and-popular-culture-fixture.html.
“Bearded Axe.” KissPNG, www.kisspng.com/png-lumberjack-clip-art-bearded-axe-3370029/.
“The Beverly Hillbillies.” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0055662/?ref=nv_sr_3.
Boorman, John, director. Deliverance. Warner Bros., 1972.
Coen, Joel and Ethan Coen, directors. O Brother, Where Art Thou? Universal Pictures, 2000.
“Deliverance.” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0068473/?ref=fn_al_tt_1.
Ebsen, Buddy, et al. The Beverly Hillbillies. CBS Television Network, 26 Sept. 1962.
Hearne, Jan. “Hillbillyana.” In These Times, 14 July 1997.
“Hillbilly.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hillbilly#examples.
“Iced Tea PNG Transparent Image.” PNGMart, 22 Aug. 2017, www.pngmart.com/image/56020.
“Log Cabin Transparent Background Image.” freepngimages.com/log-cabin-transparent-background-image/.
Marshall, Bryana. “Appalachian Opinion.” 17 Nov. 2018. https://www.surveymonkey.com/analyze/5K6uampydi4wJE3cdbrchtuu0rHp3YJ_2FvEOG4fTBulk_3D
“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” IMDb, IMDb.com, 30 Aug. 2000, www.imdb.com/title/tt0190590/?ref=nv_sr_1.
Paine-Brooks, Lesia. “Appalachians Portrayed as Ignorant, Violent.” Johnson City Press, 30 July 1995.
Paine-Brooks, Lesia. “Tapdancer, Documentary Build on Stereotype of Appalachian.” Johnson City Press, 22 Mar. 1994.
Ray, Clyde H. Images of the Southern Appalachian in America from 1920 to 1940.
Shake That Little Foot. “Shady Grove.”
All footage, images, and sounds belong to their rightful copyright holders and are being used exclusively for educational purposes.