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Todd Hanson

Todd Hanson

Whether you embrace the word “Hillbilly” proudly or despise its derogatory stereotypical belief, the term has become a cultural icon in American history.

This expression is automatically affiliated with mountain folk but seems to particularly apply those of the Appalachian hills. Although this mountain range spans portions of several states, the Mountain State has had the most difficult time shaking this stigma.

The truth concerning the origin of the term may never be fully revealed, it only leaves one to speculate its proper place in history. Perhaps its original meaning has been lost in time — or at least in part because its gist continues to evolve.

Internet sources say the word’s origin has created much debate among scholars. The intellectuals’ consensus appears to agree on one thing: that hillbilly stems from Scottish dialect. Some believe the name came to the New World during colonial times with the Scotch-Irish immigrants that hailed from the Scottish Highlands.

Others argue the name was given to Protestant supporters of King William III during the 17th century Williamite War. In America, though, the term did not gain much usage until the turn of the 20th century.

Most likely, those considered by others to be hillbillies were the rugged mountaineer settlers. These pioneers carved their existence out of the wilderness by living off the land and being in tune with nature. Self-reliant, God-fearing, family-oriented individuals content living within their own means. A gratifying simple lifestyle desired by several generations that followed.

Up until the 1880s, the Appalachian region was not distinctively different than any other rural sector of the country. But the mechanical age of the Industrial Revolution viewed the primitive way of life as being “behind the times.”

With the wild frontier pressing farther west, this region still maintained much of the frontier characteristics. Fascinating news stories of mountain feuds, such as the Hatfields and McCoys, captivated audiences, thus the clannish stereotype began to develop. The isolated coal and lumber camps that employed child laborers aided in the “uneducated” aspect of the character.

The classic hillbilly depiction did not take shape until after the 1920s prohibition period and the hardships of the Great Depression. During this period, the nation was being introduced to the newly commercialized foot-stomping style of Appalachian music that has hugely contributed to the bluegrass and country sound.

In the post-World War II years, the economic landscape of America was changing. Interstate highway commerce was beginning to connect rural communities with mainstream America. On the political front, the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty in the 1960s helped rekindle the nation’s negative impression of Appalachians. The worst examples were plastered throughout the nation’s news networks.

A large outpour of southern natives began to seek work and relocated to the industrial cities to the north throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Just west of the West Virginia border, U.S. Route 23, which runs from Appalachia to northern industrial cities, became known as the “Hillbilly Highway.”

Television further engraved the hillbilly image in American pop culture. Popular weekly television shows, such as The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies, incorporated lovable backwoods characters blended with a touch of genuine mountain music. The Hee Haw Show, hosted by country music superstars Buck Owens and Roy Clark, embraced hillbilly antics and rural comedy for nearly 20 years.

The big screen has not been so kind. The depiction of mountain people has evolved over time. The classic hillbilly that comes to mind is a backward, poverty-stricken, barefoot fellow holding a double-barreled shotgun while tending a moonshine still. His general depiction consists of a long beard, a pair of well-worn bib overalls and a cone-shaped hat that doubles as a funnel for bottling his brew. His dilapidated old shack lacks even basic amenities. Added to his careless attitude is a lack of motivation and laziness.

These mysteriously reclusive people have been represented as toothless and pridefully uneducated. This image has been etched into the imagination of a nation.

One thing is certain: When the generation with living memory of outhouses and horse-drawn plows is gone, the classic hillbilly perception will begin to fade. Today’s youth have never experienced day-to-day life without electricity, telephones and indoor plumbing. Most of America can no longer relate to country humor, home remedies or the art of preserving one’s own food.

West Virginia may never convince the rest of the world that we are anything other than hillbillies. The state slogan “Wild Wonderful West Virginia” speaks of the delightfully inspiring natural beauty that is described as “Almost Heaven,” but the state’s national perception evidently strikes fear in urbanite outsiders.

If those distressed strangers could only visit a while and experience the charming hospitality surrounded by woods and waters, surely they would leave here with a feeling of warmth and respect toward the Mountain State and its people.

Related:

The wild, wonderful, painful, complex, misunderstood image of West Virginia

Excerpt from Paris Review: Letter from West Virginia: A reflection on editor Jim Comstock and the WV Hillbilly newspaper

Daily Mail Editorial: Improving the national image of West Virginia

Todd A. Hanson is a freelance writer and photographer living in Jackson County. His articles and photographs have appeared in Wonderful West Virginia, Goldenseal, Blue Ridge County and elsewhere. He has contributed to several book projects, including the West Virginia Encyclopedia.