When my brother and I were little, we raced to sit in front of the TV to watch cartoons on our three channels. (Five, depending on how you rotated the outdoor antenna.) Whoever sat down first could watch whatever cartoons he or she wanted. This “plan” was doomed, however, when it became the inception of an all out brawl, with vicious scratches, hair pulling, and snot-slobbered rage. So, our mother gave us a choice: We could either take turns on Saturdays – one being his Saturday, the next mine – or we’d watch no cartoons at all. Ever. Needless to say, we chose the former. We both looked forward to Looney Tunes. I was thinking the other day about a particular Looney Tunes cartoon called “Hillbilly Hare.” I’m sure you know which one I’m talking about – the one where Bugs Bunny outsmarts hillbillies Curt and Punkin Head Martin at every turn. Though I found it funny, I felt an unease, even then, and a sense of condescension. Now that I’m an adult and have the luxury of looking back, I wonder: From where did the term “hillbilly” originate? And, for that matter, where did the term “redneck” come from? How were these labels used? And why are they still used today?
Let us try to find the answers using a variety of sources, starting with the label “redneck.” In the southeastern United States (including Appalachia), “redneck” is a term proudly used to characterize a certain way of life – one that bucks authority but is skewed toward authoritarian tendencies; one filled with huntin’, fishin’, and muddin’ with an extra dose of carefree living; one that loathes government overreach but might benefit from government programs; one that prides itself in ancestor reverence but either forgets or doesn’t know history as a whole. As a person born, bred, and fed in an Appalachian holler, I came to understand the term a little differently.
Philip Martin, in his book, The Artificial Southerner: Equivocations and Love Songs, discusses Bethany Bultram’s finding that the word “redneck” first occurred in the U.S. in the 1830s and referred disparagingly to Presbyterian religious protesters. Patrick Huber and Kathleen Drowne in, “Redneck: A New Discovery” (American Speech, 2001), found that the term was used in 1893 to “describe rural white laborers of the American South.” The pair also say “redneck” first entered political dialogue in the 1890s when Mississippi “Democrats used it to denigrate farmers within their party who supported populist reforms.” As farmers stooped, bent their bodies, and harvested under the scorching sun, they attained that blistered red ring around their necks.
I was taught the word came from coal miners who tied red bandannas around their necks to signify solidarity against hired gun thugs, horrible labor conditions, and corrupt practices. Patrick Huber, in a later 2006 article, “Red Necks and Red Bandanas: Appalachian Coal Miners and the Coloring of Union Identity, 1912-1936,” discusses this in detail. Huber says wearing the red bandanna around the neck was a simple way for miners all across the region to identify a fellow union member – not only for unity but also for protection. During the “Red Neck War of 1921,” between 15,000 to 20,000 West Virginian miners of all ethnicities took up arms against a few thousand deputies and state militia, along with the infamous Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. The miners wore the signature red bandannas and fought against strong arm tactics (such as brutality, forced evictions, and downright murder) and for the right to unionize. In his book, The Battle of Blair Mountain: The Story of America’s Largest Labor Uprising, Robert Shogan says the red bandanna “became the hallmark of the insurgent army, leading both friends and foes to refer to them as ‘rednecks.’” Interestingly, Huber indicates that those persons who fought against the miners wore white bandannas. During gun battles, the color significance was important. If you look at these mining examples, “redneck” is rooted in protest.
We’ve seen the same red bandanna in our modern times. The Guardian published an article in 2018, “We are proud to be ‘rednecks.’ It’s time to reclaim that term,” by Stephen Smith, Wilma Lee Steele, and Tina Russell. The article first explains the 20th century history of the miners using the symbolic red banana and deems them as West Virginian “revolutionaries.” The writers lament today’s corporate colonialism and corrupt politicians. Further, they say that poverty, “divorce, drug abuse, debt, incarceration and suicides” all swim together in a simmering pot that creates the perfect misery soup. “The more we suffer,” they say, “the richer some folks get.” The article then discusses the modern “redneck” reference. In August, 2018 West Virginia’s teachers, school workers, janitors, and bus drivers in every district went on strike. “Thousands . . . stormed the capitol – many wearing their red bandannas.” Smith, Steele, and Russell end by saying, “So call us rednecks. We wear that red bandanna with pride.” The website Redneck Revolt: Putting the Red Back in Redneck presents another modern interpretation of the label. They profess to be “a national network” with “a pride in our class as well as a pride in resistance to bosses, politicians, and all those that protect domination and tyranny.” Further, they claim to be “pro-worker” and “anti-racist.” They, in my opinion, come closest to the ideal of the miner rednecks in the 1920s.
At this point, we’ll move to the term “hillbilly” to find its origins and usage. The term suggests more of a connection to the land, to the majestic mountains, and the hills and valleys. If you’re born or transplanted in these mountains, that land connection is palpable. I would imagine, even if you’re a visitor, the aura is unmistakable. That’s not to say the term “hillbilly” is better or worse than “redneck.” Hillbillies declare their love for the land while, at the same time, abusing her resources. Hillbillies might feel disdain about stereotypical portrayals of them or their commodification but they love watching The Beverly Hillbillies or buying a corn cob back scratcher – or, worse, a corn cob, shall we say, for lavatory use.
The Oxford English Dictionary, the “definitive record of the English language,” defines “hillbilly” as a “person from a remote rural or mountainous area, esp. of the south-eastern U.S.” In his review of Anthony Harkin’s book, Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, James N. Gregory says the term first caught on in 1900 as an amusing depiction of the Appalachian and Ozark peoples. He goes on to say it had a snow ball effect and transformed into the same backward character we have seen portrayed all our lives. Moreover, Richard Drake, in his book A History of Appalachia, lends a bit more detail to the incident, saying a reporter used the word “hillbilly” in the New York Journal to describe “‘free and untrammeled white’ citizens living ‘in the hills’ with ‘no means to speak of,’ who ‘dresses as he can,’ drinks whiskey and ‘fires off his revolver as fancy takes him.’”
Yet, the term “hillbilly” was around even before 1900. According to our familiar Patrick Huber and Kathleen Drowne in another article entitled, “Hill Billy: The Earliest Known African American Usages,” (American Speech, 2008) railroads increased upper-middle class travel to the region, so, mountain folk became the fascinating new creature to ogle under a giant bell jar. It was only a matter of time before some remark was made about “hill people.” The pair found the earliest use in an 1893 Dallas Morning News article called “History of Whitecapism.” The article brought Mississippi’s white terrorism against African American communities to the forefront, and described the instigators as “Cane Hill billies”:
The negroes . . . work for less money and serve their employers more faithfully and obediently than the ‘Cane Hill billies,’ as District Attorney Hudson denominates them. The whitecaps have found another reason for their hatred. These negroes stand well with the good white people . . . Thus they have placed themselves in more harmonious communication with the better element of the whites than the ‘Cane Hill Billies.’
In 1898, articles from the African American newspaper, the Indianapolis Freeman, bolster this use of “hillbilly.” The articles reveal the shameful treatment African American soldiers received on a stay over in Georgia before disembarking to fight in the Spanish-American War. Reporter J. A. Jones writes in the article, “Southern Sentimentalism,” about a “gang of ‘hill billies’ down in Texas” who “refused to receive their pay from a negro paymaster.” Huber and Drowne claim this use of the term indicates “that by the late 1890s this term was already familiar to black Southerners” and , as such, the term carried “distinct connotations of white racism and bigotry.”
Another “hillbilly” reference predating 1900 comes from an agrarian newspaper, the Cleveland Ohio Farmer. The term appears in an October 1899 letter, “We Hill Billies.” The unnamed scribe reveals his fellow “farmers living on these river hills are dubbed ‘Hill Billies’ by the villagers along the river. We don’t like it ‘a little bit.’” Such an open aversion implies the derogatory and/or racist undertone just might have been correct.
The hillbilly character has been used for decades as a means to promote or entertain. In the 1920s, for example, “hillbilly music” and “hillbilly records” were highly successful, according to Jeff Biggers in The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America. As is the case with the entertainment business, a tasteful thing often sours. Musicians were purposely dressed down “with outdated work clothes and oversized hats, and promulgated the harebrained stereotypes of hillbillies.”
The hillbilly image has also been used to sell a variety of products, from moonshine to country sausage. The word has been taken and manipulated, even by persons who proclaim to be our own and write faux elegies. For a true, deep-down-in-the-gut hillbilly, a betrayal is a sting rarely forgotten. Just to pinpoint the betrayal – it’s the faux part. Today’s “hillbilly” embraces the term as something different from the country bumpkin, the quasi-racist, or the ignorant. For mountain people, “hillbilly” is a badge of pride that goes all the way back to pioneers and Revolutionary War veterans who settled the hills. Each time a hillbilly trudges uphill, strides on a walkway, fishes in a lake, or traverses a creek, he or she adds to the footprint of thousands – Native American and settler. In my own family, my mother proudly declares she’s a hillbilly. And she sees it the same way: a pride within and among the hills.
Now we’ve come to the end of our investigation. The terms “redneck” or “hillbilly” certainly have plenty of history. Not only that, but modern Appalachia has pretty much subsumed them into the culture. I also think a greater acceptance of Appalachian lifestyle exists now as opposed to past decades. People are interested in things that Appalachians – regardless of sides or identities – have been doing all along (gardening, sustainable living, herbal medicines, upcycling, etc.). People seek to learn from Appalachians face to face or by reading books like the Foxfire Series. Perhaps a better understanding has occurred due to the type of exposure. The internet and social media has revealed more of Appalachia’s beauty and uniqueness, more so than the ugly and stereotypical. Television also plays some part. Old shows like The Waltons or The Andy Griffith Show, though admittedly romanticized, are still considered treasures in TV world. Similarly, movies like Where the Lilies Bloom (1974), Matewan (1987), The Education of Little Tree (1997), or Songcatcher (2000), and documentaries such as Mountain Talk (2004), The Appalachians (2005), Hillbilly (2019), and even the intrusive American Hollow (1999) offer unique and stark glimpses of Appalachia, from redneck to hillbilly to everyone in between and outside. As to the offensive images, stereotypes, labeling, or emotional manipulation – those people who are determined to humiliate and make their little jabs, or control and cut deep will always exist. And a label is very hard to escape. Perhaps for this reason, many have turned a derogatory term upside down and made it their own, or better.
** Featured Image: Windshield of truck in Sherwood, United States Nick de Partee – Unsplash
Wow. This is so wonderful. As a person who works in New York City people hear my dialect and ask if I am from Texas. I say no, I’m a Hillybilly from Tennesee. Thanks for this academic approach and the inline references. Very well written. Shared on Facebook. Bro Rob
Thank you, Rob. I thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing this piece. And it’s so good to know that Appalachians like you embrace the term. I am also a proud hillbilly. I think if we do that more often, we’ll transform it for the better. Thank you, too, for the Facebook share!
This is a great read. I appreciate the Foxfire callout, we’ve been,making our way through that series!
Thank you, Grant. I love the Foxfire series. I’m so glad you’re reading them. They are an absolute joy to read and a great source for documented Appalachian beliefs, customs, and talents.