Updated: Dec 13, 2019
Exploring Hillbilly Culture, past, present & future.
Hillbilly Culture Past
The word “hillbilly” is often used as a derogatory term for someone hailing from the rural south. The hillbilly is dirty, buck toothed, racist, backward, wears overalls, walks barefoot, lives in a ramshackle dump, is lazy, marries his cousin, etc.
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and there are certainly examples of this kind of person out there. But just as with any other stereotype, these qualities are more than exaggerated in the imaginations of well meaning individuals who have never chanced to meet a real hillbilly.
So what is a real hillbilly?
There are several theories about how the word hillbilly came into popular usage. The most compelling of these takes into account the living conditions in rural Appalachia in the late 1800s. Many of the people who settled in the rural mountain towns were of Scottish or Irish descent (though not all, as we will later see). It is thought that the origin of the word hillbilly finds its roots in the political climate of Scotland - supporters of King William being known as “Billy-boys” becoming “hill billies” in North America.
As frontier people pressed westward, those settled in the mountains enjoyed relative isolation from the outside world developing around them. As a result, not much changed in the hillbilly way of life as compared to the forward progress of the rest of the world. Even the language, so quaint and distinctive to us today is actually a throw back to Old English, the dialect of the vernacular such as that used in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Beyond the Stereotype
Many groups of people are stereotyped, and the hillbilly is no exception. The problem is that without adequate knowledge or exposure to the stereotyped group, or at least to an individual from that group, one is unable to compare and contrast the myth and the reality. I have, as recently as 4 or 5 years ago, encountered people from Northern states who asked in all seriousness if I just bought shoes for the trip. One young man I met in Jamaica was living under the impression that the mosquitoes in Tennessee were as large as cannon balls.
Even when I moved to Nashville from East Tennessee, I encountered prejudice. Though from outside eyes, Nashville would seem a home & mecca for hillbillies, it is in fact the opposite. Nashville is a modern city with all the cultural diversity of any other city. Far from being isolated from the developing world around it, Nashville was the center of activity for the shipping of goods down the Cumberland River.
Maybe it’s that being so close to the land of the hillbilly causes Nashvillians to feel guilty by association of being hillbillies themselves. To avoid this impression & the negative connotation it evokes, and not understanding the true nature of the hillbilly, Nashvillians are quick to make fun of mountain folks with just as much venom (maybe more) than any other outsider.
I was teased and tormented for my accent in Nashville worse than in Boston. The guy seated next to me in jazz band even commented once, mocking, “You talk like you’re from Tennessee.” Interesting, I thought Nashville was in Tennessee.
My mom shared the same sentiment. She found Nashville so different that she once commented, “Let’s go home to Tennessee for the weekend,” after we had made the move for dad’s songwriting career.
Why so much difference within the same state? If you’ve ever seen the flag of Tennessee, you’ll notice three stars in a circle. This represents the three distinct areas of the state, East, Middle & West. Middle & West Tennessee share a common topography, becoming increasingly flatter (less mountainous) as one travels west toward the Mississippi River, the western-most border of the state. East Tennessee is delineated as the territory east of the Cumberland Plateau.
Due to this difference in topography, East Tennessee was set apart from the rest of Tennessee, because the mountains not only isolated the inhabitants, but made large scale farming an impracticality. Middle and West Tennessee, however, with the flat rolling hills made perfect farm land for the large-scale plantations of pre-Civil War America.
In fact, before the Civil War, East Tennessee & Western North Carolina natives attempted to form a separate state of Franklin.
When Tennessee later seceded from the Union in order to join the Confederacy, many East Tennesseans unofficially aligned with the Northern states.
My own Great Grandfather, Hamilton Griffith, resident of what is now Scott County, enlisted in the Union army at the ripe old age of 14. As an interesting aside, my grandmother, Elzada & her brother, Fred were among the last surviving direct descendants of a Civil War veteran in the world owning to the fact that Hamilton, their father, had been in active service at such a young age & that he was 76 years old when Grandma was born.
So you see, the interests represented by East Tennesseans vary greatly from those of Middle & Western Tennesseans.
Why is Nashville, located squarely in Middle Tennessee considered by outsiders to be a mecca for hillbillies? Well, on account of the music, of course.
Country music, or Hillbilly Music as it was once called, has long been associated with Nashville, but why is this the case if hillbillies don’t come from Nashville?
The Commercialization of Hillbilly Music
In 1925, radio was in its infancy. Companies looking to advertise to potential customers were now able to reach into countless living rooms around the country on the wings of electro magnetic waves. Recognizing the huge potential market, an executive at National Life & Accident Insurance Company hired a prominent radio announcer, George D. “Judge” Hays, from the National Barn Dance program in Chicago, and commenced bringing musicians from the rural mountains to the Nashville based studio to broadcast their “hillbilly music” to the rest of the world. They called their radio network WSM, using the acronym of their insurance slogan “We Shield Millions.”
The plan worked, and the resulting phenomenon, the Grand Ole Opry remains one of the longest standing radio programs of all time. What better way to sell insurance products to rural residents? Give them the music they love, not the “Grand Opera,” classical music that preceded the first Opry broadcasts, but real “earthy” musicians that appealed to everybody.
In response to the radio broadcasting of Hillbilly Music allowing it to gain wide spread popularity, New York based record producers began seeking out musicians in the rural South in order to cash in on the country music phenomena. Ralph Peer in particular found a headquarters in Bristol, the split town, half in Tennessee, half in Virginia where he recorded the legendary Jimmie Rodgers & the Carter Family.
The system set up by Peer in order to pay artists is the basis of modern publishing & recording contracts today. Originally, he paid performers $50 in advance and an additional 2.5 cents per recording sold.
Given a selling price of 30, 60 & 75 cents per record, you can see that the artists were making between 3 & 8% of the income generated from their music, leaving the remaining 92-97% to be divided among other parties.
Peer’s legacy, Peer Music is still a leading global player in the publishing of original music of all genres. According to the Peer Music website, Ralph Peer closely guided the musicians he recorded & helped them select the material they would perform.
In this way, scholar Charles Wolfe reportedly noted, “Peer sensed he was developing a new commercial art form... and that this art form was to be derived from, though not fully reflective of, traditional mountain music.”
Couple this account with common sense and it is easy to deduce that country music as we know it, even since the time of its popularization was coerced into being what it is by people who developed it for the purpose of commercialization - not to be reflective of the traditional musical heritage from which it sprang.
Think about this for a minute, because it is a statement of tremendous importance. Popular country music is a commercial art form. It is not fully reflective of traditional mountain music. It is the product of the business interests of some influential individuals.
The Roots of Hillbilly Music
So, if what we know as country music is not necessarily reflective of its origin, what is? Let’s look at what hillbilly music consisted of before its commercialization for some clues.
As we saw earlier, hillbillies were the people who settled in mountainous areas isolated from the developments of the world around them.
We also noted that many of them came from Scotland & Ireland, but not all. Where did these other hillbillies come from? A look at the instruments used in traditional hillbilly music gives us some clues.
“Grand Ole Opry.” Ryman Auditorium accessed March 1, 2015 http://ryman.com/history/opry
Wait a minute! I thought hillbillies were supposed to be segregated. Not if you’re looking at the music. Banjos were one of the three principal instruments considered crucial for hillbilly music, the other two being guitar & fiddle.
Read more about Hillbilly Culture and Appalachia Music Heritage.
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