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  • Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon
  • David R. Shumway
Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon. By Anthony Harkins ( New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. x plus 324 pp.).

The hillbilly is a figure of both great longevity and widespread recognition in American culture, as Anthony Harkins's well-researched and effectively documented study shows. In the first comprehensive history of the hillbilly, Harkins traces this figure back to precursors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: literary sources, such as the stock character of the "rural rube," as well as Simon Suggs, Sut Lovingood, and Southwest humor; legends that grew up around historical figures Daniel Boone and, especially, Davy Crockett; the image of the feuding, moonshining Mountaineer propagated by journalists in the later nineteenth century. The hillbilly himself emerges around the turn of the twentieth century in both newspapers and in humorous pamphlets as an amalgam of the rustic yokel, the "poor white," and the mountaineer, and by the early 1910s the hillbilly had already become a stock character in motion pictures.

As Harkins demonstrates, the hillbilly is of interest because the figure has always been an ambiguous combination of admiral traits like freedom and independence with negative ones such as poverty and uncouthness, as this definition quoted from the New York Journal of 1900 illustrates: "a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him." Later elaborations will develop both sides of this picture, connecting the hillbilly to pioneer roots and pre-modern authenticity on the one hand, and to laziness, profligate and deviant sexuality, and violence on the other. Harkins traces the hillbilly through incarnations in country music, sound films, comic strips, and television. While there are some changes, the figure remains remarkably consistent even into the twenty-first century, with the proposed reality show, The Real Beverly Hillbillies. [End Page 1233]

The complexities of the hillbilly are most evident in Harkins's discussion of country music, which was widely known as "hillbilly music" from the 1920s through the 1950s. The music itself was promoted as authentic white folk music, though it was in fact a product of the modern recording industry that combined elements of African-American and Euro-American folk traditions with those derived from recent commercial popular music. Originally, this music was marketed to rural and Southern whites, and was differentiated from the "race" records intended for blacks. A standard name for this music did not emerge until the 1930s, but when it did, it was "hillbilly." Promoters and performers of this music had an ambivalent relationship to the name. Performers often dressed up in hillbilly attire, and they sometimes recorded humorous or self-satirizing songs about hillbillies. One of the earliest acts to be recorded under this rubric was given the name the Hill Billies, and later groups adopted permutations of it, including the Beverly Hillbillies, a Los Angeles string band of the early 1930s. Yet some performers and promoters refused to use the name, believing it to be derogatory. After World War Two, this position became more common as the music began to be marketed to a wider audience. The name "country and western" officially replaced "hillbilly," but the persistence of the term can be seen in Elvis Presley's early nickname, "the hillbilly cat." More recently, country musicians like Dwight Yoakam have embraced the term as a way to distinguish their music from the mainstream.

As the example of country music demonstrates, the hillbilly is not the same kind of term as "white trash," "cracker" or "redneck," though like them it designates poor rural whites. As Harkins shows, its connections to pioneer self-sufficiency, mountaineer survival skills, and Anglo-Saxon ancestry give the figure a positive dimension. Moreover, while all of the other names for poor whites may at times be used in comic derision, only hillbilly evokes a humor that depends on identification. Even in the most viciously derogatory depictions of hillbillies, such as Paul Webb's Esquire cartoons...


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