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Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon.

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.

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, there remains the appeal of life outside of the constraints of civilization and its restrictions, especially those on sexuality. The popularity of television's rural comedies of the 1950s and 1960s--The Real McCoys, The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres--suggests that the appeal of the hillbilly cannot be merely a matter of its making the audience feel superior.

A weakness of Harkins's book is its failure to offer sufficient explanation for this appeal. Moreover, Harkins does not delve very deeply into the historical and cultural significance of the hillbilly. There is no argument offered about this figure's relation to a broader historical context or about its function in cultural conflicts. The relevance of race and class is acknowledged, but the hillbilly isn't interpreted as telling us anything new about them. As a result, on completing the book we don't really understand the hillbilly as an icon, but rather as a stock character, a more minor element of our cultural repertoire.

In light of these limitations, Hillbilly is often more suggestive than compelling. Consider the epilogue, where Harkins notes that "In the late 1980s, the hillbilly stereotype reemerged with a vengeance during the campaign and presidency of Bill Clinton from Arkansas--a state long associated by the mass media and in the public mind with hillbillies." Harkins tells us nothing about the effect of these associations on the public perception of Clinton or about the motives of those who depicted a Rhodes Scholar, Yale Law School graduate, and manyterm governor as a hillbilly. It is observed that Clinton was not from the Ozark Mountains, the supposed home of hillbillies, but his class background remains unmentioned. A plausible explanation of his portrayal as a hillbilly is class prejudice. Indeed, one could speculate that the virulent hatred of Clinton stems from his not having remained in his class-defined place.

David R. Shumway

Carnegie Mellon University
COPYRIGHT 2006 Journal of Social History
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Author:Shumway, David R.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
Words:986
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