Archive for April, 2008

Ozarks’ Ironic Take on “Hillbilly”

Merriam-Webster’s on line dictionary simply defines “hillbilly” as “a person from a backwoods area.”  Other dictionaries narrow the definition.  For example, defines the term as “Someone who is from the hills; especially from a rural area, with a connotation of a lack of refinement or sophistication.”

The version of the compact OED that sits near my desk defines it as “a person from a remote rural or mountainous area, esp. of the southeastern U.S.” It makes no mention of the negative “unsophisticated” connotation of the word, although it is quite obvious that the term definitely has a third meaning beyond “rural mountain dweller” and a “form of traditional American music.”   Douglas Harper’s on line etymological dictionary quotes a New York Journal article that pretty much sums up the third commonly used meaning of the word:

“In short, a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammelled 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 of his revolver as the fancy takes him.” [“New York Journal,” April 23, 1900]” (qtd. in Harper).  

Of course, there are endless debates on the Internets about the difference between a “hillbilly” and a “redneck.” The general consensus leans toward a simple distinction: ignorance versus malice.  A “hillbilly” is often seen as a white person who is simple or backward. A redneck, on the other hand, is a hate filled, violent person, most often white.  

Whatever the distinction, the term “hillbilly” has a clearly paternal connotation for most people. It’s the sort of word people say when they mean to distinguish someone who belongs to social or cultural class that is beneath them, especially in reference to rural dwellers.  

Only strangers say “hillbilly” without a hint of irony.  People who can count themselves as “hill folk” put their own connotational twist on the term.  Ozark folklore is filled with stories in which hillbillies take advantage of an outsider’s willingness to believe in their alleged stupidity.  The “Arkansas Traveler,”  a song and painting that has come to literally represent our state, is one such story.  

This peculiar tendency to make strangers look like fools by “putting on” stupidity appears to be mostly an Arkansas tradition.  While the inhabitants of the Appalachians definitely have stories along the same theme, they’ve developed a different relationship with the word “hillbilly” itself.  Out east, it seems to be much more offensive to mountain folk.

Out here on the other side of the Mississippi, we turn it into a thing of pride, a kind of snarky inside joke.  I think it speaks to a particular distinction of Arkansas culture.  We like to pretend to be the jabbering, whiskey-drinking, gun-shooting folks described in The New York Journal. Then we show our true wit. 

I think this is why Arkansas once  hosted an amusement park based of Lil Abner and Daisy Mae, called Dogpatch USA.  Arkansas folks might not have liked the stereotype, but they weren’t going to refuse the money of some tourist that wanted to pretend it existed.  

My own Grandaddy suggested that I go try out for the part of Daisy Mae one summer when I was in high school, after I’d “filled out” enough to pull off her off-the-shoulder tops.  His suggestion shows at least some indication that he wouldn’t be offended by his only granddaughter working as a human representation of one of the worst hillbilly stereotypes in popular culture. Daisy is the cultural mother who spawned Elly Mae Clampett in the 1960’s.  

It makes sense to me that Ozarkians would take this perspective on the “hillbilly” stereotype, mainly because it deals with that very theme of “fooling” the outsider. Many of the ghost stories I heard from old timers when I was a child are not ghost stories at all. They are stories of people who were fooled into believing they were seeing a ghost.  


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Genetics tip

Genographic Project theorizes near human extinction around 70,000 years ago or so, right before what Jared Diamond calls “the great leap forward.”


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New Interview Series at Hillbillymfa

My post on a friend, J, and her experience as a “Hillbilly Hijabi Woman” was definitely fun to write and it has generated a good deal of interest here. After writing it, I realized it would be really cool to do a series of interviews with interesting people who are influenced by the Ozarks in some way.  The focus of the interview would depend on what I know about the interviewee, and range from artistic inspiration to entrepreneurial inspiration.

So this week I’m starting the second of what I’m calling the “Ozarks Interviews Series.”  The “Interview with a Hillbilly Hijabi Woman” should properly stand as the first of this series. My second victim is Robb McCormick, of “some guy named robb” fame. 

Look for it in a couple of days.  


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Hillbilly Weddings

The phrase “hillbilly weddings” is a search term that keeps popping up on my blog stats. It pops up so often that I figured I would go ahead and indulge those of you who are desperately looking for information on hill folk nuptials.   I get a lot of “what does a hillbilly look like” too, but I think that one is going to take a little more thought to answer properly.  

Vance Randolph is still considered the pentultimate collector of old time Ozark hill folk knowledge.  In his book Ozark Magic and Folklore, he details several superstitions associated with hill folk marriages.

Timing of the Wedding

Randolph writes that the timing of a marriage is determined via phases of the moon and “zodiac signs,” which means that the process is quite variable.  However, he notes that “Many old-timers believe that marriages consummated at the full moon, or when the moon is waxing and near the full, are the happiest and most prosperous . .  . Many hillfolk believe that June weddings, consummated when the moon is full, are best of all.  However, marriages in January are highly regarded . . .according to the old rhyme ‘marry when the year is new/Your mate will be constant, kind and true'” (186-187).

May weddings are apparently bad luck. Rainy or snowy weather is also bad luck, as is marrying when “the wild hawthorn or redhaw is in bloom” (187).   Randolph says that still others think that marriages should happen only in the sign of Scorpio, when “the sign is in the loins” (187).  

Weddings and Weather

Weather on the wedding day is extremely important to predicting the nature of married life. A sunny morning and a rainy afternoon, for example, predict the tenor of the marriage.  It will be happy at the start and miserable at the end.   Randolph also notes that the day after the wedding is just as important for this purpose.  “The day after the wedding, when the ‘infare’ dinner is held at the home of the bridegroom’s parents, is known as the man’s day, and the same weather signs indicate his future happiness or unhappiness” (187).  This passage also points out a custom missing from most modern marriages. The ‘infare’ that Randolph mentions here is apparently a sort of inverse of the rehearsal dinner, hosted by the groom’s parents at their home.  


According to Randolph, couples should never buy their rings from a store to ward against the ring having absorbed bad energy. They should order it from a catalog instead (187-188).

Wedding Ceremony  and Garments

Randolph collects several instances of superstitions about stance during the ceremony itself. “A couple being married should stand with their feet parallel to the cracks in the floor, as to stand crosswise invites bad luck and evil spirits” (188).   A bride should always step with her right foot after the ceremony, as to step with the left invites bad luck.   Seeing a “toad in the path” immediately after the ceremony is considered good luck as well.  

Brides should always make their own wedding dresses, because otherwise, friends and family members will secretly put pieces of their own hair into the dress hems.  This is, according to Randolph, a kind of curse or “conjure” that “benefits the owner of the hair at the poor bride’s expense” (189).     After dressing, a bride should not look into the mirror until the ceremony is over in order to avoid bad luck (190).   Grooms are advised to wear their new wedding suit for several months after the wedding, but there is apparently no such requirement for brides.  The only stipulation is that my not sell their wedding garments (191).

Randolph also quotes several rhymes that make up superstition about dress color.   The shortest one he quotes comes from Harrison, Arkansas.  “Blue is true/Yaller’s jealous/Green’s forsaken/Red is brazen/White is love/and Black is death” (189). 


Apparently it is extremely bad luck to set up a new house with a brand new coffeepot. All coffeepots must be used (191).

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Communicating about Race

Wow, what a little wordpress blog surfing will turn up.  I just stumbled across this study on communicating about racial equality by the Frameworks Institute. It’s fascinating.  While I was at it, I found this gem.  It’s a study and online course/presentation on Americans’ attitudes about rural life issues.   Both are fascinating from a rhetorical perspective :).  I wonder if any critics have got ahold of this info and tried to apply it to current political rhetoric? 

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Hillbilly Moment of the Day

My phone rings about four-thirty this afternoon; it is, as usual, my Mom. 

Mom says, “I gotta tell you a funny story.”  Like a lot of southern women, when my Mom calls and says that, it means I better kick back and settle in for a long conversation.   It sometimes means juicy gossip, it sometimes means literally a funny story, but it’s always good. 

“I drove up to the house after running my errands,” she says, “and I see this squirrel with one of my dog’s toys. It was the weirdest thing. I sat there and watched it rub this stuffed toy all over its body.  I wished I’d had my video camera. This squirrel was, like, totally getting off on this little stuffed toy.” 

I am amused by this point and I figure what is coming. Her dog, Tumble (a Parson Russell Terrier), is a known killer of rodents and small animals, he’s faster than some motored vehicles, and he’s got more determination in his toenail than I have in my entire body.  He can smell mice through walls and jump four feet straight up. He’s a dog with super powers.

But not this time. This time his supernatural speed fails him. “Well I finally let Tumble out of the car,”  Mom said. “And he took off after that squirrel. I’ll be damned if that squirrel didn’t pick up that stuffed animal and go right up the tree with it. We ain’t seen hide nor hair of it since.”   

Damn squirrels.  “So what’d you do?” I ask her. 

“Well I couldn’t see a nest or anything, so I finally just gave up. But Tumble is completely pissed,” she says.  “Well, I gotta go. I just wanted to share.”  

And that is the end of mother-daughter talk today.  Yes, ya’ll, it’s really like that down here. 


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Interview with a Hillbilly Hijabi Woman

I don’t really keep in touch with many of my friends from high school. I ran away to Kansas immediately after graduation and never really looked back, until I was well into graduate school. Then I fell in love with with Arkansas again, warts and all.  There are a few people from high school that I couldn’t quite ever shake from my life, though.  One of those people is Robb McCormick, or Some Guy Named Robb.  Another one of those people is J. 

J is a woman who I always secretly admired and wished I could be. She’s also a little hillbilly, although I don’t know if she personally admits to it.  When we were in junior high, she had a pet possum.  I defy anyone to find a more Hillbillyesque pet. 

She was also a wonderful poet, scholar, and human being. After she grew up and moved away from Arkansas, she converted to Islam.  Recently, she agreed to answer questions about her experience in Hillbilly Land as a Hijabi woman and her relationship with home, religion, and political silence.  

Q. You grew up in the Arkansas Ozarks.  As we both know, this is definitely the Bible belt. Why did you decide to head down a religious path so different from your parents and the folks you grew up with? 

For a long time before my conversion, I had problems with different aspects of the Protestant Christian faith that I was raised in and kept trying out different churches to try and resolve this. I wondered why we were told not to follow the rules of the Old Testament if Jesus followed them (for example, keeping a kosher diet). I wondered why we weren’t even required to follow the rules of the New Testament (for example, I Corinthians 11:5 says it’s a shame for a woman to pray with her head uncovered, which was the origin of my hat wearing phase that you may remember).

Anyway, when I went through my divorce, it was a pretty rough time for me, and it made me sit down and rethink basically every aspect of my life. This is when I came across Islam and started studying it in depth. What appealed to me most was the simplicity of the faith aspect (believing that there is one God, no Trinity, no stuff that takes long metaphoric stories to explain), the fact that there was a nice straightforward set of rules that people are actually expected to follow, and an ideal of moderation (you do as much as you can as well as you can, and God doesn’t expect more or less from you than that).

Q. Why do you wear the hijab? I’m assuming, knowing you, it is a personal choice and that you aren’t pressured to wear it by anyone.  But I’m curious, beyond the religious requirements involved, why you would make that choice? Will you encourage your daughter to do so?

The first reason is that God tells me to. Actually, that’s pretty much it. However, I’ve learned to embrace the purpose behind it and the benefits that it is supposed to bring us. The idea is that men should respect women, and if we give them less to stare at, then they are more likely to behave. I will add, on a humorous note, that this isn’t always accomplished. I went to Austin where my cousin took me out to a bar, and I was actually hit on by a guy while I was wearing this full black head scarf. Now that is one bold dude.

Yes, I will definitely encourage my daughters to wear it, though I don’t think I would force them. An act of worship needs to be done by choice, or else it’s kind of pointless, right? My 10-year-old recently came to me and told me she was thinking of starting to wear it in a few weeks when her next birthday comes. We’ll see how that goes.

Q. Do you feel discriminated against when you come home to the Ozarks ever? If so, why?

Yeah, I do sometimes, but not more than in other places. I get more problems from people close to me rather than from strangers, who tend to find me a novelty. My old employer, who shall remain nameless, was practically cringing the last time I came through town and stopped in his place of business to say hello. He very obviously didn’t want people to see me there and was even more terrified that I might be moving back to town and would ask for my job back.

A friend of mine who was also from a small town in the Ozarks, became Muslim and started wearing the full face veil. She went back to her little hometown and wandered into the gas station, where the attendant thought she was going to rob him. No joke. She had to explain it was a religious covering.

I will admit I am scared to travel alone through unknown areas of the Ozarks where I feel I might actually be unsafe if I stumbled across a nest of KKK members or overzealous rednecks.

Q. How do you think it would be for you to live in the Ozarks now that you’ve changed your lifestyle? 

I did move back to my hometown, but for less than a year. In a nutshell, it was ok in a lot of ways, but awkward in enough ways to tire me out. The Girl Scouts wanted me to volunteer but didn’t want me to be the troop leader, though they were desperate for leaders and had no one else. When I ran into people I used to go to church with, they wouldn’t look me in the eye when we talked.

When my aunt and I asked my daughter’s teacher if we could come in and make gingerbread houses with the kids at Christmas, we were enthusiastically welcomed, but when I suggested I could have my daughter demonstrate Arabic writing and explain about our fasting during Ramadan, the teacher passed me off to the principal who told me that they were just way too busy with preparing for tests to take me up on my generous offer.

Q. Anything you miss about Arkansas and the Ozarks? 

Okra. My grandmother. Seeing everyone I know at a high school football game or wandering through Walmart. Spending summer days hiking up on Petit Jean or Mount Nebo.

Q. Do you feel like anything you learned growing up in the Ozarks had an impact on the choices you’ve made since you grew up and “left home” so to speak? 

I feel like I had to actually overcome a lot of what I learned growing up in order to make some choices that were right for me. For instance, it was a major, heartrending decision to do something that I knew would hurt and possibly embarrass my family, but I still made this choice because I knew it was right for me.

I didn’t leave all of it behind, though. I incorporated a lot of what I learned growing up into my current lifestyle… good manners, Southern hospitality, being kind to others with the expectation that they will do the same for you. I still say hello and wave to people who walk past my home (though that is not the standard procedure up here in New England), and a surprising number of them smile and say hello back. Simple things like that go a long way toward crossing religious barriers and opening dialogues in the community.

Q. Anything else you want to tell me about being a Muslim woman in the U.S.? 

It’s hard sometimes, but not in the ways you would think. There is a lot of room for different ideas and lifestyles, and most people may be curious about the way I dress but accept me once they get past the initial oddness of that.

The difficult part is the uneasiness that I feel over the probability that the government has my phones wiretapped and my emails tracked, and the fact that this prevents some people from wanting to be in touch with me. It’s having to grit my teeth and say nothing when the post office ripped open all 13 boxes of books that we shipped to our new home while we were moving, tearing out pictures of New York from my photo album and pulling my birth announcement out of my baby book because my birth date is 9/11.

It’s the humiliation of always being “randomly” searched in the airports and even having my infant son woken up so they could search his diaper. It’s the feeling of being gagged in a political arena, objecting to this war in Iraq just like I objected to the first war in Iraq, but not being able to say that openly because it was ok for an all-American girl to be a conscientious objector but not a hijabi woman. I hope that given enough time, this will change, but for now it’s something that I try to deal with in the best ways I know how and to speak up against when I get the chance so that my kids grow up with pride in their religious identity and not feeling like second class citizens.

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