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, allwords.com 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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1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    Tipper said,

    Very well written. I agree with the kind of “inside joke” of the whole hillbilly experience. Jeff Foxworthy has made a nice living off of making jokes about his culture.


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