The Appalachian region was largely settled in the 1700s by the Scotch-Irish, the majority of whom originated in the lowlands of Scotland. Harkins believes the most credible theory of the term's origin is that it derives from the linkage of two older Scottish expressions, "hill-folk" and "billie" which was a synonym for "fellow", similar to "guy" or "bloke".
Although the term is not documented until 1900, there have been many conjectural etymologies for the term, including:
- The term originated in 17th century Ireland for Protestant supporters of King William of Orange. Roman Catholic King James II landed at Kinsale in Ireland in 1689 and began to raise a Catholic army in an attempt to regain the British throne. Protestant King William III, Prince of Orange, led an English counterforce into Ireland and defeated James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. A significant portion of William III's army was composed of Protestants of Scottish descent (Planters) who had been settled on land confiscated from Catholics in Ulster, the northernmost of the four provinces of Ireland. The southern Irish Catholic supporters of James II referred to these northern Protestant supporters of King William as Billy Boys — Billy being an abbreviation of William.
- The term in the United States was conferred during the early 18th century by the occupying British soldiers as a carry over from the Irish term, in referring to Scots-Irish immigrants of mainly Presbyterian origin, dwelling in the frontier areas of the Appalachian Mountains. These Protestant Irish colonists brought their cultural traditions with them when they immigrated. Many of their stories, songs, and ballads dealt with the history of their Ulster and Lowland Scot homelands, especially relating the tale of the Protestant King William III, Prince of Orange.
- Many of the settlers in the Appalachian mountains were of German origin and were named Wilhelm with the short form Willy, a common German name during that time. Those Wilhelms, who went by Bill or Billy, living in the Appalachian Mountains became known as hillbillies, that is Bills who lived in the hills.
- The term emerged as a derogatory nickname given by the coastal plain-dwelling Southerners to the hill-dwelling settlers of Eastern Tennessee, Western Virginia (including modern West Virginia), and Eastern Kentucky, many of whom were ambivalent to the Confederacy during the American Civil War.
The use of the word was probably most apt (and relatively inoffensive) during the period between the western expansion of the early-to-mid nineteenth century and the post-war period of the 1940s. The advent of the interstate highway system and television brought many previously isolated communities into mainstream United States culture in the 1950s and 1960s. The Internet continues this integration, but many communities with relatively traditional lifestyles remain throughout the region.
Historically, there were conflicts between the mountain-dwelling "hillbillies" and the planters who lived on the coastal plains. During the American Civil War, many residents of western Virginia were pro-Union in that they generally did not own slaves and resented the political dominance of planters who did. The image of the Unionist mountaineer in West Virginia is misleading, however, as the mountainous counties of central, southern, and eastern West Virginia all voted for the Ordinance of Secession on May 23, 1861. A total war was waged against the mountaineers in much of West Virginia, whose residents were deemed "savages" by Union military authorities. Braxton and Webster counties were particularly targeted by Gen. George Crook. "Braxton and Webster are the haunts of the worst Rebel Bushwhackers in the country," wrote Lt. Col. Rutherford B. Hayes. After the war, the Wheeling government carved two new counties out of Secessionist counties and named them after Lincoln and Grant.
Now, the older name is widely deemed offensive (and inappropriate). However, the term hillbilly music is now sometimes used to describe old-time music. An early tune that contained the word hillbilly was "Hillbilly Boogie" by the Delmore Brothers in 1946. Earlier, in the 1920s, there were records by a band called the Beverly Hillbillies. In 1927, the Gennett studios in Richmond, Indiana, made a recording of black fiddler Jim Booker with other instrumentalists; their recordings were labeled "made for Hillbilly" in the Gennett files, and were marketed to a white audience. Also during the 1920s, an old-time music band known as the Hill Billies featuring Al Hopkins and Fiddlin' Charlie Bowman, achieved acclaim as recording artists for Columbia Records. By the late forties, radio stations broadcast music described as "hillbilly," originally to describe fiddlers and string bands, but was then used to describe the traditional music of the people of the Appalachian Mountains. The people who actually sang these songs and lived in the Appalachian Mountains never used these terms to describe their own music.
Popular songs whose style bore characteristics of both hillbilly and African American music were referred to, in the late 1940s and early 1950s as hillbilly boogie, and in the mid-1950s as rockabilly. Elvis Presley was a prominent player of the latter genre. When the Country Music Association was founded in 1958, the term hillbilly music gradually fell out of use. However, the term rockabilly is still in common use.
Later, the music industry merged hillbilly music, Western Swing, and Cowboy music, to form the current category C&W, Country and Western.
The famous bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements described his style of music as "hillbilly jazz."
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