is a term referring to people who dwell in remote, rural
areas of the United States
, primarily southern Appalachia
and the Ozarks
. Due to its strongly stereotypical
connotations, the term is frequently considered derogatory
, and so is usually offensive to those Americans
of Ozarkan and Appalachian heritage. However, the term is also used in celebration of the American culture
by mountain people, such as illustrated by the Hillbilly Hot Dogs
stand photo below. Such co-opting and neutralizing use is almost exclusively reserved for Appalachians themselves.
The origins of the term "hillbilly" are obscure. According to Anthony Harkins in Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon
, the term first appeared in print in a 1900 New York Journal
article, with the definition: "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."
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.
Urban Slang Use
The term hillbilly is commonly used in non-Appalachian areas as a reference in describing socially backward people that fit certain "hillbilly" characteristics. In this context, it is often (though not always) derogatory. Although the described person may not reside in a region that has hills of any kind, it is substituted in place of more disparaging terms like white trash
. In urban usage, it is sometimes used interchangeably for terms like Redneck
was at one time considered an acceptable label for what is now known as country music
. However, some artists and fans, notably Hank Williams Sr.
, found the term offensive even in its heyday. The label, coined in 1925 by country pianist Al Hopkins
, persisted until the 1950s.
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."
Billy Hill and the Hillbillies are a musical/variety group at Disneyland Park (Anaheim) in Anaheim, California.
In fiction & popular culture
Hillbillies have often been characterized as naïve or ignorant hicks
- The hillbilly lifestyle of the Ozarks was gently parodied in the comic strip Li'l Abner, which inspired a Broadway musical and movie by the same name.
- Another comic strip, Snuffy Smith offers a less gentle hillbilly family parody, featuring a lazy father, a hard-working church-attending mother, and a simple son "Jughaid" who wears a pan for a hat.
- Ma and Pa Kettle were very popular characters in comedic movies of the 1940s and 1950s.
- Hard Haid Moe in Disney's comics.
- In the 1960s American sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, the Clampett family were supposed to have come from the hills near a fictional hamlet in Arkansas known as Bugtussle. While Granny was from "across the river" in Tennessee, Jed and his family were from Arkansas as noted to the references of Tulsa and Joplin being close by.
- Festus, a prominent character on the TV series Gunsmoke, belonged to a hillbilly clan.
- Fuzzy Lumpkins, a villain from the Powerpuff Girls TV show, is a hillbilly.
- An episode of The Dukes of Hazzard saw Bo and Luke rescuing Daisy from being forced to marry into a family of sociopathic hillbillies.
- A recurring character on The Simpsons, Cletus Spuckler (aka the "Slack-Jawed Yokel") and his family are stereotypical hillbillies.
- In the WWF, a character known as Hillbilly Jim was made to portray a large man with a huge beard and wearing overalls back in the 1980s as a frequent tag team partner of Hulk Hogan.
- The earliest television series dealing with hillbillies was The Real McCoys, starring Walter Brennan, Richard Crenna, and Kathleen Nolan, about a West Virginia family that moves to California. The show ran from 1957-1963.
- The 1960s American sitcom The Andy Griffith Show has two contrasting stereotypes of recurring hillbilly characters: The ignorant but kindly, impoverished but generous Darling family, portrayed by bluegrass band The Dillards and Denver Pyle; and the belligerent, paranoid, frankly violent buffoon, Ernest T. Bass, portrayed by Howard Morris.
- In 1970, the author James Dickey published the novel Deliverance, a story about four men going for a canoe-trip on a river in the mountains of Georgia. They encounter several sociopathic hillbillies and are subsequently attacked, captured, tortured, and raped by them. (Based on a real canoe trip in which he was actually helped by friendly mountaineers.)
- On Nickelodeon's The Amanda Show, starring Amanda Bynes, a recurring skit titled "Hillbilly Moment" would be featured. Amanda Bynes and Drake Bell would appear as stereotypical hillbillies and behave accordingly.
- A popular television comedy-variety show "Hee Haw" starred several well-known country singers and regularly lampooned the stereotypical hillbilly lifestyle.
- Rob Zombie's 1998 album, Hellbilly Deluxe, Hellbilly is a direct derivative of Hillbilly.
- In the popular late-night comedy show Saturday Night Live, hillbillies are portrayed in the skit Appalachian Emergency Room, with injuries only associable with the common media representation of hillbillies.
- The Arkansas Chuggabug, driven by Luke & Blubber Bear — hillbillies in a wooden buggy driven by a coal-fired range in Wacky Races is an American animated television series from Hanna-Barbera Productions.
- The Hillbilly Bears another animated television series produced by Hanna-Barbera Productions, played on a social stereotype of the "hillbilly," with a gun-toting, mumbling father who was always "feudin'" with the neighbors.
- The Adult Swim show, Squidbillies, focuses on a family of hillbilly/redneck squids and their stereotypical misadventures.
- In the 2006 Disney/Pixar hit film, Cars and the video game of the same name, there is hillbilly tow-truck named Mater.
- In the Nickelodeon animated show Avatar: The Last Airbender, the episode "The Swamp" features a tribe of swamp-dwelling waterbenders that speak and behave like stereotypical hillbillies.
- Lum and Abner was a popular radio show about two stereotypical hillbillies that ran from 1931 to 1954.
- In Thomas and Friends, there is a hillbilly tank engine named Silly Billy.
- In the animated series King of the Hill, Hank Hill's neighbor Kahn Souphanousinphone often refers to Hank and the other Arlen, Texas locals as hillbillies.
- In the film October Sky, about a group of young West Virginia amateur rocketry enthusiasts, the characters refer to themselves as 'hillbillies'.
- In Pokemon Diamond and Pearl, Solaceon Town is also known as Hillbilly Town.
- In Hannah Montana, many people, including his own children, frequently refer to Robby Ray Stewart as a hillbilly.
- In the WWE, there is currently a hillbilly-themed tag team known as "Jesse and Festus," with the diminutive Jesse providing the "brains of the operation" while the massive but unintelligent Festus providing the muscle.
- On Jerry Springer, hillbillys often appear on the show with many episodes named "Hillbilly Love".
- One example of this are the various hillbilly innuendos on the syndicated television show Married… with Children, which was set in Chicago and dealt regularly with Peggy Bundy's hillbilly upbringing in rural Wisconsin.
- Nickelodeon's syndicated cartoon program Hey Arnold! places a hillbilly residence inside of a sprawling metropolitan city.
- Hillbilly, A Cultural History of an American Icon, by Anthony Harkins
- Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to the Mountains & What the Mountains Did to the Movies, by J.W. Williamson