Hillbilly life and history
July 9, 2008 6:39 PM   Subscribe

Do hillbillies still exist in the US? I am refering to the type of people who lived like families parodied in the Beverly Hillbillies television show (which I loved growing up). Any well-known studies/books of the hillbilly lifestyle and origins? How true to hillbilly life were the clothes, accents, lifestyle of that show?
posted by vizsla to Society & Culture (47 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Are you serious? Um, you're right, The Beverly Hillbillies was parodying poor, rural people - and the "hills" being referenced are the Appalachian Mountains. Yes, there are still poor people living in that region.
posted by moxiedoll at 6:47 PM on July 9, 2008

It's not as funny as the Beverly Hillbillies, since real-life hillbillies are probably going to live below the poverty line with inadequate access to medical care and the conveniences of the modern age, but this book gives a great depiction of life in ultra-rural West Virgina.

p.s. Yes, Virginia, there are real hillbillies.
posted by phunniemee at 6:51 PM on July 9, 2008

Check out the documentary "Country Boys." Trailers stand in for log cabins, NASCAR and camo apparel for overalls, service jobs for sharecropping, but times are still tough and the accents are still there. Senator Obama met a hillbilly in Georgia at one his recent campaign stops.
posted by Frank Grimes at 6:51 PM on July 9, 2008

"Country Boys" link.
posted by Frank Grimes at 6:52 PM on July 9, 2008

i never saw the show, so i can't comment on its accuracy, but if you are asking whether people live in clannish, extremely poor, and isolated mountain communities in the u.s., definitely. i think most of the shacks have been replaced by trailers over the years, as trailers became more affordable, and of course the clothes have evolved, but yeah. it's quite sad.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:54 PM on July 9, 2008

You might try Cabins in the Laurel for a sort of historical non-fiction view, and Which Side Are You On, and maybe Growing Up Hard in Harlan County.

Of course hillbillies still exist, but the Beverly Hillbilles was inaccurate and kind of insulting. This question is also somewhat offensive, but so is any way I can think of to articulate exactly why.
posted by dilettante at 6:55 PM on July 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

ps: the hills in question are the ozark mountains of missouri and arkansas, but the extreme poverty in appalachia (eastern u.s., for you non-u.s.ians) is what seems to endure today.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:55 PM on July 9, 2008

One thing...redneck [not equal to] hillbilly. This is an important distinction if you are a redneck.
posted by phunniemee at 6:55 PM on July 9, 2008 [4 favorites]

As a person who lives in the Appalachian mountains, we find the word hillbilly quite offensive. It's a slur meant to keep poor whites down and to the best of my knowledge, it always has been. There aren't very many poor people living here anymore, by the way, and hell, those of us who do have them fancy flush toy-lets now and everthin'! We wear shoes and have jobs. Yeah, it's fucking amazing.

If you actually want to find out about Appalachian history or more about this area, this might be a good start for the Asheville/WNC part of it; here's another one.
posted by mygothlaundry at 6:56 PM on July 9, 2008 [6 favorites]

I checked wikipedia and the history of the term is fascinating.... but yes, it is offensive - akin to "trailer trash" or "redneck". People reclaim these terms to describe themselves and their backgrounds... but I wouldn't suggest asking anyone if they were living a "hillbilly lifestyle".
posted by moxiedoll at 7:02 PM on July 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I work for Habitat for Humanity in Appalachia. There are tens of thousands of people who do not meet our meager income guidelines of 35% of median income, and who live in no-windowed shacks of particle board/foam board and scrap lumber, heated by scrap wood and soft coal.

Poverty is very real and very much alive in these hills. It's not funny and it's not going away. Feel free to ask any question you want---this is my country and my life.
posted by TomMelee at 7:03 PM on July 9, 2008 [6 favorites]

but if you are asking whether people live in clannish, extremely poor, and isolated mountain communities in the u.s., definitely.

The Beverly Hillbillies wasn't a sad show. They weren't poor. They struck black gold! That's why the loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly, Hills that is. They're rich.

You could always read Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn's autobiographies.

People that reside in Appalachia and have southern accents still exist.
posted by LoriFLA at 7:05 PM on July 9, 2008

Rory Kennedy made a good, not-too-exploitative documentary called "American Hollow" that aired on HBO. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9wyOJ4di0g

It's easy to mock the accents and lack of shoes and chickens and all, but what I've seen of the hillbilly life - through living/travelling in the south and some family history - is pretty tragic. Generations of hopelessness and poverty. Really not too different than the ghetto, other than the scenery.

OTOH, Dolly Parton has honored the positive parts of her hillbilly upbringing at her theme park, Dollywood, which also brings much-needed jobs [not terrific yuppie jobs, but still] to a rural area of Tennessee.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 7:05 PM on July 9, 2008 [7 favorites]

The TVA flooded out a lot of the really, really extreme cases of hillbillyism.

But I've driven around rural Alabama recent-ish, and there are definitely enclaves there.

Check out Andy Griffith for a comical, yet fairly real, portrayal of hillbillies in the episodes with the Darling family and/or Earnest T Bass. They treated the hill-folk with dignity.

I would also guess that real hillbillies and NASCAR don't really cross over much (except in the minds of the ignorant). If you've got the money for TVs, you're really into redneck territory. Hillbillies are literally dirt poor.
posted by gjc at 7:06 PM on July 9, 2008

After deleting my first comment, which went more deeply into my family history than I'd prefer, and might've been kinda mean, I'd just like to nth the recommendations of Country Boys and Growing Up Hard in Harlan County.

In fiction, Dorothy Allison and Daniel Woodrell, among many others, have both written beautifully about the regions (conflating the Ozarks and the Appalachians--where were the Beverly Hillbillies from, anyway?) and and people.
posted by box at 7:09 PM on July 9, 2008

Response by poster: Just a note re my use of the term "hillbilly". I'm not from the US so I only got fed what your country's media industry fed me! Didn't mean to cause offence to anyone. I figured it was a term of affection like "country bumpkin". .....ummm unless of course that's also an offensive term..... think I'll stop now.......
posted by vizsla at 7:09 PM on July 9, 2008

I am related to those people. I exist. Thus, if I exist and I am related to them, they must exist.

Yeah, it's pretty much like everything you see. Unfortunately, the lack of education is there, as well, so... yeah, it's pretty much like everything you see.

I mean, my mother has been REALLY shitty to me, but the best thing she ever did was migrate to Dallas to have and raise me there.

Thank the fucking STARS.
posted by damnjezebel at 7:12 PM on July 9, 2008

Hillbilly Exploitation:
I would suggest you watch The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia. Adams has been taking photographs of families living in Appalachia for about 30 years, now. Some say he's exploiting the grotesqueness of his subjects, but it'll show you how real the 'Hillbilly' stereotype can be.

Gospel Music:
Brother Claude Ely spent nearly thirty years as a minister in the Appalachians where he recorded a bunch of gospel songs and released a great record, Satan Get Back. Hopefully it'll help you understand how fervently spiritual some of the communities are. It doesn't, however, mention snake handling, which is also a big deal.
posted by AdamFlybot at 7:13 PM on July 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

I also grew up in rural Appalachia. I was going to suggest "Country Boys" and "American Hollow" (although parts of American Hollow did feel exploitative to me). In a completely different vein, there's Dancing Outlaw, a cult documentary by Blue Ridge Public Television from 1991. It's the story of Jesco White, the last of the Mountain Dancers, but chronicles his family in great detail. There are clips on You Tube.
posted by kimdog at 7:16 PM on July 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

except for the snake on the cover
posted by AdamFlybot at 7:18 PM on July 9, 2008

I second Dancing Outlaw. Also, if the urge strikes you, visit McDowell county, West Virginia.
posted by malaprohibita at 7:20 PM on July 9, 2008

More recommendations for poor and rural life in Appalachia and the South. These aren't light and fluffy, although they are inspirational:

Change Me Into Zeus's Daughter

The Glass Castle

All Over but the Shoutin'
posted by LoriFLA at 7:23 PM on July 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

A few exemplary culture nuggets of Appalachia:

Pissing in the Snow, and Other Ozark Folktales, ed. Randolph : Excerpts Here
Classic Mountain Songs - Produced by Smithsonian Folklife, recordings dating back to the Lomax years.
Sacred Harp Singing : Haunting. Well-posted by OmieWise.

I could go on, but this should give you enough to keep you busy awhile.
posted by The White Hat at 7:35 PM on July 9, 2008

I live in rural Vermont and we have similar people here to the type you describe though the derisive term for them is "woodchucks" in addtion to the fairly-standard "redneck." People from the bigger towns and cities sometimes refer to these people as "hill people" and the eugenics movement in Vermont that was somewhat popular in the 20's and 30's was to basically stop people with "bad blood" from breeding. The program is now thought to be incredibly offensive as people with low IQs and/or Abenaki Indians and other people thought to come from "bad stock" were routinely sterilized in the name of public health.

So, on the one hand you have a sort of "hyuk hyuk" stereotype of the ignorant uneducated white person, and on the other hand you have very real public policies that were either implemented against these people or which kept them in their poverty -- in fact even passed it on through generations -- for decades. You might also want to read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men which is an indictment of the sharecropper system in the south whereby, post-slavery mostly, poor farmers were "rented" land by wealthy landowners which the farmers worked for them.
posted by jessamyn at 7:35 PM on July 9, 2008

I have been to southeastern Missouri extensively and I can say that poor, rural communities have been devastated by cheaply made or improvised drugs like meth and inhalants. Modern rural poverty is a stone's throw from urban poverty.
posted by rabbitsnake at 7:39 PM on July 9, 2008

A northern example of poor rural whites can be seen in the documentary Brother's Keeper.
posted by plastic_animals at 7:48 PM on July 9, 2008

I don't know if this is still the case, but when I was in college, the one sort of people it was "okay" to make fun of was an Appalachian. Pretty much everyone I knew was a politically-correct liberal, and if one of the white guys in my circle had started talking in Ebonics, he would have been a pariah in ten seconds. But it was normal for these middle-class kids to talk like "hicks." I assume this was because "hillbillies" were totally unreal to them. Making fun of a hillbilly was like making fun of a hobbit. It made me a bit uncomfortable, because I grew up in Southern Indiana, around real people who talked pretty much like that.
posted by grumblebee at 7:48 PM on July 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yes, they do exist. I am, by genetics, culture, belief system, and upbringing--a hillbilly.

There seems to be a conflation in this thread of poor and hillbilly, which is understandable if your exposure to the culture has come vicariously and anecdotally. Hillbillies, by definition, are not necessarily poor. A hillbilly can be a millionaire and maintain a deep connection to the area, to family, to the culture, to the food, to the music, to their roots.

The term is not used as a term of affection when used by a non-hillbilly. It is always a term used for degrading, dismissing and insulting the individual or behavior being referred to as a "hillbilly". Oh, hey, it's a handy way to determine the intelligence of the person using the term. When they use it to refer to poor people, to supposed incest, to people living in trailers or to people who are "dumb", you can rest assured that person has the worldview and perception of a gnat. Same as with anyone who uses stereotypes to guide their perception of others.
posted by hecho de la basura at 7:51 PM on July 9, 2008 [6 favorites]

In Bosnia (and most of Eastern Europe) there are people roughly analogous to hillbillies whom we used to refer to as people "from the village." There was a great deal of problems when Serbs started ethnically cleansing village in poor parts of Bosnia and people from these parts came to Sarajevo with a very different set of habits from the city people, who were trying to maintain the illusion of urbanity and sophistication in the middle of a war only to have this confounded by what were to us the archaic customs, fashions that were old in our grandmothers' day and unfathomable habits like spitting just anywhere. But like American hillbillies, these people suffered generations in poverty, in places with poor or no access to education and they were often the victims of hugely unfair government actions - not unlike the Romanians in Rosia Montana, who were depicted in photos by Cosmin Bumbuț on MetaFilter just a day or two ago and our suffering from being sold out by the national government, or like Appalachians at the whims and mercies of big coal companies.

So in line with what Jessamyn wrote, there are people like "hillbillies" all over, but for whatever reason this Appalachian stereotype seems to hold people's imaginations. Even in Europe.

I know that the term is used as a slur, but I've heard people describe themselves as hillbillies with a real sense of pride in their heritage. And I've become a fan of Appalachian music from long ago and notice that greats such as the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers were happy to describe their music as "hills" or "hillbilly" music. Ditto the Dillards, who were from the Ozarks and were the real-life band who played the Darling Family on that Andy Griffith show.

I'm carrying on a bit, but I remember learning about the South in part via Randy Newman, because I thought it was interesting that this Jewish-American intellectual who grew up in sunny California made such intriguing comments about how the only people in America who were fair game for insult anymore were poor white Southerners and hillbillies.

Someone already made a link to the Rory Kennedy documentary. It was very eye-opening for me when I first saw it.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 7:58 PM on July 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

No mention of the way of the hill-folk is complete without also mentioning the Foxfire series of books. There are at least 12 (several hundred pages each). They are full of absolutely fascinating stories straight from some of the people living in these conditions.

From Wikipedia:
The Foxfire Fund or, simply Foxfire, is a not-for-profit educational and literary organization in Rabun County, Georgia that uses stories and practical instructions from the people in its Appalachian surroundings to teach and promote a self-sufficient, self-reflective way of life. Founded by Eliot Wigginton in the 1960s, Foxfire has published Foxfire Magazine continuously since 1966, and the highly popular Foxfire books since 1972. Both the magazine and books are based on the stories and life of elders and students, featuring advice and personal stories about subjects as wide-ranging as hog dressing, faith healing, blacksmithing and Applachian history.
see this page for more information on this ongoing project.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:59 PM on July 9, 2008 [6 favorites]

In a previous career I did some research and investigations in rural Mississippi, Louisiana, and California, and I ended up working many communities -- some decades old, others relatively new and improvised -- that were pretty much totally off the grid. While these communities were not in the Ozarks, some of them definitely felt very similar (although far more complex) to popular depictions of hillbilly life, while others felt a little more Mad Max.

As someone who has spent most of his life in larger American cities, it totally blew my mind how totally different these parts of the US were from the ones I knew.
posted by blapst at 8:19 PM on July 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think there are really 2 questions here:
1. What's a hillbilly. (We could debate this all day, connotations versus denotations and whatnot.)
2. Do conditions of abject poverty persist in rural America today and to what extreme. (Already answered a couple times over.)

There is a (shrinking) contagion of people who believe that hillbilly speech patterns are holdovers of colonial Elizabethan English, which remain by virtue of their isolation. It's an interesting theory, if nothing else. (That addresses the OP's question of slang/vocabules.) Beyond that there exists a colloquial stream of slang, meter, and timbre of "rural" southern vocabulary, although it varies. Someone from eastern Tennessee won't have the same patterns/slang/meter of someone from, say, the coal fields of southern WV.

There are really a lot of remarkable stories of "gittin' by" by Appalachian folks. One of my favorite research topics in college in Appalachian Economics was how by and large rural Appalachia sort of skipped the Depression. It didn't *really*, but the statehouse democrats really had already put quite a hurtin' on the po' folks long before the depression ever came around.

On to music and culture and texts. If you want text-book style books, let me know and I'll recommend a ton. I've got about 21 hours of Appalachian history under my belt. If you want books, I'd recommend just about anything NOT published nationally, although I'm sure there are some good ones. Do you want stories? histories? anecdotes? tall tales? horror stories?

My previous boss was an amazing Appalachian-style fiddler, and he has quite a collection of historical Appalachian Murder Ballads. Sort of an amazing genre, really. Quite prolific, and mind-shatteringly sad.

For video, for gods sake, avoid the Dancing Outlaw. Talk about exploitation film. "Hey let's film this dude and get paid by people who think it's funny that they're so destitute and backwards." PBS actually made a West Virginia series that's fantastic. Beyond fantastic. I think I've watched all 14 hours at least 2 or 3 times, although not in one sitting. Whatcha wanna see?

Seriously I could talk all day about this topic, so for the benefit of all I'm going to STOOFOO now.
posted by TomMelee at 8:31 PM on July 9, 2008 [6 favorites]

Didn't mean to cause offence to anyone.

As evidenced above, there are those who take offense. However, I'm from the Ozarks and know quite a few people from a range of economic and educational backgrounds who comfortably and proudly self-apply that label. It takes on a different tinge coming from (usually northern) city folk who fashion it as a means of condescension, but the label itself is for many far from anything to be offended by.
posted by middleclasstool at 8:44 PM on July 9, 2008

It takes on a different tinge coming from (usually northern) city folk who fashion it as a means of condescension, but the label itself is for many far from anything to be offended by.

I think a lot of the Northern condescension comes from the huge influx of poor rural southerners into Detroit and the surrounding area during WWII. A lot of these folks got piece work jobs (such as tool and die) working for parts shops for the auto companies or other relatively low paying and unskilled work and never quite integrated into the local culture. I knew a lot of folks from Kentucky, Tennessee and a few from Oklahoma - mostly rural, who were considered to be pretty much "hillbillies" (I learned it as the term "billard" but that might have been pretty local). Some made moonshine (really) and went "coon hunting" with dogs and those pickup trucks with one upturned headlight. There were a lot of trailers on blocks.

The main thing is, they were pretty darn self-sufficient. I never knew any of these people to be on welfare or even unemployment. They picked wild blueberries, and hunted deer (and raccoons) and got by. I personally think they've made the best out of a tough situation.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:13 PM on July 9, 2008

See also Cracker: Cracker Culture in Florida History.
posted by carmicha at 9:28 PM on July 9, 2008

Just fyi, 'country bumpkin' isn't really all that nice either. It's got a little more 'folksy charm' about it, but it still means you're from the sticks, and lack sophistication.
posted by pupdog at 9:42 PM on July 9, 2008

The poster was basically asking if a stereotype he'd seen was accurate. The stereotype is often called "hillbilly"; in fact, the term, if it is offensive, is offensive because it is a stereotype.

He wasn't asking if all people living in the mountains were hillbillies; in fact, his question kind of assumes that's not the case.

One could argue that, yes, stereotyping is generally not a good way to get on people's warm-and-fuzzy side. I'm totally on that boat.

However, given that the poster was in fact asking _about_ a stereotype, here's my question for those who find the term offensive (or anyone else with insight):

Is there a better way for him to have phrased the question, concisely, to get the information he's seeking?

I ask because I'd like to know if there's a way to ask these types of questions without offending people and without taking all day long to phrase them. I think it's important, and I'm a curious person who really doesn't want to offend others.
posted by amtho at 9:58 PM on July 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

in the ozarks (arkansas) where i grew up we often played the rogers mountaineers. their mascot is a mountain man, a mountie, a stereotypical hillbilly. i don't know if it ever occurred to anyone to be offended.
posted by nadawi at 10:03 PM on July 9, 2008

Amtho, I don't know that anyone was offended - but people (myself included) let him know that talking about "hillbillies" when you aren't of the people who are so-labled is offensive. There's a difference. Maybe it would have helped if he'd identified himself as being not-American - I figured as much, but when I read the question my head was exploding. There's nothing wrong with not knowing all of the baggage and history of oppression attached to any particular label - but there's also nothing wrong with alerting the speaker to the fact that the terms they're using are Not Ok.
posted by moxiedoll at 10:10 PM on July 9, 2008

From the Oxford English dictionary:
Chiefly U.S.

1. A person from a remote rural or mountainous area, esp. of the southeastern U.S. Also attrib. and transf.

1900 N.Y. Jrnl. 23 Apr. 2/5 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 off his revolver as the fancy takes him. 1911 N.Y. Sun 10 Aug. (Funk), These two were farmers' boys and hillbillies and jayhawkers. 1932 E. WILSON Devil take Hindmost xxii. 236 A coarse-spoken frank humorous old hillbilly talking to neighbors. 1933 Amer. Speech VIII. III. 27/2 Hill Billy, a rube or uncouth and stupid fellow. 1952 History Today July 451/1 Most of his countrymen give him no grander name than ‘hillbilly’, a term as contemptuous as comic. 1957 Daily Mail 26 Sept. 8/2 At 47 the hillbilly who used to scratch a living as a dirt farmer at Greasy Creek in the Ozark Mountains has come a long way. 1966 D. STEWART in ‘J. Hackston’ Father clears Out p. x, As lively a collection of Australian hill~billies as I have ever seen. 1967 Boston Sunday Herald 2-8 Apr. 9/2 An Air Force man who wants a missile site, and the hill-billy fighting progress.

2. A type of American folk music. Also attrib.
posted by spock at 10:41 PM on July 9, 2008

I grew up in rural Alabama and the hills of Teneessee. I've worked for a number of charitable organizations in those areas (here's a really really good one if anyone wants to help). I can most assuredly confirm that there are indeed many, many, MANY people in the United States that would self describe as "hillbillies." I've been to too many impromptu bluegrass shows in hay barns and drunk too much homade rotgut to deny them.

I have been to "homes" that were literally school buses driven into the woods until the road gave out and they became stuck (probably after being stolen as auto theft was the number one career choice after meth chef and weed farmer in those parts, coal mining, the top purely legal means of income comes in somewhere down the list after moonshiner and minor-league stock car racer). There the engine was removed, the tires and axles, the seats and all of it sold for parts or scrap. Then the family moved in to the abandoned shell and installed a wood stove. Outside, too poor to afford an outhouse, they dug a pit toilet that they laid a log over for you to squat on. I've seen this several times actually. I've actually seen better conditions in slums in Asia and Latin America.

One time an ancient and grizzled old man came in asking for a tarpolean. He didn't want food, he didn't want clothes, he wanted a tarp. When asked why, he said it was for his house. We asked if we could help him fix his place up and he agreed to let another guy and I (only, no one else) come up and help him hang the tarp. When we arrived we found an incredible site. He had taken one of those portable pup-trailers that had been totaled in a wreck and was missing one wall. Over the gaping hole, he'd built a lean-to, but as it was getting colder and wetter as the seasons changed. We had some lumber and hardware and we shored up what he roughed in, then sealed it with the tarp. It turned out that we did it right on time as a storm blew up. We were trapped with the man in a gale in his lttle cold "cabin" with the wind blowing through and the rain dripping through holes in the damaged walls. We sat on the accumulated crud for a few hours with him and he told us hunting stories in the howling wind and pounding rain. Then he said that we might as well enjoy ourselves and brought out a very large jug of his homemade liquor (more like paint thinner). After sizing us up on the moonshine, he pulled out a black trash bag which was full of his homemade "tobbacco." You can imagine what that was. After the rain let up about midnight or so, we prepared to leave and he asked for a ride up the trail a bit. We asked where he was headed and he said he needed to check his traps and he was going to hunt mushrooms afterwards. We asked when he'd go to bed and he said he'd get a little sleep sometime before dawn (when he got up). When we asked if we could go with him, he declined and confessed that he was really headed to his still and that he wanted a ride so that we wouldn't see which way he went and he could make sure we didn't follow him!

Sorry, I've rambled a bit, but let me assure you again that there really are true hillbillies out there in the woods. This was not some distant memory of days past either, this was less than ten years ago.

One more note, a sheriff of one of the rural counties of southern TN told me on the occasion of my first stolen car that if I should catch the people that did it snooping around again (as everyone in town knew who it was). I should be sure to drag them across the street before they arrived as that was the county line. He did not care how I got them into his jurisdiction - he paused and lowered his sunglasses at this point and said again, "I don't care how you get him across the street or what condition he is in when he gets there." Apparently the kid was a notorious little punk and lived on the other side of the county line that ran through the little mountain town and the sheriff on the other side was his cousin or uncle (or both) and he would never arrest him even when there was overwhelming evidence against him for numerous felonies. The state police considered him too small time to bother, so if we could get him into the other county he could be served with numerous felony warrants. If I wanted a little payback for stealing my car, well that was just a little icing on the cake for the everyone, and, well, if it involved assault and battery with a baseball bat that crime would have been committed in the other county and out of his hands.

I wish that this was fiction.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:53 AM on July 10, 2008 [7 favorites]

Think of the term hillbilly like the term nigger. African Americans can refer to themselves, and to other African Americans, as niggers, but if a non-black person uses the term, it's extremely offensive. Many black people, too, would prefer that no one use the term, as any usage makes the term seem acceptable.

My mother was born in Galax, Virginia, my father in Pikeville, Kentucky, so I have the right to refer to myself as a hillbilly, but I would be grossly offended if you called me that. I can, and have, referred to my home in DC as having a Capitol-Hillbilly aesthetic, but it would hurt if someone else said that.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:12 AM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

What you termed "hillbilly" are the American "dirt-poor", and they're not just confined to remote mountain ranges.

East California (leaving Lake Isabella on the road to Manzanar) has plenty of such enclaves, a mix of rundown trailer cars and shacks, feral dogs and humans, all haggard and suspicious. Places without placenames, running water, cellphone coverage. Far from romantic, it's nowhere you'd want your car to run out of gas. Their communities are usually strategically placed either on high ground or far from the main roads - gives them ample time to observe who's coming towards them. If you walk those roads, you get the neck-tingling sensation that it's just too quiet, you're being watched. And it smells like rot or maybe something chemical. You're greated by a child with far too old eyes sticking the butt of a rifle out of the door crack, kid's quickly shoved aside. If you need gas they'll stare you down first. They don't talk much anyway, not to foreigners and I'd call their speech curt and thick. But they know the price of gas down to the penny.
An intense experience - feels like the wrong word or wrong move could land you on the missing list and your car in a million parts before the hour's done. While they fill a milk gallon of gas, you're left alone to take stock of the stark poverty, a scrawny dog with open sores slinks past the trailer, remains of car parts and campfires - light years away from Los Angeles a bare 3 hours to the south west.
When you stop at the nearest town (the type of towns with only one gas station but four churches), they're slightly surprised but understanding at your story. That must be Old Joe's Place, they're just three families, sheriff can't get 'em childrun to school, sure they go to Church but they're mighty proud folks, usually shoot 'fore axing questions y'know, must ah figured you're not the puh-leez, good of 'em to give ya some gas, yah good folks...
posted by ruelle at 7:37 AM on July 10, 2008

I often refer to myself as a hillbilly, and use the term both as an affectionate nod to the area in which I grew up, and a derisive put down generally. Since I am blessed with a non-regional accent, and sound like Dr. Science, it makes for a funny contrast as folks don't associate me with the South.

There are already a number of contributions in this thread that make the point that poverty still has a lot of people living in third world conditions in our own borders, so I won't add to them with my own stories, many of which Mefites might find completely unbelievable. Some of the origins of the mountaineers (a more benign and positive term) are explored in James Webb's book, "Born Fighting" .

Mountain culture contains many fascinating aspects. There are pockets of very authentic people out there; places where housing is primitive, where the land still contributes significant amounts of the food and energy people use, where family bonds are extremely strong and significant, where the language and music trace directly back to pre-America Revolution times in Europe, and where the internet is just not a factor (hard to believe,huh?!).

I've met some kind, wise and bright people among them and some violent, nasty bastards, too. Same is true of my city friends, however, but we don't have a convenient collective term for them. (However, when I was a kid, it was 'flatlander', Floridian or Yankee.)
posted by FauxScot at 7:55 AM on July 10, 2008

I used to date a guy whose family, when he was six, moved from a regular suburban life, to a cabin in the Missouri hills, which they restored to original 1865 condition. No electricity, no running water, just a spring down the hill, and a double outhouse. It was down a path so rugged that you had to walk the last mile to their place, even with a 4x4. They raised and slaughtered their own chicken and geese, grew their own vegetables, and spent their weekend as civil war re-creationers. Mom and Dad called each other "maw" and "paw", and definetly looked the part. I'm pretty sure Paw even played the banjo.

Then again, he also worked at Wal-Mart, and didn't shoot me for 'turning his son gay', just expressed his quiet disappointment and warned me not to break his son's heart.
posted by nomisxid at 8:46 AM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

My great-grandfather was an authentic hillbilly, as you can see in this photo, until he moved into town to work for the railroad.

The authentic mountain culture is mostly long gone, but the poverty is not.

I second the recommendations of the Foxfire book series and the Jesco White videos.
posted by wadefranklin at 12:43 PM on July 12, 2008

I used to date a guy whose family, when he was six, moved from a regular suburban life, to a cabin in the Missouri hills, which they restored to original 1865 condition.

Oh, snap. My dad's got a cousin who decided sometime back in the '70s that she needed to return to "the simpler life," back to nature sort of thing. She and her husband built, by hand, out of goddamn trees, a cabin up in Montana miles upon miles from civilization. No electricity, no running water, just what they could chop from the woods and haul from the well.

They would boil gallons of water for their showers, save bacon drippings like they were gold, chop firewood in the middle of July, that kind of thing. In the winter, the place was only accessible by snowmobile, but a snowmobile would only go so far on a tank of gas, so just in case of emergency, they would stash gas cans with several-yards-high markers every few miles so they could get an injured person out and to the next town, which was hours away by snowmobile.

Dad saw her at a family reunion when she was in her late forties or early fifties. He said she looked like a 70-year-old woman and had literally no idea what was going on in the country or the world at large. I appreciate yearning for a simpler life free of modern trappings, but goddamn, civilization was invented for a reason.
posted by middleclasstool at 9:53 PM on July 12, 2008

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