Hillbilly Music
Source & Symbol

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Archie Green: "Hillbilly Music: Source & Symbol"

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Notes

 

Hillbilly Music: Source and Symbol, Part One

Hillbilly, the word, has been used both pejoratively and humorously in American print since April 23, 1900. On that day the New York Journal reported that "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." We do not know how early the term began to circulate in speech. William Nathaniel Harben 1858-1919, a north Georgia writer, must certainly have heard it during his Whitfield county youth. In his novel, Abner Daniel (1902), he used "passel o'hillbillies" in a vernacular context. When the spate of publications appeared after 1870 based on slow "Arkansaw" trains, one such pamphlet by Charles S. Hibler, Down in Arkansas (1902), featured a full description of The Hill Billy tendered by a guide to a trio of out-of-state land speculators in the Ouachita Mountains. The stereotype moved quickly from novel and pamphlet to academic attention, for J.W. Carr, University of Arkansas professor, in his first word list from the state's Ozark section reported the expression in 1903 speech, "You one-gallused hill billies, behave yourselves."1

There is no point in documenting the obvious by noting all the contemporary nuances – negative or comic – that describe the Southern mountaineer or backwoodsman today. Two snatches of folksong, however, add biting twists to the term as well as relate it to specific areas of agrarian conflict. In the Kentucky tobacco wars of 1907 organized farmers sang derisively of their dissident neighbors. "Oh poor old hillbilly, oh, where do you stand,/While the Dark Tobacco Planters Association is forming its clan?" In Texas, some years later, sharecroppers and muleskinners chanted, "I'd rather be a nigger an' plow ol' Beck,/Dan a white hill-billy wid a long red neck."2

What brought this figure to the surface of print and speech from Georgia to the Ozarks at the turn of the century? We do not know; nor do we have any acceptable etymology for the word. One possible clue on origin might be found in a pair of Scottish colloquialisms, hill-folk and billie. The former was deprecatory, for it designated a refractory Presbyterian – a Cameronian – a rebel against Charles II. Scots hill-folk and hill-men in 1693 were noted for zeal, devotion, and prudence in seeking isolation away from their rejected monarch's rule. Billie was used in Scots dialect as early as 1505 as a synonym for fellow, companion, comrade, or mate. The words hill and billie might well have been combined in the Highlands before the first austere Cameronian took refuge in the piney uplands of the New World. Historical speculation aside, we know the word in print only from 1900 and only as an Americanism.

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Hillbilly, a combined word, has lent itself to further combination, for in many of its recent appearances it is found linked with the nouns – music, song, ballad, singer, folio, act, show, record. The OED places such a new combination for song in 1932, and the DA for ballad in 1949. One student of American speech commented that radio itself brought the mountain nickname to acute and general public consciousness in the 1930's.3

By 1951 the association of the hackneyed image and music was so fixed by mass media that a scholar felt impelled to undercut the linkage. He wrote: "We may safely discount the picturesque hallucination of screen and radio, that ballads are a monopoly of ‘hillbillies,' a race of gaunt, bearded primitives, drinking whiskey out of tin dippers and singing ballads when they ain't feudin'."4 Seemingly his discounting efforts were ineffective, for in a 1962 dispatch from Germany a London official stated, "It is no longer considered in good taste among American diplomats to display an awareness of hillbilly music or to discuss the poetry of Walt Whitman."5

Perhaps the Foreign Service will shuck off folksy informality and its poetic accouterments, but it is not likely that American speech, letters, or scholarship in the near future is going to break the bond stated in the combination, hillbilly music. My task, then, is to ask why a pejorative-humorous term was first extended to a viable form of traditional folk music and to seek answers to the queries of when, where, and how the act of extension took place.

Two scholars who have listened to the music under consideration offer these preliminary guides. "Hill-billy music seems to be a super-hybrid form of some genuine folk elements which have intruded into the mechanism of popular culture." A dual formulation states: "Of or pertaining to commercialized folk or folkish songs (or the performers thereof) largely derived from or aimed at white folk culture of the southern United States, beginning in 1923. Of or pertaining to that style – a blend of Anglo-Irish-Negro folksong and American popular song – on which the commercial tradition was based and developed."6 Whether an ultimate definition stresses time, locale, ethnic group, vocal and instrumental style, or the dialectic antithesis and synthesis between Folk and Mass Culture, it is necessary at this juncture to note that the term hillbilly music, however defined, has been employed for three decades as a rubric covering a kaleidoscopic variety of sub forms: old time, familiar tunes, Dixie, mountain, sacred, gospel, country, cowboy, western, country-western, hill and range, western swing, Nashville, rockabilly, bluegrass. Hillbilly can cover all available (recorded and published) white commercial country music or it can be equated simply with one limited type or recent period; for example, Time's folksong expert reports that bluegrass is a polite synonym for hillbilly.7

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It is obvious that mountain folk sang and played music long before the word hillbilly was printed and before it was coupled with music. Language extension is not a chaotic process isolated from other culture forms. It is my thesis that the term hillbilly music was born out of the marriage of a commercial industry – phonograph records and some units of show business – with traditional Appalachian folksong. My paper is restricted largely to early matrimonial days: pre-1927, pre-Jimmie Rodgers, pre-Carter Family, and frequently pre-electrical recording processes.

The search for an adequate etymology, if one turns to talking machine history, can lead into a discographic jungle where the danger is that a meaningful area in American studies will be lost under a growth of esoteric labels and master numbers. It is basic to our purpose to know who recorded the first hillbilly disc, and when, but it is also more important that we ask who sang such music at home, Snopeses or McCaslins. On first hearing a hillbilly ballad or breakdown, do we visualize the mountain over which the Trail of the Lonesome Pine coiled, or the coves of Frenchman's Bend in Yoknapatawpha County? When we listen to these tunes do we hear the voices of shiftless, landless outcasts or of free and upright herdsmen and yeomen? Are we listening to the music itself or rather to pre-cast aural images? Do we deprecate the music because it is sentimental, banal, saccharine, or do we judge it is as the product of an eroded or decadent culture? James Agee linked his talents with photographer Walker Evans to evoke the life of Alabama cotton tenant families in the depressed 1930s. If the authors of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) could have supplied to each reader a kit of Okeh 45000's, Brunswick 100's, or Columbia 15000's, how much more powerful would their book's impact have been!

Why have hillbilly records been on hand for four decades with the minimum attention from the Academy?8 Why is it so difficult to break the aural blockade even today? David Reisman suggests a clue. "Things that strike the sophisticated person as trash may open up new vistas for the unsophisticated; moreover, the very judgment of what is trash may be biased by one's own unsuspecting limitations, for instance, by one's class position or academic vested interest."9

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Not only does High Culture frequently downgrade the artifacts that document hillbilly music – record, folio, radio transcription, barn dance show, rural drama – as trash, but for two centuries it has labeled the very people who produced the music as poor white trash. Fanny Kemble, after a visit to antebellum Georgia, wrote of the pinelanders as "the most degraded race orhuman beings claiming an Anglo-Saxon origin that can be found on the face of the earth – filthy, lazy, ignorant, brutal, proud, penniless savages…."10 Frederick L. Olmstead, George M. Weston, Hinton Rowen Helper, and J.E. Cairnes – travelers, historians, sociologists – elaborated and pyramided the dismal scene. Nor was it confined to the writers of outsiders. Shields McIlwaine surveyed fictional treatment of the poor white and found that pejorative nomenclature ran from Byrd's History of the Dividing Line (1728) through Caldwell's Tobacco Road (1934).11 At one time or another Southern local colorists used these analogs for poor white: lubber, peckerwood, cracker, conch, sandhiller, redneck, cajun, woolhat, squatter, clayeater, sharecropper, linthead, swamprat, tarheel, hillbilly. My personal vocabulary of such catch-names was enriched by an Oklahoma sailor buddy (and Bob Wills enthusiast) to include ridge-runner, appleknocker, cherrypicker, and turdkicker.12 Yet no country boy who carefully transported his guitar across the Pacific favored us with music labeled under any other tag than hillbilly. The very fact that only one of the names for a poor white was attached to the music and persisted, leads back to the time and circumstances of the christening.

There exists a semi-official baptismal narrative, reported in Collier's (1938) and subsequently picked up and used by others.13 Like many a folk tale it bears some resemblance to historical fact, but it is so telescoped that it is both unfair to the actors it names and to those it leaves unmentioned. In a nutshell, reporter Kyle Crichton tells us that Ralph S. Peer of Okeh records 14 found Mamie Smith in 1921 to start the boom in race records (blues, jazz, and sacred material recorded by Negro artists intended for sale to Negro audiences), and later recorded Fiddlin' John Carson to start a similar hillbilly boom.

Peer himself richly deserved Crichton's praise and even more. He was at one time a successful businessman, a recording company pioneer, a music publisher, a completely unsung folksong collector, and a camellia grower. In 1954 he won a London Royal Horticultural Societ gold medal for his gardening skills. There is no mention in his obituaries of any award from the American Folklore Society; nor did any folklorist or historian publish an interview with Peer while he lived.15 We can only speculate now as to whether he perceived his role to any degree as a cultural documentarian of the first rank.

Peer was regarded by his colleagues as modest and not given to exaggerating his position. He stated his role so briefly as to underplay it. In a letter to Variety he identified himself "as the person responsible for the discovery and development of the hillbilly business…." In a letter to me he wrote, "It is quite true…that I originated the terms ‘Hillbilly' and ‘Race' as applied to the record business."16

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