In this month's column, Dr. Mike Woolf unpacks the myth of Appalachia and peels back the layers of the hillbilly stereotype. He looks into how these histories are written to create collective identities in which individuality is obscured.
There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.
—Harold Pinter (2005)
Appalachia has no definitive borders. It exists at an intersection of geography, mind, myth, and history: a space of conflicting images. A consequence is the coexistence of private versions of Appalachia simultaneously true and untrue, ambiguous space subject to invention and reinvention. The region is imagined as uniquely connected to myths of national origin wherein the perceived simplicity of frontier values persist, immune from the imperatives of progressive middle America. “Hillbillies” occupy the same space: a version of pre-modern, pre-industrial arcadia. They embody the innocence of man in nature and, at the same time, a primitive violence that is unrestrained by the norms and conventions of the developed world: a paradoxical combination of Rousseau and Hobbes.
The term hillbilly probably has roots in Ulster Protestantism, but any sense of a historical context has long been replaced by associations of stupidity and violence. Redneck is a closely related term divorced from history. The meaning that has disappeared derives from the miners’ struggle to unionize in the early 1920s, described by Robert Shogan: “Most took to wearing blue bib overalls and tying around their necks a red bandana, which soon became the hallmark of the insurgent army, leading both friends and foes to refer to them as ‘rednecks’” (Shogan, 2004: 169). Redneck thus symbolized working class resistance to sustained hostility from mine owners but became translated, like hillbilly, into a shorthand for primitive ignorance.
The hillbilly is at the center of collisions, contested identities and potent myths. J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a lament for the past through the lens of reconstructed memory. In What You are Getting Wrong about Appalachia, Elizabeth Catte describes Vance as “someone with tired ideas about race and culture who got famous by selling cheap stereotypes about the region” (93). Vance’s work is arguably a mixture of sentimentality, right-wing ideology, and suspect generalization. However, he is by no means the only inventor of a region marked by such contradictions.
The figure of the hillbilly has been shaped by fear, ridicule, and romantic archetypes: an invented identity that is predominantly white and male, with the exception of the kind of performed role exemplified by Dolly Parton. It is closely related to the idea of “mountain men.” Other narratives are secondary or, in some cases, absent. There are histories of women, Blacks, Black Indians, Jews, immigrants, Native Americans, Melungeons but they rarely modify the dominant narratives of Appalachia.
Versions of the region range from a place of racial bigotry to labor activism, from lumpen passivity to rebellion, primitivism to pre-lapsarian innocence. There is a tendency to seek to find the artefacts, experiences and histories that validate the Appalachia of the mind. By way of example, the English folk song collector Cecil Sharp (1859–1924) visited the region intending to unearth “authentic” songs that reflected British roots. The existence of a significant Black musical tradition in Appalachia was consequently ignored.
This reflects an ongoing process of ethnic editing, the “construction of the region as ‘all white’ to satisfy a particular fetish about the white working class” (Catte, 2018: 52). The outcome is that certain histories and peoples are excluded or marginalized.
There is an alternative Appalachian history beyond the scope of this essay. From mine wars to roving pickets, Mother Jones to Widow Combs, Black Lung and Brown Lung movements, Appalachians have fought exploitation. The Battle of Blair Mountain (1921) was “the largest armed uprising since the Civil War” (Andrews, 2018) but is barely visible in mainstream American histories and rarely modifies the stereotype of Appalachia. Radical traditions of resistance in Appalachia represent a struggle for independence and self-determination: a quasi-anti-colonial movement. Progressive movements and individuals such as Eula Hall, Moonlight Schools, Highlander, Myles Horton etc. exemplify community consciousness and solidarity in contrast to notions of primitive backwardness.
The largest armed uprising since the Civil War: The Battle of Blair Mountain.
The dominant narrative is based around deprivation, drug dependency, and poverty. In the popular imagination, Appalachia is defined by poverty, and poverty by Appalachia. However, that version coexists with an alternative construct exemplified by Dennis Covington in Salvation on Sand Mountain: “the culture that arose in the Appalachian Mountains resurrected the character of … the border between Scotland and England” (Covington, 2009: 4): a “foreign” country within America.
The search for “authentic” Appalachia reflects an attempt to unearth origins, to rediscover the pioneer roots of American society. The hillbilly embodies values that are alternative to aspirations of modernization, commercialization, and self-improvement. The precise obverse of this myth is the notion of Appalachia as primitive and uncivilized. Moonshine and James Dickey’s fable in fiction and film, Deliverance, exemplify the coexistence of this paradox.
Get you a Copper Kettle and the River of Deliverance
Get you a copper kettle
Get you a copper coil
Cover with new made corn mash
And never more you'll toil
You just lay there by the juniper
While the moon is bright
Watch them jugs a-fillin
In the pale moonlight
My daddy he made whiskey
My granddaddy did too
We ain't paid no whiskey tax
Since Seventeen Ninety Two
—Albert Frank Beddoe, 1953
In 1862, Congress imposed taxes on the production of alcohol. This central legislation criminalized traditional domestic production, undermined a regular source of income, and challenged the independence of the region.
Moonshine carries associations that are closely connected with the construction of Appalachia and the figure of the hillbilly. On an obvious level, it expresses a penchant for illegal activity and resistance to the rule of law. Allied with tales of blood feuds and other acts of violence, it enforces the image of an isolated people living beyond the norms and conventions of a civilized world.
This is a version of a widespread dichotomy in which the urban world is contrasted with rural darkness and menace. Dante’s dark forest and many traditional fairy tales present the woods as full of hidden menace. Reconstructions of rural space invert the common associations of nature with innocence and purity. The urban world is characterized by restraint, intelligence, and moderation while rural environments are inhabited by people of primitive appetites, quasi-humans unrestrained by laws and conventions. In an alternative archetype, rural space offers a form of innocence and purity, escape from urban disorders.
Two forms of symbolic journeys emerge. In the first, protagonists enter unspoiled space and discover nightmarish primitivism; in the second, the natural world restores protagonists to a form of Edenic innocence.
Moonshine as a symbol of Appalachia sustains both notions. It represents illegality, idleness, and potential violence. However, it also resonates with the idea of reconnection with nature. Conjunction of “moon” and “shine” evokes romanticized space. “By the juniper” in the moonlight is both natural and beautiful. “We ain't paid no whiskey tax / Since Seventeen Ninety Two” also expresses a long tradition of resistance to centralized authority.
Appalachian myths and stereotypes reduce real people with real problems and achievements to indistinct shadows. Perhaps the primary example of this process is in James Dickey’s novel, Deliverance.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
—W. B. Yeats “The Second Coming” 1921
Yeats’s poem resonates with Dickey’s novel particularly in the image of a “a ceremony of innocence” drowned. Ostensible purity is transformed to reveal a “blood-dimmed tide,” violence and hostility without reason. Deliverance (1970), and John Boorman’s film version of 1972, present a fictionalized Appalachian landscape ominously threatened by inundation due to the imminent construction of a dam. The opening images of the film combine images of unspoiled beauty with scenes of areas ravaged by industrial development.
Four male friends from the city of Atlanta enter this environment intending to explore the river and, in so doing, search for renewal and reconnection. The dominant figure of Lewis, arms himself with a bow and arrow to signal empathy with Native America, as well as to assume the archetypal masculine function of hunter and warrior. On “the last wild, untamed, unpolluted, unf**** up river in the South” (Boorman, 1972), the protagonists seek to engage with an idea of American history, a landscape of natural purity, and an elemental sense of their masculinity. Instead, nature reveals brutality; the masculine ideal is savagely exploded.
The river in Deliverance.
The industrial degradation of the landscape is metaphorically extended to the inhabitants who are presented as marginally human and profoundly damaged, displaying “genetic deficiencies,” (Boorman, 1972) in a community that is “ignorant and full of superstition and bloodshed and murder and liquor and hookworm and ghosts and early deaths” (Dickey, 1970: 42).
Billy Redden, the banjo boy in Deliverance. Genetic “defects” were produced by makeup.
The deliverance of the title is achieved only when the victims revert to the savage standards of the inhabitants. A state of nature is, in this context, a world beyond law and morality. Civilization, its restraints and conventions, are presented as fragile and subject to disintegration under the pressure of natural human savagery. (William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, 1954, offers a similar narrative).
The hillbilly as a degraded, dangerous, inbred creature is a source of fear. There is, however, a paradoxical and diametrically opposite construct. A lack of sophistication and education generates patronizing comedy. The plays of Ned Albert (1894-1968) exemplify many similar representations: “I don’t see no need for Bonnie to disturb herself. Movin’ round don’t get folks no place” (Hillbilly Sue, 194: 13). Li’l Abner (the cartoon by Al Capp), Andy Griffiths, The Beverly Hillbillies, and many others, offer other similar representations.
It is possible to argue that the simplicity of these figures intends to satirize urban values but, whatever the motive, the comedy draws upon the same reductive stereotypes that permeate Appalachian identity. Sensitivity toward minorities has barely touched those representations.
Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae.
Hillbilly identity is also a marketable commodity that attracts tourists and visitors to folk arts and “homespun” cooking. The products are infused with myths of American origin and rural values.
It is apparent that constructions of Appalachia contain any number of paradoxes. For further example, does the Appalachian Trail offer a route through a place, or is it a route towards an idea? It was created between 1920 and 1930 and has since been repeatedly modified to enforce the notion of Appalachia virgin landscape. It has been altered to avoid industrial blight and, thus, to align with the expectations of tourists and hikers who are engaged in something like a secular pilgrimage into a version of America’s history.
Conclusion: Lessons for Education Abroad
In education abroad, an aspiration is to enable students to recognize the manner in which minoritized groups are defined by others as outside the prevailing norms: “special” in either a positive or, more usually, negative sense. Myths are generated and histories are written to create collective identities in which individuality is obscured. The figure of the hillbilly, rooted in Appalachia, offers just such a fictive construct.
Recognizing this process in a domestic context has some implications for unearthing unexamined assumptions about the nature of social dynamics abroad. Identities are not necessarily or inevitably defined by community preference. They may be imposed externally by those who vilify, fear, hate or ridicule those who are outside of dominant norms. We are collectively not only that which we sought to be. We are also the product of those who have imagined us.
We invent strangers as “them” in contrast to the dominant “we.” Real communities are victims of generalization, simplification, prejudicial, and myopic assumptions which deny the ineffable complexities of all of our humanities. This is the lesson we may draw from the voices of a profound American poet and an impassioned disciple of Christ:
These strangers, in a foreign World,
Protection asked of thee –
Befriend them, Lest yourself in Heaven
Be found a refugee.
Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with saints, and of the household of God.
—St Paul’s Epistle to the Philemon 2:4 (KJV).
Albert, Ned. Hillbilly Sue: A Rousing One-Act Comedy. New York and London: Samuel French, 1941.
Andrews, Evan. The Battle of Blair Mountain. September 1, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/americas-largest-labor-uprising-the-battle-of-blair-mountain
Boorman, John. Dir. Deliverance. 1972.
Catte, Elizabeth. What you are Getting Wrong About Appalachia. Cleveland, Ohio: Belt Publishing, 2018.
Covington, Dennis. Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. Cambridge, M.A.: De Capo Press, 2009 
Dickey, James. Deliverance. London: Bloomsbury, 2005 
Pinter, Harold, Nobel Prize for Literature, 2005. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2005/pinter/25621-harold-pinter-nobel-lecture-2005/
Shogan, Robert. The Battle of Blair Mountain: The Story of America’s Largest Labor Uprising. New York: Basic Books, 2004
Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. London: William Collins, 2016
Dr. Michael Woolf is Deputy President for Strategic Development of CAPA: The Global Education Network. Mike has had much of his career in an international context. Prior to working in mainstream international education, he completed a PhD in American Studies and taught literature at the universities of Hull, Middlesex, Padova, and Venice. For four years he worked as a researcher-writer for BBC radio. He has held leadership roles in international education for many years and has written widely on international education and cultural studies. Much of his work has focused on areas of strategic development with particular focus on the status and credibility of education abroad within the wider academic community. He serves on a number of boards and was a member of the Board of Directors of The Forum on Education Abroad from 2006 to 2012. He was the recipient of the Peter A. Wollitzer Advocacy Award (2020) from the Forum on Education Abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.