I have avoided discussion of the word “hillbilly,” for the most part, on this blog because I think it’s an endless distraction. But I have to thank my good friend Bill Hopkins for this amazing disquisition on “hillbilly,” from a 1960 court decision in a divorce case, in which one of the “general indignities” that the plaintiff (husband) accused the defendant (wife) of was that she referred to his family as “hillbillies”:
“In respect to plaintiff’s evidence that Minnie once referred to relatives of the plaintiff as hillbillies: We suggest that to refer to a person as a “hillbilly,” or any other name, for that matter, might or might not be an insult, depending upon the meaning intended to be conveyed, the manner of utterance, and the place where the words are spoken. Webster’s New International Dictionary says that a hillbilly is “a backwoodsman or mountaineer of the southern United States;—often used contemptuously.” But without the added implication or inflection which indicates an intention to belittle, we would say that, here in Southern Missouri, the term is often given and accepted as a complimentary expression. An Ozark hillbilly is an individual who has learned the real luxury of doing without the entangling complications of things which the dependent and over-pressured city dweller is required to consider as necessities. The hillbilly foregoes the hard grandeur of high buildings and canyon streets in exchange for wooded hills and verdant valleys. In place of creeping traffic he accepts the rippling flow of the wandering stream. He does not hear the snarl of exhaust, the raucous braying of horns, and the sharp, strident babble of many tense voices. For him instead is the measured beat of the katydid, the lonesome, far-off complaining of the whippoorwill, perhaps even the sound of a falling acorn in the infinite peace of the quiet woods. The hillbilly is often not familiar with new models, soirees, and office politics. But he does have the time and surroundings conducive to sober reflection and honest thought, the opportunity to get closer to his God. No, in Southern Missouri the appellation “hillbilly” is not generally an insult or an indignity; it is an expression of envy.”
amy b. said:
This post reminded me of a recent anecdote posted by a friend back home in MO: Old fella passed away and was met by St. Peter at the Golden Gates. He was escorted into Heaven and to his surprise he saw folks shackled to the wall. He asked, “Whats up with the chains?” St. Peter said, “Oh, they’re from the Ozarks. It’s awful hard to keep em up here in the spring time!” – I am proud to retain the honorary hillbilly title. 🙂
Great story! I have a friend who gets furious at the word…considers it a slur of the worst sort. But as with other derogatory terms, there are plenty of people who try to reclaim it and make it a badge of honor instead. Here’s a link to the full court decision, which is a real hoot: http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=17991443895642330453&hl=en&as_sdt=6&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr
Leland and Crystal Payton said:
Steve – Thanks to you and Bill Hopkins for resurrecting Judge Justin Ruark’s defense of hillbilliness. We have a perverse interest in the subject and are in fact working on a provocative (we hope) book that traces the development of this controversial rustic. (Working title: “Know Your Hillbillies: The American Rustic from Noble Mountaineer to Reprobate Redneck”)
Some people are puzzled by the mixed reception to the word and its implications. Generally speaking the more rusticated your family background, the less insulted you’re likely to be if the dreaded “H” word is used
As it was often employed in tourist promotions in the Ozarks, it’s generally speaking more accepted here than in the Appalachians, although with the resurgence of Redneck Chic, “hillbilly” is more acceptable across the country now than it has been in the past. The Appalachians has a long history of being stereotyped by New England writers. Of the 9 or 11 states that are included in the Appalachians, there are other geographies that are not mountains or even hills. The residents of those areas are more sensitive to the name perhaps than here in the Ozarks. No universal tourist industry there ever traded on “hillbilly,” as was the case here. Folklorist May Kennedy McCord called her radio show, “Hillbilly Heartbeats.”
Thanks for putting on the link to the full transcript. It is pretty hilarious in its entirety. Lowell R. Moore of Galena, Missouri wanted a divorce from Minnie Moore because she objected to his fishing, hunting and drinking activities – and had inferred that he and his family were “hillbillies”. The lower court granted the divorce but Minnie appealed, probably not wanting to lose her investment in their jointly owned property. Judge Ruark of the Springfield Court of Appeals reversed the decision.
We’d love to know what happened to the happy couple, but we haven’t been able to find that out.
I don’t remember ever feeling deeply insulted by the term as a kid, but it was definitely something used derisively, implying ignorance and a deliberate refusal to stay up with the times. It also implied a lack of cleanliness — regular poor folks might wear worn clothes, but “hillbillies” wore dirty ones, and let trash pile up in their yards.
Pingback: Back to ‘Hillbilly’ | stevewiegenstein