hill billy n. Uncouth countrymen, particularly from the hills. “You one-gallused hill billies, behave yourselves.”
This definition of a hillbilly is from an entry by University of Arkansas professor J. W. Carr in Vol. II of Dialect Notes, published in 1904. It is the earliest academic recognition of the word, which was likely coined in the preceding decade. “One-gallused,” denoting suspenders with one broken strap worn by a poor rustic, is earlier rural slang than “hill billie”.
Relax, self-identified hillbillies and hard country music fans. We are not assailing your proud but mythological heritage. Things hillbilly – music, humor, cartoons, feuding mountaineer fables – have been motivated by capitalism, facilitated by industrial technology, and distributed by mass media to serve modern sensibilities.
Don’t believe the advertising. Disregard the packaging. Unwrapped, this anti-modern icon is revealed to be a hybrid rural/urban interactive product assembled from many sources. Our uncouth, but musical, countryman is not exclusively of the Appalachians, his legendary association with the mountain South notwithstanding.
Hillbilly humor for instance has been influenced by New England books and plays, minstrel shows, and vaudeville. Country music, originally called ‘hillbilly’, has undeniable southern white roots, but has had players, fans, and management from other demographics. Folks with a rural family background are especially interested in accounts of that rude past. Authentic or contrived, they don’t seem to care. Few, however, wish to return to the harsh privations and poverty of subsistence agriculture as the “Who Longs For The Good Old Days?” postcard asks. Visions of Arcadian rusticity are more likely to be floating in the heads of educated urbanites.
Only comic strip hillbillies are true primitives. Country musicians from the start embraced improvements to transportation and communications. They have since shown an extraordinary capacity to respond to changing public taste and unfolding commercial opportunities. Though this genre ritualistically acknowledges rural traditions, its performers and their audiences are forever evolving and adapting to new circumstances.
This pop culture icon is a product of the machine age’s alternating nostalgia and disdain for our agrarian past. Hillbillies are not really an outsider, other, or folk phenomenon. Hillbillies are interesting, sometimes captivating, even if they are manufactured rustics. There is no one hillbilly type, but many and they continue to evolve.