Appalachia: Hillbilly and Redneck

When we hear the term “hillbilly” or “redneck,” we automatically have a negative connotation associated with them. To those who aren’t familiar with Southern Appalachia, we think of the TV show, “The Beverly Hillbillies,” or the movie, “Deliverance,” and the associated depiction of the two terms. Those images are only caricatures dreamed up by show business.

The term “hillbilly” is an old term that simply refers to people who live in the mountains, in rather remote areas, and live their own way. It doesn’t mean they don’t wear shoes or that they’re ignorant, but we tend to use the term as a slur to refer to people we consider hillbillies. Hillbilly seems to have somehow gotten tied up in a social class definition. That couldn’t be further from the truth. My grandfather, who was born deep in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, was certainly a hillbilly, but he and his family were of at least the high middle socio-economic class regarding income, social standing, and education.

The word “hillbilly” originally referred to a type of music played and developed in the mountains. Hillbilly music was the original bluegrass music. Pure, original Bluegrass music originated in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in isolated pockets in the mountains, usually through the music of family groups or bands. Somehow, the word shifted from the music of the people to the people themselves. Most mountain people don’t mind being called hillbillies. When it is used as a slur based on an imagined stereotype, that shows the ignorance of the user and not the hillbilly.

The word “redneck” is thrown around today as a slang word referring to people with, usually, a particular way of life and political persuasion. We think of rednecks and we immediately see the Confederate flag, conservative leanings, and guns. Perhaps that is the modern definition of “redneck, but it is not what the word originally referred to.

The word “redneck” originally came from Scotland and referred to those who worked outdoors and had a sunburned neck as a result. It also referred to peaceful protestors against mining officials because the protestors tied a red bandana around their necks.

The word “redneck” is not a word tied to the mountains or to any geographic region. You can be from the middle of the largest cities. If your beliefs are based on the Second Amendment, you fly the Confederate flag in the back of your pickup truck, and you believe in far right-wing politics, you are the modern definition of a redneck.

When I was growing up, I never saw a Confederate flag at my grandfather’s house in Eastern Kentucky. The only guns I saw were a couple of hunting rifles used to deer hunt for food. My grandfather was a centrist in his politics but leaned left. The modern definitions of “hillbilly” and “redneck” would not fit him even though he was one of the originals.

Copyright Rosemary Carlson @2020

2 comments

  1. I think that is a great eye opener to people who have only heard the terms or seen movies, like you say, and have no idea what people they are talking about. The sad thing is, isn’t this true for all people nowadays?

    Like

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