Hillbilly––More Than a Word

Posted: September 14, 2014 in Uncategorized

Contrary to what one might think at first glance the word––Hillbilly might appear to have negative connotations, as meaning a person who resides in a hilly region of the country, with little or no education. This is not that far from understanding, given the past and the southern states, along the poor Appalachian Mountain divide. Often times these states have been known for their low economy. This gives one the impression of little wealth, so hillbilly might be the right characterization for some of their residents, yet it is much more than a word.

In the past, education seemed to take a back seat to survival. Tending to the fields came first and if it rained the children attended school or should I say–walked to school to attend class in the proverbial one room schoolhouse. My mother attended such a school. She never went past the eighth grade, because she was needed at home. She helped my grandma cook breakfast for her many siblings and my grandpa, from an early age. They followed generations before them and made the best of what was known to them, as sharecroppers, meaning they didn’t own the land they lived on or farmed, yet worked the fields for sustenance. They rose before sunrise, ate a freshly prepared meal, and hitched mules to a wagon, with a destination of fields in mind. This was common if you lived in the hills. It was the way of life and a hard one, yet the people were strong and persevered, worked together, and at the proper time, celebrated together. Our specific hillbilly world consisted of cotton, corn, soybeans, and hay.

Moonshine was an economy and stills exist in present day, as it did when people owned and operated them to make a meager living from this man-made type of distillery. The hillbilly image sometimes evokes another picture: that of a young man dressed in overalls, barefooted with the responsibility of a wife and many children to support. This gave little hope of anything– albeit hard work and the same life their fathers had lived and endured before them. Young men would protect their moonshine stills by constructing them in out-of-the-way places, concealing them the best way they could and of course there would be a watcher to warn of approaching law enforcement. Discovery would mean destruction of the stills and the residents would pick up and construct new ones elsewhere. That was survival, not necessarily for a hillbilly, but survival in general.

Having originated from a hilly part of Tennessee and Mississippi, I might be considered a hillbilly, because of the region where I lived half of my life. My brothers and I were barefooted a big part of our childhood, and played in the hills and surrounding farmlands. The creek beds were deep, yet barren in some places, so we could walk wherever we pleased. There were ancient trees and vines to grasp and swing from high creek banks downward into the creek, and back up again. Many times I allowed my brothers to go ahead, while I lagged behind to dig in sandy dirt for fossils. I was a child fascinated with digging up rocks and impressions inside the rocks.

In present day, that area hosts a museum with dinosaur bones and fossils. The word hillbilly is still heard now and then, from tourists, but it is beyond being just a word.  We spoke differently when overly emphasizing vowels and this caused visiting relatives from other parts of the country to listen and joke about it. It didn’t bother us at all.

My brothers and I were forced to attend Sunday school, and sent to public school, through the week. Education was mandatory, regardless of the poor region and the mockery that often came from people from other parts of the country, since they spoke differently.  People sometimes enjoyed differentiating our cultures. They seemed aloof as if to distance themselves from us in more ways than miles on a road map. The names we labeled and pronounced items were called something different by others, but that was perfectly all right, as we were used to it and saw it as a curious and learning experience, such as “soda” was referred to as “pop” and so on. There was no reason for us to be offended, since we thought the visitors talked “funny”.

 

Having grown up; I moved away, and one instance comes to mind, on a road trip home. Finding myself in the mountains of South Carolina, since the interstate ended, there was always one spot where I had to drive up a high incline of a mountain. I circled it to the point of nausea by the time I reached the top. It was before sunrise, and the car was low on gas. I sought out a place for fuel and found nothing open, and unbeknown to me, I would be in for a delightful surprise. I ventured onto a side road where a small plank with a white, painted arrow indicated there was a nearby store. I was even more surprised upon nearing the store. There, in a row, were cars all lined up and young people laid out on the hoods of the cars, smoking cigarettes and laughing, as if they hadn’t even gone to bed yet. Not a care in the world.

Mind you, the time was 4:00 a.m. and I marveled at such a thing, for I had seen this years before, in the place I grew up: the same exhibitions of gatherings where young people congregated and socialized. I had no idea things like that still occurred. Upward, behind the assemblage of young people reclined on car hoods, I could visualize in dim light the form of a woman, in a kitchen, preparing breakfast for her family. She moved around, and her outline was discernible amid surroundings. Roosters crowed to welcome sunrise and laughter radiated and echoed all around. The people were having a good time in this part of the mountains for such an early time of day. Many in number, the mountain folk seemed happy and cordial, to say the least.

The store wasn’t open, but one of the young men, dressed shirtless in overalls, said he would “fetch” the owner to accommodate whatever my son and I needed. The overall young man was polite and well-mannered; he personified the image of a stereotypical  hillbilly. Mind you, that word––hillbilly probably did come to mind, along with memories of the red earthed hills of Tennessee and Mississippi, but these people were much more than a hillbilly caricature; they were another culture and happy among themselves and poverty. He or she greeted strangers that came out of the night. There was no reason for fear or think they would harm a traveler in any way.

To my estimation, strangers were seen as outsiders to be welcomed, for it was generally expected that the traveler would disembark and not settle there. To do otherwise would pose another reaction from locals.

With a wave, I was nostalgic and bid the group farewell. They seemed reluctant for us to leave, as visitors were probably less frequent in that dense and elevated part of the mountains. Those memories are clear and I am all the better for witnessing and experiencing such past cultures.

Since that trip, the interstate and new development have conquered. No longer do travelers have to drive up a high mountain, two-lane road, for the road does not end. I have searched for that side road and it is gone, forever lost to the outsider to peek into that world with its endearing culture. Then again, perhaps they are there hidden among those glorious mountains.

 

[I have since learned this area was in the mountains of Saluda, SC. Before interstates connected the roads, there was only one way up that Saluda mountain–a narrow, two-lane road. It was common to see cars on the side of the road from overheating–during the climb. I had witnessed cars burned to the ground on some journeys. I miss going that route; alas it is difficult to pinpoint the area we stopped on that one specific morning.]

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