The development of hillbilly music is inseparable from the explosion of radio, and the corresponding commercialization and expansion of music into a commodity in the 1920s . Music distribution allowed access to, as well as created an audience for many different genres of music. In the early days, radio served as an organizing function, rarely actually playing recordings in favor of announcing events or appearances, leading to the creation of community, but it quickly develop into a tool such that the songs themselves were sold with the refinement of systems of electronic reproduction in the mid-1920s . Folk entertainers, who had previously been embedded in specific communities and playing to audiences of those living in rural poverty, found their influence spreading by electronic means. The impact of the recording industry began as simply packaging and distributing already existing popular and established folk performers , but quickly developed into a cultural flattening by transforming folk entertainers into “hillbillies,” a word marked as culturally inferior but nonetheless profitable.
The stereotype of hillbilly became embedded within a persistent classist devaluation of the white rural south, where an already existing folk tradition became a tool for further stereotypical constructions of white southerness. This paper will argue that the development of hillbilly music was a process of distillation of the existent folk traditions into a commercial product dependent on a nexus of cultural conceptions of the relationship between rural whites and urban ones. However, the argument is not a flat rejection of the validity or value of hillbilly music; the term has been used as a form of self-identification used up until the present day in some circles of country music, in an almost confrontational affirmation of a particular, largely disparaged, lifestyle. The point is to say that the hillbilly is a creation of an observed rural South, one that is in the midst of being marketed and explained to people external to the community, and as such contains within it the entire history of the relationship in American culture.
This thesis attempts to resist two competing problematic errors. First, a common myth among academics studying such communities is to over-credit the music executives of the metropolis with the creation of hillbilly music. That is not to say that radio and music commercialization was not critical in the development of hillbilly music, but rather, it is inaccurate to think that the music was created out of whole cloth. To put too much emphasis on the music moguls of the cities is to reaffirm the classist constructions underlying the stereotype of “hillbilly,” replete with presumptions about lack of worldliness and education. The second error this paper attempts to avoid is to go too far in the other direction, refusing to acknowledge the way in which the increased music distribution did create a commercial product distinct and separate from the already existing folk traditions. One way to characterize what this paper is trying to do is to say that the idea of a “hillbilly” and hillbilly music is a commodification of a complex musical tradition, distinct from but relying on folk entertainers. The increased commercialization exploited an already existing tradition and slowly changed existing patterns of cultural spread. That is to say, the radio is responsible for the hillbilly and the people are responsible for the music.
The term “hillbilly” is rarely, if ever used as a form of self-identification for the people of Southern Appalachia culture. The term first appeared in print in 1900, in the New York Journal, defined in the following way: “a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.” This usage quickly spread, gaining popular cachet as a way of indicating a form of poor white lifestyle that was conceptualized as static, unchanging, ill-educated and poor. The term’s popularity was largely due to the success of commercial country music in the 1920s, making the stereotype and the music culturally inseparable. The first commercial group to use the hillbilly label was the Hill Billies, a string band. Their name was decided by talent scout, Ralph Peer, despite the concerns of members of the bound who considered the name to be an insult. The word hillbilly, particularly in the context of the music, has “semantic elasticity” which contains within it the overall ambivalence to the new cultural phenomenon. Curiously, the hillbilly label was always more popular with fans, commentators, and critics than it was with the record companies themselves. It eventually became a marketing tool, but the stereotype and sentimentalization of the music outpaced the term itself. Nonetheless, its usage was always in the context of an external group commenting on the qualities of the white rural south. From its original usage in the New York Journal, to Ralph Peer’s decision to name the new band, hillbilly has always been a term that is put upon a group that is already under some amount of scorn.
Accordingly, music critics and commentators were the group that seemed to embrace the hillbilly term first, with all of its negative connotations intact. The complex cultural milieu of the rural south became flattened into a stereotype that mystified urban critics with its popularity. Hillbilly, as a descriptor, was a way of evoking this group of people and their baffling music that was clearly able to differentiate the writer from someone who might be interpreted as a fan. An early article from 1936 evocatively writes: “The number of hillbillies employed in radio in 1934 is so large that if all of them were laid end to end—they would be in the position they were most accustomed to before the lure of easy radio money brought them out of their cow pastures.” The music was debased, just as the performers were debased, and they were all underneath the rubric of “hillbilly.” This is evidenced in the academic tendency to conceptualize hillbilly music as an interruption or distortion of the rich, positive tradition of American folk. Despite the continuity of the form and the complexity of the tradition, the over focus on the commercialization on the medium serves to delegitimize the music itself. In Malone and Stricklin’s words, hillbilly music seemed to be “the distasteful fusion of poor white music with the boorish business culture of the United States.” It seems crucial to be able to condemn the mocking and derision of the music without condemning the music itself, and that’s a balancing act that has proved nearly impossible since the very early days of discussion about hillbilly music. Folk entertainers from very early on condemned the hillbilly music. For example, Kentucky folksinger Bradley Kincaid asked his audience in 1930 to “distinguish between these fine old folk songs of the mountains, and the so-called Hilly Billy songs.” The music that Kincaid advocates and supports is not intended for the external market of northerners that hillbilly is marketed to, and correspondingly, he rejects the equivalence that might be easy to inadvertently make.
With the spread of hillbilly music, it was no longer being marketed exclusively to people of the same community of the rural south. Captions on advertisements for early records reveal this shift, with an advertisement for an early Columbia record stating, “No Southerner can hear them and go away without them. And it will take a pretty hard-shelled Yankee to leave them.” Right from the beginning, even though at this time the primary audience was Southern and rural, the popularity of the music was constructed in whether or not a Yankee would approve. But, as that quote makes clear, for the Yankee to listen and enjoy hillbilly music was evidence of “softness(” and an insufficient “hard-shell.” Perhaps the first summation of the nature of hillbilly music as a genre occurred in the annual show business roundup in Variety, 1926. This writeup revealed the extremely quick shift from folk music as produced for members of community to an object of derision by literate types. It managed to deride the music itself (“sing-song, nasal-twanging vocalizing… banal lyrics”), the performers (“illiterate and ignorant”), and, perhaps most interestingly, the audience for enjoying this trash. The term becomes derision not only for the producers of such music, but also for the insufficiently cultured audience that hillbilly is understood in relationship to. From the very first moment of the consolidation of the music into a genre, hillbilly music has been understood not primarily in terms of the performers, but in terms of the relationship between the culture of the performers and the culture of the audience. Distinct from jazz, which is defined largely through specific qualities of the music itself, hillbilly music has always been understood as part of a cultural relationship between the rural south and the more cultured north.
At the same time, there are definitely elements from traditional American folk that became a distinctive part of hillbilly music. Specifically, it is important to distinguish this derisive mocking from the rich comedic element to folk performances. The music, even prior to the country boom of the 1920s, engaged in mockery of themselves and their audience, with performances of groups such as the “Moo Cow Band” and emcees dressing as rube comedians named “Professor Aleck Smart.” The music began in this line, relaxed but comedic, with the musicians the authors of the joke instead of their subject. But within a few years, radio executives and record companies started to reshape their musicians images to become closer to the stereotype that they perceived the rural southern folks to be embodying. This transition is exemplified in the shift of the marketing of the Hill Billies, which moved from print illustrations of the band in coats and ties to overalls and bandanas within only a few years. Despite the resonances of the rural and simple life that was the subject of hillbilly music, the executives and men of power who facilitated the rise of this genre, hillbilly was cheap, absurd, and debased. The loving self-mockery and conscious manipulation of stereotypes for comedic purposes became simply the way that these poor southern white musicians were, with the performers encouraged to affect more rural and rustic behaviors than they might otherwise have been inclined toward.
In terms of the music itself, the most distinctive and consistent element was a defining southerness that defied the ability to specify specific qualities. Both vocals and instrumentation were diverse and related to the training of the individual musicians, ranging from strained, high registers to soft baritones. The songs they were performing were also varied, initially being mostly “traditional” and derived from long oral traditions, with no known author. They played from a large canon of American repertoire, with only minor changes made by the musician. However, in a clear example of the negative stereotyping discussed throughout the rest of this article, on prominent source characterizes these changes to traditional songs as accidental, disparaging the idea of conceptualizing hillbilly musicians as arrangers and characterizing changes to lyrics and melodies as accidental. There seems to be no evidence that can allow us to claim that, prima facie, that the distinctive qualities of the performances of traditional songs by hillbilly musicians were unintentional. It is plausible, and indeed in most other circumstances, would be assumed that those alterations were intentional and based around a desire for artistic control over one’s music. This reveals how even in the secondary literature, the idea of the hillbilly as a rube, remains persistent.
Thematically, hillbilly music was complex. It was peppered by event songs, which marked important instances culturally and interpreted them into the traditions of a region that was riddled with contradictions. In Malone and Stricklin’s words, hillbilly music was a melding of rural and urban influences; it was simultaneously southern and American; and its performers and audiences were torn by opposing desires, clinging to a self-image of rustic simplicity while at the same time striving to be accepted in an urban, middle class milieu.
This complexity was a product of the varied layers of experience in the rural American south, but it also was a product of the interstitial location of the music itself. Many of the performers arose from a very similar background in Appalachia, but their audiences were urban and rural, scornful and romanticizing. It’s easy to imagine the music as being the same from audience to audience, conceptualizing the performers as imports from another world that merely replicated the traditions they were taught, but that does not take seriously the multi-layered effect of commercialization and communication. In the early days, record labels were simply looking for material to market to rural audiences, going toward the performers who would be known as hillbilly simply because they were popular among the target market. But with the success of Peer’s Hill Billies, the name began to become appropriated and used to market other bands, becoming not a designation of a particular band, but of a genre – a particular type of band, originating from a certain location, and fulfilling certain stereotypes.
Finding musicians was a project of entering the locals where the talent resided and engaging them there. Prominent early record executives, such as Ralph Peer, traveled by car to cities in the South and would collaborate with local experts in order to find talent that could be packaged, exported, and sold to wider audiences. These men were not usually knowledgeable in the music or folk art they were seeking out; they were businessmen, looking for talent in a variety of ways, and largely reliant on locals. This speaks to the complex relationship with audiences that early performers of hillbilly music had. They were usually already established performers in the genre, with local fan-bases and established acts, which translated very seamlessly to regional, rural distribution. The shift occurred when it became necessary to market it to a larger audience. In Malone’s words,
Hillbilly music was not simply rural; it also came before the American public as a southern art form. Like the South itself, hillbilly music suffered and profited from a conflicted set of images held by Americans that ranged from stability and enchantment to decadence and cultural degeneracy.
Hillbilly music was understood as representative of the larger south, to an audience that didn’t entirely consist of southerners. It is difficult to tell, from the existing historical record, the full extent of the listenership of hillbilly music outside of the South itself, but it is clear that the marketing was from the beginning outwardly directed.
Despite the rampant commercialization and negative stereotyping associated with the term hillbilly, it must be said that there is ambivalence about the word in the community itself. Many artists, particularly those that made some claim to artistic legitimacy, rejected the term outright as “a presumed denigration of their music and the way of life it supposedly represents” , but it was also used as a term of self-identification. The musicians themselves, particularly early on the development of the market for hillbilly music, were largely working class people discovered by talent scouts and record executives. However, this narrative of authentic discovery seems overblown; people like the prominent Vernon Dalhart started singing hillbilly music after an extensive career as a pop singer, taking on the conventions of hillbilly music as a way to refresh his career. It seems, however, that in most cases the self-identification of being a hillbilly is almost combative. Particularly in the contemporary era, hillbilly most frequently seems to be adopted by artists aiming to make an aggressive point about the relationship between Northern and Southern America, such as the modern genre of “hillbilly punk.” It seems even to identify oneself as a hillbilly is to be making a point about the disparagement and commodification of southern culture.
In conclusion, the meaning of hillbilly music and its relationship to the American folk traditions that it arose from is complex. To be called a hillbilly meant different things to different people, as it was used differentially as a form of pride, an insult, a simple descriptor, a marketing term. Despite the many and varied uses of the name, one thing remains consistent throughout. To be a hillbilly is to be observed by someone not from the same cultural community; it is a term that speaks to white southern identity as observed and understood by urban, northern elites. To some extent, this is not a revelation; all identity markers are usually understood at least in part in opposition to other identities. Hillbilly, however, is a term that commercializes and concretizes that relationship itself, referring to nothing other than the South-as-perceived-by-the-North, and marketed in that way. The actual music they produced was not that dissimilar from the folk music that preceded it, except that particular elements that distinguished it from acceptable, normal music were accentuated. The comedy became reliant on the fact that it wasn’t performed, that the people playing their instruments were exactly as ignorant as they pretended to be. In this
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