Hillbilly is a term referring to people who dwell in rural, mountainous areas of the United States, primarily Appalachia and the Ozarks. Due to its strongly stereotypical connotations, the term is frequently considered derogatory, and so is usually offensive to those Americans of Ozarkan and Appalachian heritage. However, the term is also used in celebration of their culture by mountain people themselves. Such co-opting and neutralizing use is almost exclusively reserved for Appalachian people themselves.
The origins of the term "hillbilly" are obscure. According to Anthony Harkins in Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, the term first appeared in print in a 1900 New York Journal article, with the definition: "a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, 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."
The Appalachian region was largely settled in the 1700s by the Scotch-Irish, the majority of whom originated in the lowlands of Scotland. Harkins believes the most credible theory of the term's origin is that it derives from the linkage of two older Scottish expressions, "hill-folk" and "billie" which was a synonym for "fellow", similar to "guy" or "bloke".
Although the term is not documented until 1900, there have been many conjectural etymologies for the term, including:
Harkins theorizes that use of the term outside the Appalachians arose in the years after the American Civil War, when the Appalachian region became increasingly bypassed by technological and social changes taking place in the rest of the country. Until the Civil War, the Appalachians were not significantly different from other rural areas of the country, but after the war, as the frontier pushed further west, the Appalachian country retained its frontier character, and the people themselves came to be seen as backward, quick to violence, and inbred in their isolation. Fueled by news stories of mountain feuds, such as that in the 1880s between the Hatfields and McCoys, the hillbilly stereotype developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
The "classic" hillbilly stereotype - the poor, ignorant, feuding family with a huge brood of children tending the family moonshine still - reached its current characterization during the years of the Great Depression, when many mountaineers left their homes to find work in other areas of the country. It was during these years that comic strips such as Lil' Abner and films such as The Grapes of Wrath made the "hillbilly" a common American stereotype.
The advent of the interstate highway system and television brought many previously isolated communities into mainstream United States culture in the 1950s and 1960s. The Internet continues this integration, but many communities with relatively traditional lifestyles remain throughout the Appalachian region.
The term hillbilly is commonly used in non-Appalachian areas as a reference in describing socially backward people that fit certain "hillbilly" characteristics. In this context, it is often (though not always) derogatory. Although the described person may not reside in a region that has hills of any kind, it is substituted in place of more disparaging terms like white trash. In urban usage, it is sometimes used interchangeably for terms like Redneck or hick.
Hillbilly music was at one time considered an acceptable label for what is now known as country music. However, some artists and fans, notably Hank Williams Sr., found the term offensive even in its heyday. The label, coined in 1925 by country pianist Al Hopkins, persisted until the 1950s.
Now, the older name is widely deemed offensive (and inappropriate). However, the term hillbilly music is now sometimes used to describe old-time music. An early tune that contained the word hillbilly was "Hillbilly Boogie" by the Delmore Brothers in 1946. Earlier, in the 1920s, there were records by a band called the Beverly Hillbillies. In 1927, the Gennett studios in Richmond, Indiana, made a recording of black fiddler Jim Booker with other instrumentalists; their recordings were labeled "made for Hillbilly" in the Gennett files, and were marketed to a white audience. Also during the 1920s, an old-time music band known as the Hill Billies featuring Al Hopkins and Fiddlin' Charlie Bowman, achieved acclaim as recording artists for Columbia Records. By the late forties, radio stations broadcast music described as "hillbilly," originally to describe fiddlers and string bands, but was then used to describe the traditional music of the people of the Appalachian Mountains. The people who actually sang these songs and lived in the Appalachian Mountains never used these terms to describe their own music.
Popular songs whose style bore characteristics of both hillbilly and African American music were referred to, in the late 1940s and early 1950s as hillbilly boogie, and in the mid-1950s as rockabilly. Elvis Presley was a prominent player of the latter genre. When the Country Music Association was founded in 1958, the term hillbilly music gradually fell out of use. However, the term rockabilly is still in common use.http://www.rockabillyhall.com/
Later, the music industry merged hillbilly music, Western Swing, and Cowboy music, to form the current category C&W, Country and Western. The famous bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements described his style of music as "hillbilly jazz."
As in Hillbilly, slap bass was used in Western Swing and Bluegrass and is a critical element in a new form of music called Gypsybilly created by Fabrice Vignati and Tracy Vignati.
The stereotypical hillbilly has inspired many fictional accounts in a variety of media, from novels and comic strips to movies and television. These accounts introduced the hillbilly to the general American public.
The Springfield, Missouri Chamber of Commerce once presented dignitaries visiting the city with an "Ozark Hillbilly Medallion" and a certificate proclaiming the honoree a "hillbilly of the Ozarks." On June 7, 1953, President Harry Truman received the medallian after a breakfast speech at the Shrine Mosque for the 35th Division Association. Other recipients included US Army generals Omar Bradley and Matthew Ridgeway, J. C. Penny, Johnny Olsen and Ralph Story.