[Paleopsych] TLS: (Hillbillies) Hayseed hunks and moonshine

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Hayseed hunks and moonshine
    Scott Saul
    28 May 2004
    HILLBILLY. A cultural history of an American icon. By Anthony Harkins.
    324pp. Oxford University Press. £22.50 (US $35). 0 19 514631 X

    The 1938 film Kentucky Moonshine features an inspired bit of repartee
    between three would-be hillbillies and a rifle-bearing mountaineer,
    with the Ritz Brothers playing a trio of unsuccessful New York
    performers who bet that their luck would change if only they could
    capitalize on the rage for "hillbilly music" (as "country music" was
    first known in the United States). So they disguise themselves as
    hillbillies - putting on weatherbeaten slouch hats, fake beards and
    bedraggled clothes - and head for the Kentucky mountains, where they
    hope to intercept a New York-based radio host who himself is looking
    to exploit the hillbilly craze by broadcasting his show live on

    Unfortunately for the Ritz team, they stumble upon the ever-feuding
    Hatfield clan, who approach the brothers with shotguns at the ready.
    The brothers try to defuse the tension by assuring the Hatfields that
    "we're hillbillies", but the family patriarch will have none of it:
    "What in tarnation", he asks, "is hillbilly?". The question hits on an
    ironic truth: the hillbilly persona was largely a figment of the
    metropolitan imagination, a caricature drawn at a considerable
    distance from the mountains of Appalachia and the Ozarks that were the
    hillbilly's ostensible home. The Ritz Brothers' hillbilly costumes,
    for instance, derived from a cartoon series named "The Mountain Boys"
    that ran regularly in Esquire, a magazine designed for an audience of
    middle-class male urbanites.

    In Hillbilly: A cultural history of an American icon, Anthony Harkins
    plumbs this irony to its depths, delivering a well-researched and
    richly illustrated tour of the hillbilly's life in the modern
    entertainments of music, film, television and newspaper comic pages.
    As Harkins documents through an impressive array of sources, the
    hillbilly has served time and again as a comic foil for the anxieties
    and hopes that have attached to modernization: he was the hick whose
    gift for common sense allowed him to puncture the snobbery of city
    slickers, the lazybones who never had to bend himself to the
    discipline of the Fordist factory, the shack-dweller whose poverty
    could be played for laughs. The hillbilly, Harkins suggests, was a
    particularly malleable figure in the popular imagination since his
    virtues and vices were always intertwined: his unconditional love of
    family could shade into the perversion of incest and his common sense
    could be revealed as a wilful ignorance of the modern world. The
    hillbilly lived in a land that time forgot - but that musicians,
    cartoonists and film producers all gravitated to, since it spoke to
    whatever fantasy of rural life they wished to entertain. Only rarely,
    as in that moment in Kentucky Moonshine, did the cartoon question its
    own cartoonishness.

    Harkins also flags a crucial, though sometimes unremarked, aspect of
    the hillbilly figure: his whiteness. He convincingly argues that the
    hillbilly -lovable, backward and supposedly isolated from ongoing
    battles over racial justice - was often enlisted in an oblique defence
    of racial purity and segregationist politics.

    The figure of the hillbilly gave its audience a way of "thinking
    through" the protocols of race in the US, often at a great remove from
    the facts. So, in the popular music of the 1920s and 30s, the
    "hillbilly records" of white string bands were marketed against the
    "race records" of early blues musicians - an act of market
    segmentation that belied the actual terms of exchange between the two
    groups, as country musicians like Uncle Dave Macon learned much of
    their repertoire from black musicians and began their careers
    performing in blackface in medicine shows. Likewise, television's
    Beverly Hillbillies found success in the 1960s as proud partisans of
    the Confederacy, saluting the rebel flag and celebrating Jefferson
    Davis as the best President in the nation's history; Jed Clampett and
    his kin nostalgically recalled a South without black people while
    settling in a California that was, ever so conveniently, lily-white.
    The hillbilly has stood as a figure for whiteness in its most
    unadulterated form or, more specifically, as a figure for the fate of
    whiteness in a country struggling to own up to its multiracial past
    and present.

    Hillbilly is written in a style that befits its subject matter: it is
    vivid but no-nonsense, delighting in a good yarn while appreciating
    the ironies that are often buried when a story runs in a too familiar
    groove and ends in a too predictable conclusion. The book works hard
    to be even-handed, and its main limitation derives from its
    congeniality, its author's unwillingness to paint anyone in an
    unflattering light. Harkins frequently prefers to generalize about
    American culture in toto rather than devote attention to the conflicts
    that structure that culture, and does not situate individual actors as
    clearly in the political world as he might. For instance, he discusses
    a "Li'l Abner" comic strip parodying John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath,
    but does not consider how the Steinbeck novel inspired leftist artists
    and activists affiliated with the Popular Front, scuttling an
    opportunity to compare "Li'l Abner"'s strain of "populism" with

    Likewise, the book underlines how the hillbilly came to represent the
    nation's rural poor, but deals only intermittently with larger (and
    quite relevant) debates about the responsibility of the State to its
    poorest citizens. Still, Hillbilly is meticulous and slyly
    sophisticated - a clear-eyed case study of how the mass media in the
    US served up nostalgia in the most contemporary of forms.

    A 1930s string band named the Hornellsville Hillbillies plugged
    themselves as "A Modern Up-To-Date Old-Time Band": Anthony Harkins
    illuminates the unexpected truth in advertising.

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