Narrated by Billy Ray Cyrus, The History Channel’s “Hillbilly – The Real Story” is a two hour documentary that aims to dispel negative stereotypes and tell the true history of the people of Appalachia who although “long misunderstood as isolated and backward, actually have a 300-year history of achievement that has contributed significantly to our national identity.”
Moonshining To Marijuana
Where to start?
“Hillbilly” plunges immediately into the story of how the Scots-Irish brought their tradition of distilling whiskey into the mountains of Southern Appalachia. In the seventeenth century, rum from the Caribbean was the preferred drink in the American colonies. We’ve explored at length the cultural links between the Southern lowlands and the Caribbean.
The fiercely independent Scots-Irish have been at odds with federal authority over alcohol from the time of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791 through the federal revenue agents who swarmed into Appalachia after the War Between the States to Prohibition in the 1920s when the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act caused an explosion in the production and distribution of moonshine.
In our own times, marijuana, which is grown in places like the Daniel Boone National Forest, is Kentucky’s most important cash crop. Central Appalachia’s marijuana industry brings in an estimated $4 billion dollars a year to the region – a figure which dwarfs farm incomes and even coal mining. Whether it is federal revenue agents or the modern DEA, the region’s historical experience has fostered suspicion of outsiders and a desire to keep the federal government at bay.
Nowhere is it mentioned that the overwhelming majority of people in Appalachia are not engaged in moonshining, or that the marijuana industry is largely confined to the poorest parts of the old coal country in Central Appalachia, which is highly distinct from the rest of Appalachia which really isn’t poor anymore.
“Hillbilly” moves on next to the well known story of how a combination of famine, crop failure, unfavorable trade legislation, and rising rents from absentee English landlords – I have added the last two factors, which were left unmentioned – drove the Scots-Irish migration to America from 1720 to 1775.
From 1400 to 1600, the borderlands of northern England and the Scottish lowlands was a warzone, which created a violent, warlike culture that prized portable goods as opposed to settled agriculture. In the early seventeenth century, King James I of England settled these Scottish Presbyterians in Ulster in Northern Ireland where they displaced the native Irish Catholics. About a century later, 250,000 of them immigrated to the American colonies from Ulster, Scotland, and Northern England, mostly to Philadelphia and the Chesapeake Bay ports where they clashed with the established English and German populations before fanning out across the backcountry.
The Scots-Irish poured out of Philadelphia and headed southwest through the Great Valley where they spread out and eventually colonized all of Southern Appalachia, but not before a bloody frontier struggle for supremacy with the Cherokee and Shawnee. They overwhelmingly backed the American Revolution and won a decisive victory over the British at the Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780. “Hillbilly” proudly notes that the Watauga settlement in upper East Tennessee declared its independence in 1772, a point which is still controversial with historians, although Watauga Association was condemned at the time as a “dangerous example” of self government.
The view of the Scots-Irish presented here is somewhat of a caricature. Over a third of the settlers of Appalachia were English from the Southern lowlands and Germans also settled the region. Even in Ulster, the Scots-Irish were not drawn exclusively from the Borderlands, but from Protestants all over England. Also, “Hillbilly” leaps over the Jacksonian era and the War Between the States, simply noting that the people of the region remained culturally “isolated” in their hills and hollows when in fact the Scots-Irish were at the apogee of their national influence.
The “Discovery” of Appalachia
The next segment focuses on how Appalachia was opened up to commerce by the spread of the railroads in the late nineteenth century. The story of the Clinchfield railroad which connected the coal fields of West Virginia to South Carolina is used to emphasize the culture shock that occurred when isolated and clannish mountaineers and hillfolk encountered the Southern and Eastern European immigrants who were brought in from the Northeast to help build the railroad.
“Hillbilly” correctly notes that this was the era when the “Local Color” writers “discovered” Appalachia – the people of the region were seen at the time as “another America,” an America left behind in some kind of time warp, distinct from the Northern mainstream – and created virtually all the negative stereotypes of the ignorant, inbred, violent, feuding, gun slinging, moonshining demonic hillbilly. We’ve already seen that the term “hillbilly” was coined by a New York Journal reporter in 1900.
The feud between the Hatfields and McCoys became the most celebrated feud in American history and was permanently associated with Appalachia. In reality, feuds were largely confined to eastern Kentucky and were unrepresentative of the region as a whole.
The segment on coal mining was well done.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Appalachia was transformed into an industrial colony of Northern capital, and the most exploited area in the region were the coal fields of Central Appalachia – eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, parts of northern East Tennessee – where Northern corporations built company towns and paid non-union employees poor wages in scrip which was only redeemable at company stores.
This was a time when political offices like US senator and governorships were bought and sold in Kentucky and West Virginia. The mining corporations created a sort of industrial feudalism where every public institution from the schools to the churches to the sheriff’s department and local law enforcement were in the company’s pocket. Private detective agencies like the notorious Baldwin Felts Detectives were used as hired thugs to beat and harass mine workers.
“Hillbilly” uses the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 in southern West Virginia – the largest armed rebellion since the War Between the States – to illustrate the oppression of Appalachian mine workers. The term “redneck” was coined by a New York reporter to describe the miner worker army who wore red bandanas around their necks to symbolize their right to organize labor unions. The insurrection was put down by President Warren Harding who called in the National Guard.
Blair Mountain was a pivotal moment in the history of the American labor movement. It was the point when public opinion began to shift in favor of organized labor which had hitherto been associated with radical European movements like communism. Although “Hillbilly” doesn’t get around to mentioning it, the real “Mother Jones” played a leading role in organizing the mine workers in West Virginia and the events at Blair Mountain.
Christianity and Snake-Handling
It was inevitable that a documentary on Appalachia would explore the Christian sects indigenous to the region that talk in tongues and handle venomous snakes. Thankfully, “Hillbilly” stresses that this is a minority practice – there are 2,000 snake handlers vs. 3 million Southern Baptists and Pentecostals in Appalachia – that is universally frowned upon but tolerated in the region.
Appalachia’s unique brand of Christianity is derived from the raucous, intensely emotional open tent Baptist and Methodist revivals of the eighteenth century. By 1900, there were thousands of independent, non-denominational Protestant churches in the region. This characterization of Appalachian religion as highly individualistic, focused on Biblical literalism, and intensely emotional in nature is fairly accurate.
Stock Car Racing and Country Music
“Hillbilly” accurately presents the story of how stock car racing grew out of bootleggers outrunning law enforcement on “Thunder Road” in North Georgia during the height of Prohibition. The documentary focuses on the Flock Brothers to show the origins of NASCAR. Suprisingly, “Hillbilly” had precious little to say about country music, even though it is by far Appalachia’s most important contribution to American culture.
Of all the things the US federal government has ever done in Appalachia, the TVA – a series of 16 hydroelectric dams that tamed the Tennessee River and still generates cheap hydroelectric power – is unquestionably the most popular and created generations of goodwill toward “big government” in places like North Alabama.
Prior to the invention of “racism” in the 1930s, progressives were more concerned with national uplift through economic development than divisive utopian social crusades. “Hillbilly” notes that TVA electricity from sites like the Fontana Dam was used to power the Alcoa aluminum plant and Oak Ridge Nuclear Laboratory, where the atomic bomb was developed, during the Second World War.
“Hillbilly” wasn’t that bad as a brief introduction to the people of Appalachia although the documentary spent too much time on sensationalist items like snake-handling, moonshining, and feuds for my tastes. If I had another criticism, it would be that it was too focused on Central Appalachia, and there was nothing about the impact of tourism in Great Smoky Mountain National Park which covers so much of the region. There also weren’t any segments on the interstate highway system or the welfare state.
Verdict: a flawed, but decent documentary. I’ve seen much worse.