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VOL. 37 | NO. 37 | Friday, September 13, 2013

Is ‘hillbilly’ a derogatory term or badge of honor?

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In a Huffington Post article with the dateline of Venice, Italy, actor Scott Haze says he spent three months living in the Tennessee mountains to prepare for a role in a film.

Losing 45 pounds, eating a piece of fish and an apple each day, and sleeping in caves, Haze hardened himself to the role of a deranged killer for “Child of God,” which is about to premiere at the Venice Film Festival.

“I slept in caves many nights with bats all around. It was crazy,” Haze said. “I let everything go, just hung out with the hillbillies and stayed as isolated as possible.”

Hmm. It seems to me that if he hung out with hillbillies, then he didn’t stay as isolated as possible. And, whoever it was he hung out with, I’m wondering whether he call them hillbillies. Which raises the question, what is a hillbilly?

Years ago, I looked up this issue and reported the results in at least one column and one book. But, it’s been a while, so perhaps the market will bear another look.

In 1960, an appeals court in Springfield, Mo., issued an opinion in a divorce case (Moore v. Moore, 337 S.W. 2d 781). The author of the opinion was Judge Justin Ruark. Among other things, the wife was alleged to have referred to her husband’s relatives as hillbillies. Wrote Judge Ruark:

“We suggest that to refer to a person as a ‘hillbilly’ … might or might not be an insult, depending upon the meaning intended to be conveyed, the manner of utterance, and the place where the words are spoken.

“Webster’s New International Dictionary says that a hillbilly is ‘a backwoods man or mountaineer of the southern United States’ [and that the term is] ‘often used contemptuously.’ But without the added implication or inflection which indicates an intention to belittle, we would say that, here in Southern Missouri, the term is often given and accepted as a complimentary expression.

“An Ozark hillbilly is an individual who has learned the real luxury of doing without the entangling complications of things which the dependent and over-pressured city dweller is required to consider as necessities.

“The hillbilly forgoes the hard grandeur of high buildings and canyon streets in exchange for wooded hills and verdant valleys. In place of creeping traffic he accepts the rippling flow of the wandering stream.

“He does not hear the snarl of exhaust, the raucous braying of horns, and the sharp, strident babble of many tense voices. For him instead is the measured beat of the katydid, the lonesome, far-off complaining of the whippoorwill, perhaps even the sound of a falling acorn in the infinite peace of the quiet woods.

“The hillbilly is often not familiar with new models, soirees, and office politics. But he does have the time and surroundings conducive to sober reflection and honest thought, the opportunity to get closer to his God. No, in Southern Missouri the appellation ‘hillbilly’ is not generally an insult or an indignity; it is an expression of envy.”

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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