I had a chance to watch Hillbilly: The Real Story the other day after missing the first two airings.
As a propagandist for the “hill folk” I can't complain too much since its intent was to be sympathetic but if I had a couple of million dollars lying around with which to make a documentary about the Appalachian people I would have done things a bit differently. For the most part it was factual and the more important the topic the more accurate they seemed to be.
I do think that they made some poor choices on editing. They begin the two hour program with a segment on moonshine after only the slightest mention about how Appalachians are misrepresented. To be honest moonshine is a far better item of introduction than coal but I still think I would have gone to the Scottish border wars first off. My guess is that the producers wanted to set the stage by displaying the hillbilly as both self reliant and resistant to what they see as unfair governance. Moonshine and the Whiskey Rebellion are perfect as a hub to illustrate this point. They must be given credit for stating that the hillbillies did not “invent” moonshine in the hills of Appalachia but brought it with them from Northern Ireland. Indeed today whiskey is so common a spirit that we tend to see it as a universal but whiskey or uisce beatha which means water of life in Gaelic is an Irish/ Scottish spirit and was even more so then. The importance of pointing out that the new settlers to Appalachia brought their whiskey with them is that it illustrates an older heritage and a heritage that was already separate from the rest of the rum drinking colonies.
The following segment on marijuana is unfortunate but true and does follow somewhat the pattern of the moonshiners. I am more inclined to accept this comparison than any between moonshiners and crystal meth production. Given that marijuana is not a dangerous drug in and of itself other than causing the habitual user to waste his life it is not surprising that hillbillies would be more inclined to turn a blind eye to its production as stated by this portion of the program. The problem as the police officers illustrate is that these dope growers resort to violent tactics to protect their crop which is often grown in remote patches on public lands such as national forests.
One difference between the classic battle between the revenuers and the moonshiners is that the anti-drug officers are often local people. As stated by one of the officers interviewed, these hollers and hills are home to these police officers and where their children are being raised. They have a vested interest in eradicating this blight. One truth that was not mentioned that I know from my personal experience is that the drug producers are often outsiders. These outside criminals move into the area and corrupt locals to make use of their knowledge of the community and geography. As Billy Ray says an average household income of less than $8,000 a year makes such activity much more tempting than it would be otherwise.
In the next section of the program the producers examine the origin of the Appalachian people. I was pleased to see that they take the high road and go with the truth instead of the politically correct, multi-cultural garbage that is popular in our universities. The hillbilly culture has its origin in the borderlands of Scotland and England starting in the 13th century. The constant battles and strife of the area caused a clan society to develop. As Senator Jim Webb explains this type of uncertainty leads individuals to form bonds with those closest to them and on their level.
Starting in 1610 the Scottish King James the VII who became James I of Great Britain thought that he could kill two birds with one stone and send many of these rough lowland Scots to Northern Ireland. This would relieve the population pressures on largely infertile southern Scotland and send a force to “pacify” the native Irish. Many of facts surrounding the plantation of Northern Ireland are glossed over in this segment but what facts are there are accurate. The program does not mention the religious persecution of the Presbyterians by the Anglican Church of Ireland.
The show accurately describes how a quarter of a million people from Northern Ireland settled in the back country of America in a short period of time. The bulk of these settled between 1750 and 1775. There is no mention of James Logan, the Scots-Irish, Quaker and secretary for the Penn family. Logan is largely responsible for the settlement of the Scots-Irish into western Pennsylvania. He stated explicitly in a letter that he hoped the Ulster Scots could act as a “human frontier” between the passive Quakers in the east and the native “savages” in the west. This program is sympathetic to the Scots-Irish settlers concerning the Indian Wars but it makes no mention that they were performing a bloody task that they were specifically recruited for.
Although they do not use the exact words the program makes clear that before long the Scots-Irish become the new “savages” gaining much knowledge of surviving in the back country from their enemies the Native Americans. Eventually this knowledge of guerrilla warfare would help them turn the war in favor of the American rebels. Perhaps too much time is spent on the single Battle of King's Mountain, but it is by far the most famous battle won by the new Appalachians. Interestingly the British force that the Over-mountain Men defeated at King's Mountain were largely Scottish Highlanders. Also a fact not mentioned.
There is no mention however of Sargent York Syndrome which would have fit perfectly into this segment. This syndrome which was coined by a Veterans' Hospital physician in Tennessee, describes the phenomena of Appalachia having the highest casualty rate in all of its wars up until the current Gulf War. Nor would I expect them to delve into the horrible way in which the government exploits the likes of both Jessica Lynch and Lynndie English.
What many viewers probably will not catch but is so very important at the end of this section before the commercial break is the mention that for the next 100 years the Appalachian culture develops separately from the rest of the nation. This is crucial to understanding modern Appalachian and her hillbillies. We did not degenerate from the same basic British culture as the rest of the country; we were different from the beginning. We came from a different branch on the British tree and naturally developed a culture that was familiar yet separate from those other largely English communities. And this 100 years of development took place before COAL. Hillbillies were hillbillies before coal.
The next segment starts with an account of the local color writers. Certainly the local color writers of the mid-19th century are a bunch who have to be rotting in Hell. More than any single group including the robber barons, the local color writers so degraded the people of Appalachia that the unscrupulous industrialist were able to mistreat the citizens of the hills without fear that the nation at large would be sympathetic to the plight of the hill folk. These same industrialist often owned the publications in which these lurid tales appeared. Go figure. Poor and uneducated Appalachian farmers were swindled out of land or gave up timber and mineral rights for pennies on the dollar only to be left with poisoned wells and ruined moonscapes that took generations to heal. The Industrial Revolution has come and gone and with it the economic benefits, but the negative stereotypes still survive.
From the local color articles to the railroad, coal mines and independent Christian churches the program by way of the most notable examples such as the Clinch Valley Line, Matewan and the Battle of Blair Mountain and snake handling highlights some of Appalachia's famous and peculiar elements. One may be quick to point out that these are single examples of very common items in Appalachia but I assume that the Moore-Huntley production team's focus is taking on these “well known” Appalachian elements and demystifying them.
Many areas of Appalachia were always open to the rest of the nation. Travelers going from east to west would have a very long detour if they did not cross Appalachia by many of her gaps and passes, stopping at the many Appalachian villages and towns that serviced these roads and early rails. But railroads like the Clinch did open up Appalachia to the industrial age and no doubt advanced the building of rail lines into most every county in the region. The railroad made coal possible and coal made the railroad possible. The industrial revolution also brought new people to Appalachia from Italy and eastern Europe.
I have often wondered if the Battle of Blair Mountain could have happened in any other region of the nation at that time. Certainly the wild west witnessed similar violence only a generation prior but in the 20thcentury, I doubt that the public would have tolerated company guards dropping bombs on or machine gunning citizens in New England. I reckon the same factors tahat allowed the Battle of Blair Mountain to take place allows MIC to be produced at Institute, WV next to the campus of WVSU.
There were many conflicts between the labor unions and the mine owners in Appalachia and the legal battles go even today but Matewan and the Battle of Blair Mountain are certainly the best known and perhaps the most egregious examples of industrial arrogance besides the lesser known Hawk's Nest disaster.
Most controversial is the segment on snake handlers. Here the producers do a masterful job of making the members of this religious sect look rational while being clear that most Appalachians do not practice or even condone this ritual. As a hillbilly it distresses me that West Virginia is the only state where snake handling is legal. And this is the point. Appalachia is full of little cinder clock churches. Billy Ray tells us that there are 80 different Baptist denominations alone. As one interviewee explains, if a group of folks doesn't like what is being preached at their current church they will just up and build another little church down the road.
Religious freedom was one of the reasons for the Scots-Irish ending up in these hills. The program does mention the tent revivals of the 18th century but does not call them as such and does not go into detail about the New Light and Appalachians transformation from Presbyterianism to Baptist and Methodist sects.
All of these little white washed churches stand in stark contrast to the suburban mega-churches in the rest of the country. I have sincere doubts as to whether any of those little churches fund political action committees. I would rather risk my life by handling a copperhead than risk my soul by shaking hands with the pastor of a mega-church.
From the pious little churches the program turns to the moonshine runners who became the proto-stock car drivers. The motor sport born in Appalachian Georgia that would become NASCAR may have mutated into something that the foreigners watch but I sleep better at night knowing that there are still dirt tracks out there like Lavonia Speedway in Georgia and my hometown track Portsmouth Raceway.
I reckon the next segment on the TVA illustrates the bittersweet realities of progress in our region. I am a proud Luddite, but I am not about to get all Amish on anyone. I like electric stuff and I like good paying jobs that make that stuff. When the reservoir was filled and those Appalachian communities were flooded they were lost true enough, but anytime we allow the outside world to come in so that we can have jobs we risk losing a bit of our community. That said I can remember when the steel mills, shoe factories and the nuclear enrichment plant were all still in production in Portsmouth, Ohio. There were 40,000 more hillbillies and their friends living in that little river city then and the Waltons could not have been more Appalachian than my family in 1969.
As dangerous as it may be to welcome job producing industry into our Appalachian communities it is far more dangerous to allow our children to leave in order to find work outside of the region. Without alternatives we have to rely on destructive extraction industry or we end up with a population of old folks and trash and the few folks in the service industry that any community needs such as hospital workers, teachers and other government types. The producers don't say it out right but even a place as beautiful as Appalachia with workers as brave as coal miners need an infusion of industry to survive.
Appropriately Billy Ray states that perhaps the greatest gift that the hillbillies have given to the nation (and the world) is our music. We have transformed the Celtic folk music we brought with us 300 years ago into a global art form. I may bristle at the pop-with-a-cowboy-hat that dominates America's airwaves but I have to admit no small bit of satisfaction that it may be watered down but it is mine. I can't expect everyone to be into John Prine or Dwight Yoakam.
I think the producers were also brilliant in drafting Billy Ray Cyrus as the narrator. Of course I cheer for Billy Ray as a fellow tristate boy, but Billy Ray is a living example of the hillbilly spirit. From the moment he gained national attention he was a target of ridicule for his mullet. But Billy Ray didn't let that stop him. He had a nice little show, kind of an anti-House, called “Doc” where he plays a kindly country doctor in the big city. He started a charity for the needy children of the Ashland-Ironton area. And now his daughter, Miley is the biggest star Disney has with her show, Hannah Montana in which Billy Ray plays her dad. Let's just keep her away from some of the other former Disney stars.
So Hillbilly: The Real Story gets a Rednecromancer thumbs up. It could have been more in depth but it would have had to have been longer which would have probably precluded it from showing up on the light weight History Channel. The facts for the most part were accurate ( the battle of Blair Mountain was NOT the origin of redneck ) and some of the most important issues were addressed. It was biased in favor of hillbillies but that is just fine since we have years of anti-hillbilly bias to make up for.
The important statements made by the program are that hillbillies have a pre-American origin and that we have developed separately and not degenerated. And while we are a separate American culture we have contributed greatly to the overall American experience.
Or at least the most important items.
Freedom, loyalty, country music, etc, etc