Hillbilly Music and Its Effect on American Society

When hearing the term Hillbilly music, an image similar to this probably comes to mind.

hillbilly uhhhh

This stereotype came later in the musics’ history. The early hillbilly musicians were actually quite the opposite of the picture displayed above. According to Bill C. Malone, author of Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers, early advertisements of country musicians “show them dressed in their ‘Sunday-go-to-meeting’ clothes— suits, ties, well-polished shoes— and not in overalls, brogans, blue jeans, or other accoutrements of working-class life”(Malone 70).

hank williams
How then, did the genre obtain its name? Because the music itself could not be “easily defined” as Malone describes it, it could not be easily labeled either (Malone 70). Perhaps this musical style was difficult to define due to the fact that its first performers had no “clear self-identity”(Malone 70). This was especially visible when Al Hopkins, a leader of a string band reportedly told a recording entrepreneur “Just call us whatever you want, we’re nothing but a bunch of hillbillies”, which was where the genre got its name (Malone 70). The significance of this name plays hand-in-hand with the image of the genre, as can be expected given that first photo is now a common stereotype of hillbilly music (Lange 60).
Soon, the image of the hillbilly musician began to stray from the afore mentioned promotional photographs into that of rural working-class, or the most recognizable, cowboy with the help of hollywood film makers through western movies. Playing to this “largely romantic” perception of the south and rural life, hillbilly music later turned the genre into both a film sensation and a musical sensation. The significance of this genre appears in the late 1930s, 40s, and 50s, serving as a comfort blanket and coping mechanism for a struggling country (Malone 91).

This video is an example of how Hollywood portrayed the singing hillbilly/cowboy. (Start at the 6 minute mark, and watch about a minute of it)

The 1930s and 40s marked the “heyday of cowboy music in the US”, when the genre was undertaken by Americans as a means of “coping with hard times” after the Great Depression and at the start of World War II (Malone 90,91). This image of the cowboy initiated by the hillbilly genre and emphasized through Hollywood’s old western movies, was a vivid reminder of frontier America, embodying “freedom, independence, and all of the manly traits that ensured survival on the frontier”, and that were “distinctive and defining ingredients of American life”(Malone 73,74). Hillbilly, or “Cowboy” music gave the nation a reminder of the bravery, courageousness, and hard work that embodied our country, instilling hope back into a weakened nation.

1. Fure, Robert. “Tucker and Dale Versus Evil.” Film School Rejects. FilmSchoolRejects, 13 Oct. 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.

2. Hank Williams Senior Promotional Photo. Digital image. WSM Radio, n.d. Web.           16 Mar. 2015.

3. Malone, Bill C. “Mountaineers and Cowboys.” Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers: Southern Culture and the Roots of Country Music. Athens: U of Georgia, 1993. 69-91. Print.

4. “COWBOY WESTERN HEROS 1940/50’s.” YouTube. YouTube, 6 Dec. 2007. Web. 18 Mar. 2015

5. Lange, Jeffrey J. Smile When You Call Me a Hillbilly: Country Music’s Struggle for Respectability, 1939-1954. Athens: U of Georgia, 2004. Print.

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