Appropriating Appalachia:

Southern Hillfolk in the American Mind, 1884-1941

"Out of this mountain reservoir can be drawn a constant stream of vigorous native manhood and charmingly simple womanhood, fresh, unjaded, unspoiled, and in the deepest sense, American." -- James Watt Raine, The Land of the Saddle-bags, 1924.

By the end of the Great Depression, most Americans had been introduced to the folkways of the southern Appalachian mountains -- through the radio, which had begun to play "hillbilly music," through the numerous Works Progress Administration iniatives to catalog the mountain folk's songs and stories, and through efforts to commercialize mountain handicrafts. Americans in the 1930's -- themselves hardened by tough times -- viewed these bits of mountain folk life both as remnants of a more simple and pure era, as well as a representation of shared Anglo-Saxon culture.

Yet the appropriation of Appalachian culture into a larger American identity was not an easy process, and one that was imbued with contradictions. From European pastoral poetry, the myth of the hillfolk took on new resonance in the New World. At the start of the 20th century, however, Americans felt a deep ambivalence toward the people of southern Appalachia. These hillfolk indeed represented a way of life free from urban growth and immigration. Yet their rejection of technology and rational progress was seemingly incompatible with America's larger myth.

In the 1930's, I contend, this tension was eased through the labeling of southern Appalachian people as a distinct "folk" with a unique culture, and not simply a primitive people lost in time. Turning the hillfolk into "America's folk" has not resolved our difficulties with their identity, however. The tendency of romanticizing, rejecting and ultimately reclaiming the culture of southern Appalachia continues to this day.

Proceed to "Traditional Myths"

This page was created by Michael Anderson
American Studies program, University of Virginia
May 1999