Reclaiming the hillfolk

The tension over the image of Appalachia was in place by the beginning of the 1930's: how to praise the independence and hardiness of a "primitive" people, yet at the same time remake the mountains into an ideal compatible with the modern American world. The demands on Appalachia were complex and often contradictory, Jane S. Becker notes:

"They asked the southern mountaineers simultaneously to embrace the industrial present and future while maintaining, for the benefit of all America, certain desirable customs and values presumably endangered by a standardized, industrial culture. They sought to at once modernize and preserve, and they tried to do this not by addressing the real problems of a newly modernizing society but by reestablishing a designated past in Southern Appalachia."

The notion of "constructing" an American past was first introduced by Van Wyck Brooks, who wrote his influential essay, "On Creating a Usable Past," in 1918. Brooks, who believed America's Puritan roots led the country to value materialism over myth, concluded that Americans must themselves piece together aspects of his history that would be most instructive for the present. One of the people who read his essay was Constance Rourke, who incorporated his idea of a "usable past" into her most famous book, American Humor (1929). Rourke, however, did not believe that this past must be created; rather, she believed that Americans already had a common cultural tradition that was "various, subtle, sinewy, scant at times but not poor." She posited that Americans already had mythologized three types of men, forming a "comic trio": the Yankee, the backwoodsman and the minstrel. Rourke, moreover, demonstrated that American "folk" culture and "high" culture did not operate independently, but rather sprung from the same tradition, which was uniquely American in origin.

For Rourke, everyday "folk" were equally important in the creation of national culture. Many of Rourke's ideas quickly became accepted during the Great Depression, when many citizens began to search among themselves to find the "real" America. Calling southern Appalachian culture as "folk" was a crucial beginning. Rather than simply being backwards, these mountain people now could become representative of a national "folk" culture. Placing Southern Appalachia into an American context now was a feasible project.

The marketplace became the focus of this incorporation. By commercializing aspects of Appalachian folk life, one could both uphold a traditional culture and simultaneously place American ("capitalistic") values onto it.

The songs and tales of Appalachia, as well as mountain handicrafts, soon found their way into everyday American life during the Great Depression. The radio already had discovered the marketability of "hillbilly music" - a combination of minstrel songs, the blues and newer country music. Soon, other bands began playing songs passed down not through oral tradition, but over the airwaves. Works Progress Administration officials set out to collect the folksongs and folktales of Appalachia - recording bits of an Anglo-Saxon past in order to disseminate for America's cultural benefit (see above photo). Similarly, educators entered Appalachia to reinstill the lost art of craftwork. Mountain crafts, popularized in the early decades of the 20th century, gained new popularity in the 1930's. Commercial craft industries began to flourish, taking elements of the traditional culture and merging it with the needs of the market. Jane Becker observes that the crafts soon began to "reflect the tastes and desires of the middle-class, urban market" rather than the region from which it was produced.

During the 1930's Americans felt particularly eager to rediscover a common (Anglo-Saxon) heritage, which they placed in southern Appalachia and called it a "folk" culture. At the same time, however, the incorporation of Appalachia necessited its adaptation to a rational, efficient, capitalistic economic system. Americans wanted tradition and commodity at once, regardless of the inherent contradiction.

Proceed to "Appalachia today"