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Moonshiners and the "Deliverance" Banjo Boy
By Scott Nicholson

Hollywood is 3,000 miles away from the Appalachians, yet that small enclave huddled at the edge of Los Angeles has had a great impact on shaping the country’s image of mountain people.

Dr. Jerry Williamson has spent much of his life researching the types and stereotypes in film, including writing the books Hillbillyland and Southern Mountaineers In Silent Films, and says that the Appalachian characters are largely portrayed as less-than-savory savages. But the interesting thing is that the historic Hollywood myth of the feudin’ hillbilly contains both an attraction and repulsion for many urban-dwellers.

"There are two messages," says Williamson, a long-time researcher with the Appalachian Collection at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. "The first is that the viewer gets an electric jolt, a thrill of the violence that is often portrayed on film. The other is that the behavior is an object lesson in what is no longer acceptable behavior. It’s sort of ‘Thou shalt not be like that, but wouldn’t it be fun?’ It’s warning against wildness, but also has the lure of the wild."

Williamson conducted much of his research on the silent film era, a period between 1904 and 1927. He began his work in 1984 by seeing a list that compiled 165 titles of films that portrayed Appalachian culture. He has since expanded that list to over 800, and has collected as many video examples as he could round up. His research came about because of his combined interests in both Appalachian culture and film.

The silent film period was the richest exploitation of hillbilly stereotypes. "There were an amazing number of films that featured moonshiners or feuding families," Williamson says. "Generally, those were the two dominant plots: the moonshiner’s daughter, the feudist’s daughter, there was always a love affair. Young mountain girl meets lowland city boy. Romance ensues. Very frequently, city boy gets to take mountain girl out of the mountains to ‘civilize’ her."

Williamson says the proliferation of the myth in the early part of the century was due to a combination of factors. "Rural people were generally in the movies a lot, and were used in very similar ways," he says. "The reason is that this country was approaching majority urban status for the first time. The experience of the frontier was fading for a lot of people, and hence the need to remember it in the form of entertainment. Mountain people became extremely handy in that re-examination of the 19th-Century American life."

Along with urbanization, the idea of "progress" and standardization caught on. Immigrants coming to the country got their lessons in Appalachia from the popular media, especially cinema. "They were looking at a totally mythic representation of mountain people, and they were probably believing that representation," Williamson says. That mixture of violence-as-entertainment and reprehensible behavior point out most people’s ambiguity over America’s rural past.

"Those movies are not real, are not true, but they are very true in depicting what the American public had on its mind," he adds. That mythic image changed in the 1920’s with the growth and commercialization of country music. Williamson says that the music was often considered comic, and this led to the stereotype of the twangy, gap-toothed yokel with the shoulder strap falling from his too-large overalls, basically musicians as fools or clowns.

Two major influences that Hollywood foisted on the insatiable viewing audience were "Sergeant York" and "Deliverance." "Sergeant York" was based on the true life of a World War I hero, but by the time Hollywood finished with its depiction of York’s life, the story was far from "true." York was born in the Tennessee mountains, but was portrayed as a child-like, innocent farm boy who finds salvation in God and country. The film came out just before World War II, and had a great impact on the country’s attitude toward war, something on the level of propaganda. "The movie made America believe in its innocence again, but also that innocence sometimes requires fighting," Williamson says.

The other infamous and more modern example is "Deliverance." Williamson says there is an interesting parallel between the hillbillies’ savage actions and that of "progress" raping the earth in the form of an engulfing dam. "Everybody clicks on that reference to the movie," Williamson says, though he believes the film’s a bit broader than just getting mileage out of a stereotype. "The whole point is to humiliate some city boys," says Williamson. "The hillbillies could have been grizzly bears, aliens, anything. But it’s taken a long time for people to get over it."

Williamson isn’t sure where the myth stands in the current era. While the country is now over three-quarters urban, such rurally-associated phenomena as country music and NASCAR racing have a strong grip on the popular imagination.

"Stereotypes are as strong as ever," Williamson says. "'Saturday Night Live' can’t let a week go by without doing a skit on trailer trash or Southern rubes. But rubes look pretty smart in the era of Y2K."

(Copyright 1998 by Scott Nicholson)

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