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Scots-Irish “Hillbillies”
About 90% of Appalachian settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries were Scots-Irish (a.k.a. Scotch-Irish) descendants of Ulster Protestants, whose ancestors had migrated to northern Ireland from the Scottish lowlands.

Many had been supporters of William of Orange, the protestant King of Scotland, England, and Ireland, who was affectionately known as “King Billy” among the Scots.

When former King James II invaded Ireland in 1689, William’s followers, known as “Billyboys,” hid out in forests along the hills for sneak attacks upon the enemy.

When their ancestors came to America, New England was already full of British settlers, so the “hillbillies” settled into the wilderness of the Appalachian Mountain range.

Many started out in Virginia and North Carolina, eventually spreading into north Georgia and east Tennessee.

They were largely poor, humble, and fiercely self-reliant, with an innate distrust of government after decades of fighting the English and Catholics.

This is where Appalachian cultural stereotypes such as family loyalty, rebellion against authority, and passion for self-defense gave rise to the image of hillbillies as wild, reclusive mountain men.

African Americans
Although Appalachia is often thought of as a rural, primarily Caucasian region, African Americans have inhabited the area for hundreds of years. In fact, by 1860 an estimated 10% of the Appalachian region’s population was black.

As white settlers moved into the Appalachian Mountains, so did Africans, both free and enslaved. Elite whites and Cherokee people alike held Africans in enslavement in southern Appalachia, but the mountain landscape did not naturally lend itself to the large plantations of the Deep South.

In fact, the majority of Appalachian people were not slave holders. Folks in what became West Virginia even split off and joined the Union after Virginia voted to join the Confederacy. There was an active Underground Railroad that ran through Appalachia, from Chattanooga north to Pennsylvania.

America’s early pioneer era saw whites, blacks, and Indians all living close together in the Appalachian range. This gave rise in the early 19th century to a multiracial group known as the Melungeons, who had African, European, and Native American ancestry. But the African influence on Appalachia persists even today. The banjo– a stringed instrument central to bluegrass and other forms of Appalachian music– originated in Africa.

The people of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora also introduced foods such as sorghum cane, sweet potatoes, blackeyed peas, watermelon, and peanuts into Appalachian cuisine.

Kentucky-based writer Frank X Walker coined the term “Afrillachia” in the 1990s as a means to bring awareness to the cultural influence of African Americans in Appalachia. And the Black in Appalachia website and podcast are great resources for learning more about this hidden history.

Poverty & Independance
In retrospect, it seemed that the original settlers’ core values of freedom, self-reliance, and a unique inidividual identity eventually put Appalachian people at odds with the advancements of modern life.

Isolation, and a fear of losing touch with their traditional values, led to crippling poverty.

Even in the 1960s and 70s, many people in Appalachia were still living without basic necessities such as electricity or indoor plumbing. Hunger and a lack of basic hygiene were not uncommon.

In 1965, after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “War on Poverty,” the Appalachian Regional Commission was launched.

In retrospect, it seemed that the original settlers’ core values of freedom, self-reliance, and a unique inidividual identity eventually put Appalachian people at odds with the advancements of modern life.

Isolation, and a fear of losing touch with their traditional values, led to crippling poverty.

Appalachian Folklore
Christianity has been the predominant religion in Appalachia ever since European immigration to the area began in the 1700s.

These Christian influences blended with traditional European (i.e. pagan) and Native American spiritual beliefs, creating a unique blend of folklore and mythology in Appalachia.

The Cherokee brought their reverence for nature and knowledge of native plants, herbs, and animals, influencing local practices for centuries. Cherokee folklore influenced Appalachian storytelling in the way it dramatically characterized animals or other inanimate objects in nature.

Old English, Scottish, Irish, and German (see: the Brothers Grimm) fairy tales came from Europe. These fairy tales, combined with regional events, also shaped Appalachian folklore.

There are “Jack Tales,” which usually revolve around a single, hard-working figure. Jack is usually lazy or foolish, but through cleverness and tricks he succeeds in his quest. Some examples of old English Jack Tales are “Jack & the Beanstalk” and “Jack Frost.” In Appalachia, Jack is likely to be a sheriff or a more common man. And, like most Appalachian folklore, these Jack Tales were passed down orally, rather than being written down.

Another popular type of folktale in Appalachia involves regional heroes, such as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Johnny Appleseed, and John Henry.

These stories are based on real figures and events, but they take on folklore status as the stories are exaggerated for dramatic effect.

Murder and stories of the macabre are also popular in Appalachia’s folk ballads. Murderers like John Hardy, victims such as Omie Wise, and specters like the Greenbriar Ghost are all common horrific stories that became lasting oral traditions.

But the most popular Appalachian folktales involve mysterious creatures such as Bigfoot and the Mothman. Both have garnered a wealth of attention, including the 2002 film The Mothman Prophecies, the TV show Finding Bigfoot, and the Expedition Bigfoot Museum near Blue Ridge, GA.

Preserving and canning fruits and vegetables is a major component of Appalachian food culture. As a child I remember going to Asheville every year with my family to get fresh green beans and peaches for making preserves.

It’s also interesting to explore the origins of some common Appalachian cooking staples. Corn, beans, and squash were called “the three sisters” and grown together by Native Americans. Corn grew high, squash closer to the ground, and beans wrapped around the cornstalks.

The Scots-Irish immigrants brought their agricultural practices to make these and other ingredients more widely available. African-Americans brought sorghum cane, sweet potatoes, red peppers, okra, blackeyed peas, watermelon, and peanuts.

What all of these various ethnic groups’ foods have in common are homegrown (or wild foraged) simple, natural ingredients.

If you’re not from the Appalachian region, do yourself a favor and try dishes like Chow Chow, Skillet Cornbread, Chicken & Dumplings, and Country Ham with Red Eye Gravy.

As with everything else, the music of Appalachia is a combination of cultural influences. The high, lonesome yearning of English and Scottish ballads, the uptempo rhythms of Scottish and Irish fiddle music, the rhythmic syncopation of African banjo, and the minor key melancholy of the blues.

Commercial recordings in the 1920s solidified Appalachia’s influence on the bluegrass, country, and folk music now collectively referred to as “Americana.”

Legendary acts like the Carter Family, Fiddlin’ John Carson, Dock Boggs, Jean Ritchie, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, and Fiddlin’ Doc Roberts defined the sound of American folk music that still resonates stronger than ever today.

This music is often accompanied by mountain dancing, which is a mixture of Scottish, Irish, English, and Dutch folk dances combined with African and Native American traditions.

Clogging, flatfoot dancing, and square dancing are three of the more popular dancing styles in Appalachian history. Clogging strictly follows the syncopated rhythms of the music, while flatfoot dancing allows the dancer a bit more freedom of expression.

Square dancing is still very popular in parts of Appalachia today. The only one of these dances that requires a partner, it evolved from ancient social dancing in Europe.

Attempts to preserve these Appalachian cultural traditions began in the 1950s, with the American folk music revival launched by the release of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.

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