Once upon a time the First Baptist Church of Rutherfordton, North Carolina called Wednesday night prayer meeting an hour earlier so everybody could get home to watch The Beverly Hillbillies. Rutherfordton lies at the foot of the Blue Ridge and was the center of the gold mining industry from 1790 to 1848.

It has maintained a population of about 3000 since the the 1930s. My friend, Jill grew up there. Her people are the stuff of Robert Morgan novels. Of The Beverly Hillbillies, she said, "We didn't know we were being demeaned. All we knew was there was finally somebody on TV who sounded like us."

Across the mountains, about 300 miles west of Rutherfordton, in suburban Nashville, the Hill children got bathed and jammied early so we wouldn't miss a minute of the Hillbillies. Our daddy particularly loved the shows when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs appeared. From the Grand Ole Opry to Hollywood. Imagine that. I guess we didn't know we were being demeaned either.

The Beverly Hillbillies has been kicking up a ruckus for about forty years now. Northern critics hated it. Jack Gould of The New York Times said it had enough "twanging guitar, polka-dot gingham, deliberate drawl, prolific cousins, and rural no-think to make each half hour seem like sixty minutes." Southern scholars didn't like it any better. James Branscome said the Southern sitcoms of the sixties had to be "the most intensive effort ever exerted by a nation to belittle, demean, and otherwise destroy a minority people within its boundaries." The Beverly Hillbillies is thought to perpetuate the stereotype that Southerners, particularly highland Southerners, are stupid, lazy, gullible, crude, moonshine guzzling no account fools.

Now I'm oversensitive to anybody picking on the South, particularly Appalachia. I think a lot of American entertainment, especially TV, is silly and stupid. I bristle to think of the truth in "a sucker is born every minute." I hate the greed and consumption our society extols. Yet, I'm not sure The Beverly Hillbillies is as bad as all that. Besides, people loved it, particularly people in the South. Were we as stupid as the stereotype suggests? In its ten-year run, The Beverly Hillbillies was always in the top 20 most-watched shows, usually in the top 10, and often #1. It has been in syndication since the 1970s. Can 90 million people be wrong? Well, yeah. They can also be onto something.

She found images that connect the hillbilly fool on back to Bible times. They are "mockers, truth-tellers, and mirrors of culture, subversive identities that overlap and intertwine."

She suggests that perhaps the reason a lot of Southerners and Appalachians buy into the perceived lazy hillbilly stereotype is because they "get the joke." The hillbilly takes his ease while all around him are working but to what end? Riches and glitter do not delude him. He remains himself.

It's possible that Americans watched The Beverly Hillbillies because they were malicious and mean-spirited and loved to see their "inferiors" ridiculed and conned week after week, year after year. It's possible that millions of Americans had the IQ of Jethro Bodine and couldn't do any better than think the Clampetts were funny. It's possible that their boorish sensibilities made them incapable of understanding anything better although they seemed to understand comedies like The Dick Van Dyke Show well enough.

According to Total Television, the eight most widely watched half-hour programs of all time are episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies. Every last one of them was aired during the first three months of 1964, in the wake of President Kennedy's assassination.

Time went on and things got both wonderful and weird. Millions of Americans cared enough to go to Washington DC and gather around to hear a black man from Georgia tell about his dream. Massive boycotts were behind him, the Nobel Prize and his own murder yet to come. The kids stopped cutting their hair and came home looking funny around the eyes. They started marching around shouting stuff like "Hell No We Won't Go!" Abbreviations like "DMZ" and "LSD" were bandied like words. People wanted to get naked in public and have babies only if they wanted them. Horrible pictures of terrified kids from a place called Vietnam kept emerging. In the middle of it all, men walked on the moon. Then there was Watergate.

Through it all, people watched The Beverly Hillbillies. Who could blame them for wanting to escape? Maybe it wasn't escape at all. Maybe people sought comfort and guidance. Far removed from everything they'd ever known, the Clampetts never lost their sense of self or the knowledge of what was important to them. They cherished and respected each other. They were loyal to their friends. Week after week they demonstrated the old psychotherapeutic adage, "you can't control what happens to you, you can only control your response to it." As Faulkner might say, they endured.

If the characters of Granny, Jed, Jethro, and Elly May are one-dimensional, so be it. If you think about it, none of the characters in our mythologies are fully drawn. That's not their purpose. Their purpose is to entertain and enlighten, to teach us about ourselves. After forty years, the Hillbillies are surely part of our national mythology. They gave a face to Appalachia, and it wasn't necessarily a negative one. Those were the years of the Great Society when government reached into Appalachia and tried to help it pull itself from its poverty. VISTA came into the mountains like the Peace Corps went overseas.

Things got better. It wouldn't have happened without the people's consent.


©Copyright 2005 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.