by Donald D. Erwin
We’ve all heard redneck jokes. There are undoubtedly thousands of them. To understand why they tend to proliferate, and why "redneck," once a derogatory term, is now often used as a badge of honor, we need to know something of its history.
There are several theories regarding how the label came about. Some believe that it originated in the South, and was used as a way of describing poor whites that had a red neck as the result of working outdoors over the course of their lifetime. Similarly, some historians claim that the term redneck originated in seventeenth-century Virginia, and applied to indentured servants who were sunburned while tending plantation crops. There is substantial evidence, however, that the term originated in the 1600s in Scotland during the time of the “Covenanters,” and came to the Colonies with the Scots and the “Scotch-Irish” immigrants.
By the early 1600s most Scots had grown tired of three hundred years of resistance to English rule, even though their hatred of the English had not diminished at all. When Queen Elizabeth I of England died, James VI of Scotland was declared the rightful heir to the throne and was crowned James I of England in March 1603. There was some uneasiness in Scotland, but no real resistance and the two nations were thus merged without a shot having been fired. It probably helped that during the reign of James as King of both Scotland and England the two nations retained separate parliaments. They passed their own laws and had their own law courts. They had their own national church, their own ways of levying taxes and regulating trade, and to a certain extent, they could pursue their own foreign policies.
Much of this freedom changed when James died in 1625, and his son Charles succeeded him as Charles I. One of the first things Charles did was decree that he was head of the church, something a large percentage of the population of Scotland refused to accept. This, and the changes that he proposed, resulted in a state of civil unrest, bordering on rebellion.
But in order to understand the situation one needs to know something about the origin of the crises. Scotland, at that time, was practically two distinct nations. There was a huge division between the Highland and Lowland Scots. James had attempted to persuade the Highland clan chiefs to adopt the Protestant faith, but they blatantly ignored his efforts. They clung to the military habits of their ancestors, their Roman Catholic heritage, and continued to use the Gaelic tongue when most of Scotland had abandoned it in favor of English. James was equally ineffective in the Lowlands, but for a different reason. The Lowland Scots, although primarily Protestants (a large percentage were devout members of the Scottish Presbyterian Church), resented James’ efforts to merge their faith with the already state-dominated Episcopalian Church. But Charles I was determined to bring all of the churches in Scotland and England under his rule. His solution was to do it by decree, an extremely controversial move which provoked outrage north of
the border. His ultimate plan was to have one government-sponsored church, one in which all Bishops were appointed by the crown. First, however, he planned to forcefully introduce the “Book of Common Prayer” into all Scottish church services, Catholic as well as Presbyterian. This took some time to accomplish, and it was not until July 23, 1637 that the new liturgy, which many Lowland Scots believed to be more Catholic than Protestant, was ordered to be read for the first time in Scotland at the Church of St. Giles in Edinburgh.
Charles’ decree required that all Scots sign a covenant pledging conversion to the state religion. Many refused to sign, effectively signing their own death warrant. The dissenters were labeled “Covenanters,” and believed that only Jesus Christ could make such a command. Charles made examples of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dissenters by public hangings. Of course many did eventually sign, although reluctantly, especially those who could be threatened by a loss of position or property.
Some dissenters signed the pledge tongue-in-check so-to- speak. Though true Covenanters, they signed in their own blood, and wore pieces of red cloth around their necks as a distinctive insignia, hence the term “red neck,” which became slang for a Scottish dissenter. Many of this group, who were largely Lowland Presbyterians, eventually joined the non-signers who had fled Scotland for Ulster in Northern Ireland.
Since many Ulster-Scottish settlers in America, who came to be known as “Scotch-Irish,” were Presbyterian, the term was applied to them as well as to their descendants. A large percentage of this group settled in the South. One of the earliest examples of its use comes from 1830, when an author noted that ... “red-neck” was a “name bestowed upon the Presbyterians.”
By the time of the final departure of Federal troops from the American South following the Civil War—about 1878—the term redneck had worked its way into popular usage, being used to refer to an uneducated white farm laborer, especially from the South. Several blackface minstrel shows of the period used the word in a derogatory manner, comparing slave life over that of the poor rural whites.
The disruptions of the Civil War (1861-65), the sudden freedom at the end of it, and the Reconstruction period that followed, mired African Americans in a poverty that was, in some cases, worse than slavery, but it also dragged large numbers of poor whites into a similar abyss. Although freed slaves fared the worst, many poor whites had a “hard row to hoe” as well.
Sharecropping and tenant farming trapped families—black as well as white—for generations, as did emerging industries, which paid low wages and imposed company-town restrictions. Many of these groups became objects of ridicule. Sometimes the whites responded angrily and even viciously, often lashing out at blacks in mis-directed retaliation, but this is another story. Destitute whites were increasingly labeled “poor white trash” and worse. Terms such as “cracker,” “clay eater,” “peckerwood,” and “redneck” only scratched the surface of rejection and slander. Northerners and foreigners quickly added these derogatory terms to their vocabulary, but the greatest hostility to poor whites came from fellow Southerners, usually upper-class whites.
All forms of news dissemination, no matter what the form, have always made a point of stressing the negative. It was no different in the 1700s and 1800s, but it was modern media, starting with radio in 1920s, early movies in the 1930s, and then television following WW2, that were able to reach huge audiences. Newspapers and periodicals, as well as individual fictional authors, also belittled the so-called rednecks. All of these share the bulk of the responsibility for the put-down of poor people, white as well as black.
As time passed the view of poor white Southerners grew more and more negative. The use of redneck, as a derogative term, to belittle the working class, helped in the gradual process of disenfranchisement of most of the Southern lower class whites. There was a concurrent put-down of poor Southern blacks, but again, this is another story.
Redneck, in modern usage, predominately refers to a stereotype of people who may be found in many regions of the United States. Although the stereotype of poor whites in the early twentieth century was exaggerated and even grotesque, the problem of poverty was real enough. Whites from the Deep South, Appalachia and the Ozarks had less money, less education, and poorer health than white Americans in general. Only Southern blacks were in worse economic straits. By the 1920s and 1930s things were even worse. The boll weevil, along with the Great Depression, devastated the South’s agricultural base and economy.
It was a difficult era for the already disadvantaged poor. The so-called rednecks had always made unlicensed spirits, and during Prohibition they escalated their production and bootlegging of moonshine whisky. To deliver it, and avoid law-enforcement, cars were “souped-up” to create a more maneuverable and faster vehicle. Many of the original stock car race drivers were former bootleggers. Their efforts to out-fox the “revenuers” soon became folk legends, and they were, or at least they were perceived to be, rednecks.
But – as the saying goes – times change. The post-WW2 prosperity of the New South changed the social status of the redneck. Many jumped on the bandwagon of upward mobility, which required dropping or modifying a regional accent and joining the mainstream. Of course exceptions were made for politicians and college football coaches, for whom a drawl was still required for regional credibility.
A half-century later we find that the redneck has evolved again. Continuing good times has allowed them to make good use of their new prosperity, yet cling to, or in some cases revert back to, the old ways of their fathers and grandfathers. Now, feeling relatively secure, they embrace the façade of a rebel, and the new counterculture. And, instead of trying to imitate the bland speech of the national networks, they tend to accentuate their regional accents. Even a few transplanted “Yankees” emulate the redneck, “...an individual that is what he is, and doesn’t give a damn what anybody thinks.”
Since the beginning of radio, entertainers have traded on the redneck stereotype for humor as a means to bond with their audiences. Stars like Minnie Pearl used homespun comedy as much as music to create a lasting persona, and sophisticated and intelligent musicians like Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt appeared on shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies, lending credence to broad humor about uncomplicated rural Americans.
National shows, such as The Grand Ole Opry and Buck Owens’ Hee-Haw, helped change the image of rednecks as well, and they were undoubtedly instrumental in initiating an “in-your-face” attitude within the redneck community. Some musicians who toured the country in tailored suits were put on stage in overalls surrounded by hay bales when they appeared on the television show Hee-Haw. According to James C. Cobb, a history professor at the University of Georgia, the redneck comedian “provided a rallying point for bourgeois and lower-class whites alike. With his front-porch humor and politically outrageous statements, the redneck comedian created an illusion of white equality across classes.”
Today professed rednecks can be found in every state, and in just about every community, but there are several areas where large groups of rednecks live outside of their traditional ranges. One is Bakersfield, California and the surrounding area. There was a mass migration west during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. Their destination was California, and they were seeking better lives for themselves and their families. Many only got as far as Bakersfield. John Steinbeck wrote about those times in his fictional work, The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939.
In the 1950s, Bakersfield country musicians such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard helped develop a unique country music style called the “Bakersfield sound” that helped emphasize the redneck image. Their influence was so great that Bakersfield is now second only to Nashville in country music fame, and the area continues to produce and influence country music artists. Most nationally-known country-western personalities routinely perform at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, which is also a Mecca for rednecks and redneck wannabes.
In the 1990s, Jeff Foxworthy, a comedian who grew up in Atlanta drawled, “You might be a redneck if...” Those few words jump-started his new career, and spawned a new culture. In 1993 Warner Brothers released a record of his routines using those words as a title, and it went on to sell over four million copies. Foxworthy wasn’t just needling folks who had ever “fought over an inner tube.” In one of his stand-up routines he summed up the condition of being a redneck as “a glorious absence of sophistication.” According to columnist Bryan Curtis, “Foxworthy was also preaching to the newly minted white middle class, those who had ditched the pickup for an Audi and their ancestral segregation for affirmative action.” Jerry Clower, and many other comedians, jumped on the redneck bandwagon, accentuating the redneck sub-culture.
Our Erwin ancestors in Scotland and Northern Ireland were persecuted as religious non-conformists, and our forbears fought the Bloody English in the Revolutionary War the War of 1812. They fought on both sides during the Civil War, sometimes brother against brother. Families also feuded, sometimes having forgotten what the original problem or insult was that caused the fracas in the first place.
In some cases the marriage relationship between families was so close that before a young man could court a young lady an elder had to be consulted to be sure the relationship wasn’t too close. After all, a young lady didn’t want to “...marry my own grandpa.” These, and other situations, were the basis for jokes and ballads about rednecks and their backward ways.
But we rednecks have now come one-hundred-eighty degrees from the post-Civil War days. Today, instead of being offended by a redneck joke, we tell them on ourselves. During the Dust Bowl days it was considered an insult to be called an “Okie” or an “Arkie” and other such regional labels. No more. Today, people of all backgrounds are proud of their humble roots, and doubly proud of their parents and grandparents for having endured the adverse times and conditions.
Even so, the term redneck is often misunderstood by people who live north of the Mason-Dixon line and out West. Many still treat the word as if it were some kind of insult. They don’t realize that it has evolved into an in-your-face badge of pride, and in some cases, a term of endearment. A true redneck – and even a redneck wannabe – understands that achieving the State of Redneck is a noble pursuit.
Our Erwin roots are also in the “Redneck South,” since a number of our eighteenth and nineteenth century relatives settled below the Mason Dixon Line. The Scots-Irish tradition of disregarding formal education and mistrusting, even despising, any form of aristocracy has given us the group of people the elites love to hate – the uncompromising and in-your-face Southern redneck. He is an easy target, with his stubbornness, his capacity for violence and his curious social ways. His 1800s reputation is a continued target for derision because his culture became the dominant one in the South, where the economic system was based on slavery. No matter that the English aristocrats were slavery’s instigators and principal beneficiaries, or that the Scots-Irish common-person usually had no slaves.
The Southern redneck’s culture is – in large part – based on guns and the philosophy of the National Rifle Association. He considers the Second Amendment sacrosanct, and subscribes wholeheartedly to Charleton Heston’s famous statement, “From my cold dead hands...” Liberal and academic Americans see such views as archaic and threatening, and would like to see America totally disarmed, much like England and Scotland are today. The things that the redneck is known for aren’t those of the people that run our universities, or of most of the judges that interpret our rights and laws that were set down for us by the founders of our country. While we must be careful not to drift towards the radical skinhead culture, we (I’m speaking now to my children and grandchildren) can nevertheless be proud that it will undoubtedly be people of our ilk – including the Southern redneck – who will struggle, and even fight, to keep our country safe.
The Scots-Irish emigrants were a fiercely independent and individualistic group of people. Their struggles to survive and prosper in the Piedmont area of the Carolinas during the 1700s, and later on the frontiers of the South and West – including even the great Dustbowl migration of the 1930s – made them an important part of the backbone of America. We, as their descendants, can be justly proud that we are part of that culture. »»»