Travelers still come to the Ozarks wondering "what happened to the hillbillies?" The image of the poor, illiterate, suspicious, moonshine-swilling mountaineer has been around so long that to outsiders it represents a reality. Generations of writers, humorists, and shopkeepers have kept the image alive, making money from it.
The hillbilly is a caricature---an exaggeration and a distortion of reality---that contains some truth. But the "hillbilly" has no value for someone trying to understand Ozark folklife; the real story of life in the hills is much too complex---and much more interesting. The unflattering image of the Ozark mountaineer began early in the 19th century. To start with, the Ozarks suffered from a general perception of Arkansas as a backwards and violent frontier. Add to that the "Arkansas Traveler" tune, featuring a rough and lazy Arkansas squatter, which became wildly popular across the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. Then in the early 20th century came millions of copies of T. W. Jackson's book On a Slow Train Through Arkansaw, which was full of crude jokes about the hopelessly naive hillbilly.
Radio comedians Lum ‘n Abner and Bob Burns, cartoonist Al Capp, and television programs like The Beverly Hillbillies all poked fun at the Ozarkers and kept the negative image alive. And souvenir shops reinforced it with hillbilly postcards and curios.
Vance Randolph, the premier Ozark folklorist and one of the most serious and prolific collectors of folklore anywhere, made a point to seek out the old-timers in the most far-away places. These are the people he probably had in mind when he wrote in An Ozark Anthology (1940): "These Ozark hillbillies differ from the rest of us only because they have been isolated so long---marooned on their inaccessible hilltops." And in Ozark Superstitions (1947): "The people who live in the Ozark country of Missouri and Arkansas were, until very recently, the most deliberately unprogressive people in the United States."
W.K. McNeil, for many years the folklorist at the Ozark Folk Center and author of several books about folklore in the southern United States, looked at the subject more broadly. He includes town folks and even recent immigrants in the discussion. McNeil wrote in Ozark Country (1995): "Far from being a relatively simple, static phenomenon, Ozark folk culture, like that of any region, is complex and is constantly in a state of flux. . . Ozark folklore provides solid evidence that, while the Ozarks has for much of its human history been geographically isolated, it has not been culturally isolated. Instead, like people everywhere, Ozarkers have been influenced by the culture of other areas, particularly by that of southern Appalachia."
In Hillfolks: A History of Arkansas Ozarkers and Their Image, Brooks Blevins, professor of Ozark Studies at Missouri State University points out that the Ozarks are still a place of paradox and change: “The Ozark region produced Orval Faubus and J. William Fulbright. It is the home of Fayetteville and Hemmed-in Holler, of Mountain Home and Mt. Judea. It is a former domain of the crossroads merchant and the birthplace of Wal-Mart. It has inspired images of backwardness and bucolic innocence, which in turn have spawned Dogpatch, USA and the Ozark Folk Center. It has been vacated by thousands of its children in poverty and despair and coveted by thousands of others for its beauty, serenity, and isolation.”