Excerpt: The Encyclopedia of Appalachia The Encyclopedia of Appalachia.

Excerpt: The Encyclopedia of Appalachia

An 1800-page list of the terms, people and places of Appalachia. hide caption

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The hillbilly is the dominant icon of Appalachia. Asked to list images related to Appalachia, those with limited knowledge of the region inevitably cite the hillbilly. Worldwide, the hillbilly image is consistently a lanky, black-bearded, white male who lives in a cabin in the mountains with an outhouse out back. He wears a battered slouch hat, totes a shotgun and a jug of moonshine, and holds little regard for the law, work, cleanliness, or book learning. He has loose morals and is decidedly dangerous. The word hillbilly is believed to have first appeared in print in the United States in 1900 in a New York Journal article describing the "hill-billie" as "a free and untrammelled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him." In the 1930s, the icon was solidified through the hillbilly characters of Paul Webb's Mountain Boys cartoons in Esquire magazine, Al Capp's Li'l Abner, and Billy DeBeck's Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. These characters and their cartoon-world antics forever etched the hillbilly caricature into popular culture.

Festivals, Folk

The modern folk festival was born in Appalachia. Although the term folk festival had been used previously for a few cultural display events, it became fully established in the national consciousness when four prominent festivals were created between 1928 and 1934. The first three, the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, the American Folk Song Festival held near Ashland, Kentucky, and the White Top Folk Festival in southwest Virginia, all focused on Euro-American, Appalachian culture. Only the last, the National Folk Festival, was not held initially in Appalachia and was not monocultural in content.

Birth Lore

Appalachian lore about the reproductive cycle has been at its core an oral tradition held by women, and its overriding theme is the mortality of mother and child. Birth lore is an expansive category of folk belief and practice related to fertility, conception, abortion, pregnancy, birth, infancy, and the supernatural. Most of these beliefs cannot be tracked to an original source; rather, they are often a mixture of European tradition, Native American practices, and African slave culture. Beliefs vary regionally, reflecting concentrations of Scots-Irish, German, and Dutch settlements, though some themes are recurrent. Kinship within Appalachia is strong and vividly represented by the community of women who come together during the birth of a child. Historically, and even at times in contemporary Appalachia, rural childbirth practices have included not only the presence of a midwife or attending doctor, but also women who tend to household needs before, during, and after the birth of the child. Men can also play important roles in this process, even in some communities in the past filling the role of the midwife, but most birth lore beliefs and practices are passed down through generations in the community of women.

Dried Apple Stack Cake

The dried apple stack cake is a distinctive southern Appalachian cake. Called by names such as apple stack cake, Confederate old-fashioned stack cake, and Kentucky pioneer washday cake, the apple stack cake is many layered, low in fat, and not sweet. It is made with layers of stiff cookielike dough flavored with ginger and sorghum and spread with a sweet, spiced apple filling. When served, the cake is tall, heavy, and moist.


Just as the word Appalachia is generally pronounced Ap-pa-LATCH-a in the southern mountains, but more commonly Ap-pa-LAY-cha in the rest of the country, so too is there some dispute over the origin of the name given to the region. Legend has it that Hernando de Soto or members of his 1539 expedition named the Appalachian Mountains. Surviving accounts of the de Soto expedition, however, offer no evidence that the conquistador or his companions intended to designate the eastern mountain chain for the Apalachee Indians, whom they encountered far to the south in what is now northern Florida. The first European contact with the Apalachee had been made by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca's expedition in 1528 in the vicinity of Tampa Bay, Florida. One derivation of the name argues that in the Muscogee language apala means "great sea," and combined with the personal participle chi, apalache means "those by the sea."

Colonial Survivals in Appalachian Speech

Contrary to the popular view that it is Shakespearean in character, Appalachian folk speech is much closer to the language of colonial America. It has preserved a record of colonial speech unequaled in any other American region, largely due to Appalachia's relative physical isolation during much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Differing agreement patterns between subject and verb (as in "We went to hunt for the horses which was lost"; "Snails is large and common"; and "Two files was demanded by the Indians"), which were once standard usage in the north of England and in the Scottish Lowlands, were also common in the writings of colonial America. Such constructions appeared in the speech of Appalachian natives well after their disappearance from mainstream American English.