August 18, 2018
Growing up in Louisa – Superstitions & Hillbillies
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
I don’t know why the good folks from the backwoods are stereotyped as slow or stupid. Painting everyone with a wide brush is always ill-advised, and totally not fair. Frankly, some of the very smartest people I’ve known have come from simple, rural surroundings. Examples of what I mean are all around, on TV, in the movies, and in cartoons. It’s done for ‘fun,’ I guess, but it isn’t nice. Intellect has no direct relationship with socio-economic heritage. Intelligence as we understand it may rise from genetic and environmental conditions, but to suggest automatically that someone is dumb based on their slowness of speech could be very much misapplied. Also, not knowing something is not the same as being unable to absorb knowledge. People we may have thought to be a little dim, prove us wrong every day. That’s worth celebrating. That diversity in people is what in the end makes us strong.
I admit that it is fun to listen to Andy Griffith’s ‘What it was, was football,’ It is too cute. The point wasn’t that he was stupid, but just out of his environment. Often, his meaningful shows about Mayberry and the family of good people that define the characters as honest, but not too smart. In the show Beverly Hillbillies even Jed Clampett with his lack of sophistication surprises us with his excellent understanding of human nature. However, to emphasize my point, the audience is exposed to the thinking that life to those back hill folks is subject to dark, unseen forces. For example, Granny loved to conjure up a bit of black magic in her elixirs, tonics, and spells. We all laughed, but we accepted the idea that she was clueless.
Another prime example of backwoods imaging was the Darling family who rode into Mayberry on their old truck, musical instruments in hand. The ‘boy’s’ deadpan looks intentionally gave the viewer the idea that none of them was too swift. Regardless, they certainly were believers of superstitions and ‘country lore.’ Of course, this is a TV show and is meant to be funny, but it still stereo-types people. Sometimes you don’t know if you should laugh or be offended. I think most of us find it easier to brush it off and enjoy the comedy.
When I was growing up I watched Amos & Andy, where Kingfish tried to manipulate others to his advantage, but the show was actually stereotyping and painting another group of people with that same wide brush. You see, it wasn’t just the hillbilly that was maligned, but all of us. We watched the stupid ideas flowing out from Archie Bunker and George Jefferson alike. This show differed by pointing out that prejudices themselves are wrong. We laughed, but understood. We saw the evils of classifying people and showing us that this kind of thinking still exists around us in various forms.
To tie the idea of prejudice and superstition together, a more recently filmed TV show that I enjoyed watching is Monk. The great detective has serious obsessive-compulsive behaviors. He is shown having to touch things even when in dangerous circumstances. One behavior shows him walking on a sidewalk and avoiding stepping on the cracks. (Step on a crack and break your mother’s back.) I knew this silly belief even in my preschool days! Sure, the actor is playing a fictional character who is full of fear and unable to cope with life, but to a degree we all have these or other ‘feelings’ or beliefs. Monk is a hero, but has his problems. At least he is not a hillbilly. Hurrah!
I remember seeing my mom toss a pinch of salt over her shoulder when any were spilled. She avoided walking under ladders. The adults repeated that breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck. I guess that’s beyond the cost of replacing the mirror. My mother would not go out of a different door than the one she entered through, or raise an umbrella in the house.
I look around at the world and see that superstitions aren’t just the domain of hillbillies, but to various degrees belong to everyone. I remember playing baseball and being careful to keep the baseball bats straight because if was ‘bad luck if any crossed.’ Just a weekend ago in the Little League World Series that one of the players wore the same socks to every game. Another player ate the same snack before every game. Kids and pro-football players handle mascots and wear ‘rally’ hats. It makes me wonder if that Indian ‘tomahawk’ sign really helps win games. Talk about mass hysteria!
I expect that kind of thinking goes back to the earliest days of man. It was common back in the dark ages to believe in dark forces such as vampires or a mummy rising from the dead to seek revenge. Today’s movies are rich with Zombies and people with super powers. In colonial times ‘witch hunts’ haunted this country. Numbers of innocents were killed.
I know people that still seem to catalogue in their minds the things that reputed to cause bad luck. We all wonder about causes and effects. We see bad luck as some kind of punishment from upon high. In looking back I would agree that some of these things could put a person at risk, but not because of the saying. When an otherwise intelligent adult becomes uncomfortable on Friday the 13th, they are demonstrating what may be a natural feeling born in us all. Sadly, this kind of thing can create disrespect, which leads to stereotyping.
So you think you’re not superstitious? How about that ritual of blowing out the candles on a birthday cake in one puff ‘hoping’ the birthday wish will come true. Disney teaches us to ‘wish upon a star’ and to ‘believe in Tinker Bell.’ We throw coins in the fountain while bridesmaids toss their bouquet. I’ve heard several ‘black cat’ tales that suggest if they cross your path you’ll have bad luck. There’s also the idea of a dead cat and words recited in the cemetery at midnight, had certain effects. Was it removing warts or instilling a curse? Are chimney sweeps lucky? How about those lucky four-leaf clovers? Is there a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? I’ve heard that picking up a coin discovered on the ground can bring good or bad luck depending on whether it was showing ‘heads’ or ‘tails.’ Burning ears means someone is talking about you or an itching nose means company is coming.
Filling stations and novelty stores used to sell rabbits feet for good luck, but I don’t see that as much these days. I am thinking this wasn’t lucky for the rabbit. We used to hang horse-shoes over barn doors but took care they were not hung up-side-down, else, the luck would run out. When I was involved in theater we would all say to one another just before the curtain, “Break a leg” rather than saying ‘good luck.’ It is considered bad luck to say ‘good luck.’ Go figure.
There’s many, many more. It is likely you have some of your own, since human nature is prone to wonder about such things. Fun is fun, but we must be careful we don’t cross the line. There’s not enough time in life to worry about every little thing. Neither do we have to defend ourselves for being a hillbilly. Superstitions aren’t about being a hillbilly, silly, but about being human. Good luck with that.