Deep Revolution in the Arkansas Ozarks: Phillips Discusses ‘Hipbillies’
Hello. Welcome to Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast from the University of Arkansas. My name is DeLani Bartlette. On this episode, Jared Phillips, instructor of international studies in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, discusses his upcoming book, Hipbillies: Deep Revolution in the Arkansas Ozarks, published by the University of Arkansas Press. Welcome, Jared.
DB: Who were the Hipbillies, and why the Ozarks?
JP: Yeah, two good questions! So the Hipbillies are back-to-the-landers, and so they’re a subset of the broader counter-culture from the 60s and early to mid-70s, and by and large they are pretty well educated. They tend to be coming from urban areas, and they just go to the country, anyway, across the across the United States, they go to the rural spaces. And a part of that is because they want to get just away from the chaos of urban life, and then a part of it is because they never gave up on the ideals of the counter-cultural revolution, like to change the political system and the economic system and get out of Vietnam and whatever.
But they became disillusioned with the methods that they had been using in the 60s; the protests weren’t working, basically, and so they needed to refigure how we do this, how do we approach the revolution? And so they go back to the land. The second part of that, why the Ozarks? That’s a good question because there’s not a straight answer for it. I think (and I’m a little biased because I’m a native Ozarker) but I think it’s because it’s better than everywhere else, but that’s not necessarily true I guess. But for some it’s proximity; they’re just closer to it. It’s easier to get here than it is to California if you’re in Austin or Chicago or whatever. Some of it is, comparatively speaking, the land here was really cheap, and so that was enticing. You’ve got a bunch of, you know, broke college kids, just like we have today, that want to go buy a farm.
DB: So what drew you to this topic of writing about these back-to-the-lander hippies? Do you have some connection with that?
JP: Yeah. So you know, I grew up here, and I’ve, you know, been hearing stories off and on my whole life about these country hippies and field hippies or whatever you call them, and all they did was they showed up, they would stay up for a couple of months or a year, they’d run around naked or high, and once the chiggers came out or once the water moccasins came out, they’d get scared off and run back to the city. Because I grew up here, I knew some of their kids, and I knew some of the other ones, and so I knew that at least a part of that story wasn’t true. And then as I got older, my wife and I, when we were still living in Fayetteville, we had a bunch of our neighbors were about members of the back-to-the-land community. And then our landlord was a member of the back-to-the-land community. And I got to thinking, like well, all these awful stories I’ve heard about these people growing up, but they’re just not true. These are wonderful people. And so I got on the way and decided I was going to, you know, write something, and write an article, and then it turned into a book.
DB: You did mention that the story line goes that as soon as times got hard, that they ran away, but there had to have been some real challenges. What were some of the challenges that these Hipbillies faced, and how did they overcome them, if they did?
JP: So one of the very first challenges that they’ve got – a lot of them, not all of them, but most of most of them have to face – is they don’t know anything. They know how to live in a suburban world, but they don’t know how to live in a rural world, much less an Ozark, like hardscrabble, kind of world. And so they have to learn really quickly how they’re going to do everything from build a house to plant – not much, not even like a cash crop farm, but just a garden – how do you deal? How do you castrate cattle? How do you shear a sheep? If you’re going to know all these different things And so those nuts and bolts of an agricultural lifestyle – that if you’re a multi-generation farm family, they’re passed on – it’s sort of enculturated in them from the moment you can walk, you know: how to close the gate, how to build, which side of the fence post does the wire go on, you know, things like that you just pick up as you go. They have to learn all that stuff on the fly and in a really short, you know, one, two, three years down the time. And so for a lot of them that’s the immediate challenge. Now the cool thing about them is that they, because they walk into the Ozarks at a really unique moment, they’re able to take advantage of a couple of resources to help with that. One, this is the 60s and 70s, and so this is the era of Mother Earth News; this is the era of the Whole Earth Catalog and a whole bunch of other publications, national and local, that I talk about in the book that are trying to help answer some of these like the book side of the questions like when do you plant how do you deal with fertilizer, what’s a soil test, like all that kind of stuff. So old-school hill farmers, while they don’t necessarily understand or approve of the lifestyle of these back-to-the-landers – they don’t approve of the drug use, they don’t understand why you try to operate a tractor naked or anything like that (all valid concerns if you’re living in the backcountry) – they see a group of people that want to learn skills from them that nobody else wants to learn: how do you milk a cow by hand? How do you build a fence? How do you do things without mechanizing to an absurdly large degree? So there’s this local knowledge that the back-to-the-land community wants, and so they get this help from the books, they get this help from the magazines, and they get this help from the local community.
DB: What about, there was some sort of conflict. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
JP: So the conflict, the stories of conflict, are way overblown. Like when you read articles in the Democrat-Gazette or whatever that kind of like trot out hippies every now and then as a like a relic, a zoo relic of the past, then there’s always this conversation about a mythic, like, “they are always at odds” and every other hippy was burnt out by these backwoods Ozarkers or whatever. That happens, but it’s so very much almost tangential to the rest of that how that community operates. And again, you’ve got to remember that the conflict is not usually between Ozark farmers that live on the same dirt road as much as it is between the people that are moving into the retirement communities outside of Mountain Home or outside of Eureka Springs or whatever. But by and large it’ll be a conflict born of early misunderstanding that then turns into a kind of amusement, and a level of, well, kind of traditional Ozark respect: you do your thing, I’m gonna do my thing, like we’ll work together when we need to, but we don’t have to approve of each other to live in a rural community, to live in a rural space. We can find a way to have that balance. And that’s what we see really emerging for the most part.
DB: So the height of this hipbilly phenomenon, this was what, about 40 years ago? So are there any parts of this deep revolution that maybe we’re still seeing now, or that we might see now?
JP: Yeah. Absolutely. If you go to Walmart and buy organic food, then there you go. What I try to do in the book is to kind of remind readers that the back-to-the-land community in the Ozarks was not insulated, they were not isolated, they were a part of a national and international conversation. They don’t just stay here in the Ozarks. And so with that, what we know is that the back-to-the-land community writ large, not just here but writ large, has got an impact on how consumers think about food, how consumers think about the sourcing of products, the type of materials that your products are made out of. I mean we wouldn’t have ONF, you know, Ozark Natural Foods without them. We wouldn’t have a sustained farmers market without them. You’ve got organic food; you’ve got alternative practices for medicine and spirituality. Things like midwifery have come back, you know, they’re legal again in the state – they weren’t legal when the back-to-the-land community came here. And that’s a common story across the country. So you see these small cultural things across the land. You wouldn’t have seen a success of somebody like Bernie Sanders, I think, on the national stage had you not had that 30-40 years of incubation of these ideals of community, of agrarianism, of class, of caring about your community, you know, as a root place of identity.
DB: I appreciate you talking with me.
JP: No problem. Easy.
DB: Thanks so much.
DB: Music for Short Talks From the Hill was written and performed by Ben Harris, guitar instructor at the University of Arkansas. For more information and additional podcasts go to kuaf.com or researchfrontiers.uark.edu, the home of research news at the University of Arkansas.