Hillbilly Heaven in Chicago
June 16, 2013 4:35 PM   Subscribe

Chicago's hillbilly culture may come as a surprise. The great migration of African Americans from the South to Chicago is, of course, widely known and well documented; their impact on the south and west sides continues to be clear. The lesser known and somewhat later stream of white Southerners ("hillbillies" for short, though that's a pejorative, of course) had a big impact on the city's north side.

This group was not well received, but was resilient and pragmatic; why were they here? They could not make a living down South, just like everybody else.
posted by JimInLoganSquare (25 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I went to Carol's pub many times in the late 90s and early 2000s. It had a good feel to it, and reminded me of the rural bars we had out in southwest PA and northern West Virgina. It actually felt rather homey, in a "good times but watch your step" kind of way, at least until the other bars closed for the night and the "scene kids" would arrive to fill up on irony as much as alcohol, and would dampen the mood. There always seemed to be three to five old Polish guys sitting around every time I was there, smiling, dancing, and drinking, and were thoroughly fun to hang out with, no matter how well they spoke English or how well I understood Polish. It was a little taste of back home in the midst of Chicago.
posted by chambers at 5:32 PM on June 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

They were called hillbillies basically because they weren't just Southerners, they were Appalachians (and were called hillbilly by other Southerns, as well). The article does state as much of their region of origin, though it's kind of misleading to use the blanket term Southerner when Appalachians is a much more accurate and accessible description.

The migration out of the mountains went in all directions. My parents left coal mining country to attend college and pursue careers in Virginia, as did a number of their friends, but they also had high school classmates (and cousins) who did move to the industrial cities of the north or west (like Pittsburgh).

Thanks for the article. I thought it was a poignant remark that they suffered a "one generation" problem, as their children only had to drop their parents' accents and they would almost immediately begin to fit in with the locals, something that African Americans would never be able to do so easily.
posted by Atreides at 5:32 PM on June 16, 2013 [8 favorites]

Hillbilly also includes the Ozarks in Arkansas, right? Anyway, that is nitpicking; you are correct that not every Southerner is a hillbilly! FWIW, my family includes a branch of arguably hillbillies from eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, and even a mining town called Corko, West Virginia that no longer exists. Their assimilation into the North was slower and more complicated than a simple migration to get a job within a single generation. My brother and I are the first in our family to settle in Chicago; he did so to obtain a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and I did so as a big-firm environmental lawyer. I have an unironic appreciation for the remnants of hillbilly culinary culture here in Chicago; one of my favorites, the Two Way Grill (Elston and Pulaski) just recently closed up. Don't know where I can get a fresh biscuit for less than $2.50/per hipster place prices now.
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 5:47 PM on June 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Two unbelievably amazing books on related topics:

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of American's Great Migration, and

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.

Both have been recommended on metafilter before, but if you haven't read them and you find this stuff interesting, please check them out. I am actually doing a little dance in my seat with excitement at the idea of someone else reading them, they were that interesting.

Also, this reminds me of something a white, 70-something coworker of mine once told me. I'm from Michigan, he's from Mississippi, and we both were in northern VA at the time. He said when he was a boy, so many of his neighbors moved north to find work that he actually believed Detroit was somewhere near Jackson, Miss. He rattled off the names of some Detroit-area country music stations that are still in existence. I don't remember the names of the stations -- I never listened to them and until that moment, I had always wondered who did.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:20 PM on June 16, 2013 [11 favorites]

Being from the deep south, I expect to have hamhocks and black eyed peas on New Year's. They're good (if you were raised to like them) but they're also a For luck thing. When I lived in Boston for a couple of years, the only actual born-there-grew-up-there Bostonians I knew who wanted hamhocks and black eyed peas on New Year's were all black.
posted by jfuller at 6:45 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I lived in this neighborhood during the early 90s and spent more evenings than I can count at the (erstwhile) Crystal Diner on the northwest corner of Irving Park and Sheridan.

The food was cheap, the service was very friendly, and the jukebox was straight out of Waffle House. But the best thing about the place was that they had a secret 'Hillbilly Menu' that I found out about accidentally when I asked my waitress one day about a dish a fellow patron was eating. It turns out that waffles with hot sauce and cream gravy were a big seller on the special menu. And at $1.75, why not?
posted by yellowcandy at 6:45 PM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

a secret 'Hillbilly Menu'

Wow. You must go to LTHForum, home of the Chinese, Korean, and Thai "secret menu" club of Chicago, and let loose! (Or just pm the secrets to me.)
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 6:51 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I went to Carol's pub many times

Yes! And the sign used to say 'Lunch and Sandwich' right? We always wondered if you got the lunch and then got the sandwich on top of that or if they were separate offerings.
posted by ao4047 at 6:59 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't surprise me at all. Just watch Medium Cool. There was good work in the Motorola factory.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:15 PM on June 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Ha. I'm related to Chicago hillbillies (Arkansas) by marriage. Didn't realize this was actually a thing. My wife's one herself, in a way -- grad school at Northwestern. Drank it up with Irish boys up there. She was their first Protestant friend, and they were the first to get her to drink whiskey.
posted by middleclasstool at 7:17 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

So TheWhiteSkull's mention of Medium Cool is a nice pointer. There's a great book-length study of the intersections between the appalachian movements, black and PR nationalists, and other radical and organizing elements entitled "Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times [AMZN]". The intersection was powerful but short-lived.

There's some great footage in American Revolution II, a DVD put out by Facets here in Chicago some years back - worth tracking down if you like Medium Cool and other verite of that period.
posted by esinclai at 7:25 PM on June 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

A couple things come to mind:

1) The juxtaposition of an upscale, third-wave coffee shop and (for a brief time) a sushi restaurant across Clark from Carol's is a stark one indeed.

2) I can't believe that nobody has mentioned the Patrick Swayze movie, Next Of Kin. Wasn't there a scene from that movie filmed at Carol's?
posted by stannate at 8:51 PM on June 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

Years ago a friend gave me a box of records. I can't remember the label, but they were mail order records--I think from southern Ohio?--featuring hillbilly music from the Appalachians. The label clearly served the immigrants from the Appalachians to northern cities.

Also--this Dwight Yokum song chronicles the migration.
posted by LarryC at 10:31 PM on June 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

("hillbillies" for short, though that's a pejorative, of course)

Frequently pejorative, but also often proudly self-applied. It's a word with a perplexing and uncertain etymology. Country music was originally called Hillbilly music, a name applied by country pianist Al Hopkins, whose band was named the Hill Billies. Hopkins was somewhat uneasy with the term, knowing it was often shorthand for "rural rube," but the name was popular with his audience as, as the music was anything but unsophisticated, it helped people who identified with, and loved, rural and Appalachian culture to wear the term proudly. In fact, country music that included R&B stylings was first called Hillibilly Boogie. It's why "billy" is so often applied to musical genres -- Elvis was called the Hillbilly Cat or Hepcat during his early performances, and the genre of music he helped pioneer was called Rockabilly, which has since spawned psychobilly.

It's definately a term that must be used cautiously, and should never be used pejoratively, and is probably best used by the people who it would be applied to. When I play country music, I proudly use the -billy suffix, although, as somebody not from the hills, I leave off the prefix.

I'm not surprised to discover Chicago has such a strong southern influence thanks to migration. You find a lot of the same in a lot of midwestern cities -- I live in Omaha currently, which was also a terminus on what was called the Hillbilly Highway, attracted by semiskilled jobs in the meat packing industry and the railroad (a lot of our migrants came from Oklahoma and Texas). Omaha independent music has a lot of country influences as a result, and it's not too hard to get southern-style cooking or find people in cowboy boots and hats.

Heck, we even produced Max Baer, Jr. from the Beverly Hillbillies, the son of Max Baer Sr, who was a product of the South Omaha stockyards and was half Scots-Irish, the same people who settled the Appalachian region.

Now I sort of want to do a project specifically about the influence of rural southern migration to Omaha, although it has recently been superseded by immigration from Mexico, largely Juarez, following the same trail and seeking the same jobs, and bringing their own distinctive cowboy-style culture with them.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:35 PM on June 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

The lesser known and somewhat later stream of white Southerners...had a big impact on the city's north side.

Southerners? Are they sure they didn't just drive over from Indiana?
posted by Thorzdad at 5:04 AM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I love this bit from the second link:

A few days later, Browning and the Tribune kicked off a new series that practically tripped all over itself in its hasty backpedaling, beginning with the impressively condescending "Charges Upset Feudin' Brand of Hillbillies":
Chicago's feudin' and fightin'-mad hillbillies are ready to rip this damn yankee town to pieces following published statements of city officials and citizens' committes that the city is confronted with a "hillbilly problem.
The lesson: don't anger a hillbilly. He'll up and write letters.

posted by Halloween Jack at 5:55 AM on June 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

Southerners? Are they sure they didn't just drive over from Indiana?

No kidding. Indiana was settled from the south up.

*returns to clawhammer banjo*
posted by leotrotsky at 6:04 AM on June 17, 2013

Hillbilly also includes the Ozarks in Arkansas, right?

And the Ozarks in Missouri, as my proud hillbilly wife will very firmly tell anyone who questions the matter.

Next of Kin

I was leery of mentioning that movie since it isn't the best representation of Appalachia, but then again, very few movies do. It is the only one I can think of which touches on the Appalachian migration.
posted by Atreides at 6:31 AM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not surprised to discover Chicago has such a strong southern influence thanks to migration.

Yep -- and the combination of US Highway 61 and 66* is how the Blues left the Delta. The people and the music they played moved north to St. Louis on Route 61 -- The Blues Highway -- and then north to Chicago on Route 66 -- The Mother Road.

When you take that, and the fact that a huge fraction of US railways went to Chicago (thanks to a combination of geography and the Union Stockyards), it's obvious why so many moved there. Quite simply -- It was there, they could get there, and in general, Chicago at least tolerated immigrants.

* Aside: Route 66 was a sticky point in the original US Highway System, esp. before 1926, when it was Route 60. Even numbered routes were supposed to go east to west, odd north and south. Routes ending in 0 were supposed to go coast to coast, and routes ending in 1 were supposed to go from the north border to the south. US Route 60 did neither, thanks to the basically N-S routing between Chicago and St. Louis, then diagonally to Oklahoma City, then E-W to Los Angeles. Despite the fact that connecting Chicago and LA made a ton of sense, this ranked everyone because Route 60 was neither coast to coast *or* east-west.

The fix was to renumber it to Route 66. It stayed even because most of the travel is E-W.

The other route that didn't fit the scheme very well was US Route 11, which runs from the Canadian Border in Rouses Point, NY to New Orleans. It wasn't very north-south, but it somewhat paralleled the line of the US Atlantic Coast, so it was left with the major designation of 11.
posted by eriko at 7:23 AM on June 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

I second the recomendation of Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times
posted by larrybob at 4:32 PM on June 17, 2013

My father's father's family is from Arkansas and I've always been interested at what people are culturally similar. I find as mentioned in this thread, people from parts of Indiana, as well as Pennsylvania, are very similar to that branch of the family. Historically, they passed through many of the same places, such as West Virginia, on their way out West. Chef Paul Fehribach, who is very devoted to traditional Southern food and serves some great stuff at Big Jones, is actually from Indiana.
posted by melissam at 5:18 PM on June 17, 2013

To friends I'll bid adieu
To parents I'll bid farewell
I landed in Chicago
In the very midst of hell
posted by skbw at 5:32 PM on June 17, 2013

I came to Chicago from Indianapolis around 1990 (as did my brother the Ph.D. chemist I called out above). Our father was born in Somerset, KY in 1925; lived a few years in Louisville, KY and Evansville, IN; then at age 8 moved to Indianapolis, where he, his siblings, and their descendants grew up. My generation continued the diaspora to places as diverse as Houston, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, New York City, West Palm Beach, Port-au-Prinz Haiti, Kansas City ... and Chicago. But since the middle 20th Century, we all have been creatives or lawyers or engineers or business owners or professionals and all (really; I think it is 100% in my family since the 1940s) gone to college; last members of my dad's family to actually work with their hands were my great grandfather and grandmother who were tailor/seamstress in Chattanooga, TN in post-Civil War Atlanta and Chattanooga; on my mom's side, similar story for herself until she got off the northern Indiana Depression farm she grew up on, went to nursing school, and got her ass down to Indianapolis.

I think of Indianapolis (my home town) as the northern capital of the south;sort of like Miami is the capital of Latin America in the U.S. Folks there pretty well get the South and Southern culture, while technically and politically (especially since the Civil War) not really being a part of it. Also a town with a large and generally well-integrated African American population; my 4,000-student high school while otherwise being a simulacrum of the Chicago north shore high schools attended by Ferris Bueller and his friends, was at least 30% black and about 10% or more Jewish, too).

All of this to say why it is that I find the "hillbilly presence" in Chicago so interesting to me, personally. My family - and by that I mean my immediate family, father, aunts and uncles, as well as a couple of generations up from them - in main were not actually members of the hillbilly society but interacted directly with that group, and a couple or more probably actually did fit in that category.

All of that is to say, why the hell can't anybody in Chicago make a decent biscuit and just offer it up the way it belongs as bread with your breakfast, baked fresh and thrown out when it cools off rather than stuck under aluminum foil Greek diner style, and also without making it a hipster ironic $2.50/unit so they can pay their student loans because even though they are short order cooks they have degrees from private liberal arts colleges? (Sorry for the rant; it's just a theory of mine, exacerbated by my dismay and disappointment at the closing of Two Way Grill, where they actually told me more than once that I'd have to wait for a biscuit, because they weren't out of the oven yet, but the biscuit only cost $0.50 and was perfect when I did get it).
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 6:21 PM on June 17, 2013

All of that is to say, why the hell can't anybody in Chicago make a decent biscuit and just offer it up the way it belongs as bread with your breakfast, baked fresh and thrown out when it cools off rather than stuck under aluminum foil Greek diner style, and also without making it a hipster ironic $2.50/unit so they can pay their student loans because even though they are short order cooks they have degrees from private liberal arts colleges?

And people give me blank stares when I tell them the biscuits that are served with gravy near where I work are just not any good. I think it's just a matter of tragic ignorance.
posted by Atreides at 6:08 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

For anyone still following this thread who feels personally vested in my weal and woe, the Two-Way Grill in Chicago is set to reopen! Now I won't have to drive to Indianapolis for a fucking decent biscuit!
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 4:45 PM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

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