Death to Deliverance

It’s a curious way to sell an SUV– as the ultimate getaway car to escape from hillbillies. That’s the pitch of a recent TV ad starring a handful of urbane buddies on a camping trip. They’ve only just hauled the hibachi grill from the back when that haunting melody (you know the one) wafts across the mountain stream, sending the would-be nature lovers scampering for civilization, their cooler of beer left in the dust.
“Those nine notes are a non-verbal stereotype,” says Parks Lanier, a Radford professor and specialist in Appalachian poetry. “Deliverance came out 30 years ago, and it’s still causing us problems.”
Lanier, himself an Appalachian “in-migrant” has spent 25 years working to dispel the Li’l Abner image of Southwestern Virginia and promote the literary greatness of the region. Lee Smith, Sharyn McCrumb, Cormac McCarthy, and a triad of poets– Nikki Giovanni, Jim Wayne Miller, and Fred Chapel– are definitive proof, he declares, that the mountains are not populated exclusively by illiterates.
But it’s fair to remember that once they were. There is no stronger oral tradition in the country than that which has come from the remote and undereducated population of Appalachia over the last 200 years. Phil Leonard, a folklorist teaching in Lynchburg, reminds us that Jack of the beanstalk and nimble candle-jumping fame came from the hollers of Wise County, where tales of that character were first collected into an anthology by Richard Chase in the early 1940s.
In fact, the culture is back in vogue today. Appalachian studies are a common offering at universities; Old Time music is rising in popularity; and Nicole Kidman and Jude Law contribute their talent, notoriety, and extreme good looks to the Appalachian comeback later this year with the release of the film version of Cold Mountain.
If the box office response doesn’t disappoint, hip young men will be dressing in britches and slouch hats and Wal-Mart won’t be able to stock enough buckshot and scrapple.
I jest a little, but the latest hi-jinx of the UVA pep-band (which turned out to be, alas, the squad’s swan song), is a reminder of how seriously “poking fun” can be taken when leveled at a culture that’s had no respite from derision.
So the next time you see the ad with the spooked campers, remember how that SUV got to the idyllic spot in the first place.
“We have interstates in Appalachia,” notes Lanier.

Parks Lanier and Phil Leonard discuss “Overcoming Appalachian Stereotypes” on With Good Reason Monday, June 23 at 7pm on WMRA FM 103.5 and on Wednesday, June 25 at 7:30pm on WVTF FM 88.5 / 89.7.