The maddest I remember being at my late wife (a Yankee lady, of Greek extraction and mercurial moods) was when she shouted, during a quarrel the origins of which are long lost, that I was “a dumb redneck.” My heart dangerously palpitated, my eyes bugged, I ran in tight circles and howled inarticulate general profanities until, yes . . . my neck turned red. Literally. I felt the betraying hot flush as real as a cornfield tan. My wife collapsed in a mirthful heap, little knowing how truly close I felt to righteous killing.
Being called “dumb” wasn’t what had excited me. No, for I judged myself ignorant only to the extent that mankind is and knew I was no special klutz. But being called a “redneck,” now, especially when you know in your genes and in the dirty back roads of your mind that you are one—despite having spent years trying not to be—well, that just don’t constitute fair fighting. I do not cherish Rednecks, which means I dislike certain persistent old parts of myself.
Of late the Redneck has been wildly romanticized; somehow he threatens to become a cultural hero. Perhaps this is because heroes are in short supply in these Watergate years, or maybe it’s a manifestation of our urge to return to simpler times: to be free of computers, pollution, the urban tangle, morally bankrupt politicians, shortages of energy or materials or elbow room, and other modernist curses threatening to make our lives increasingly grim. Even George Wallace is “respectable” now, the news media boys tell us and tell us, having been semi-martyred by gunfire. Since ‘Necks have long been identified with overt racism, we may be embracing them because we tired, in the Sixties, of bad niggers who spooked and threatened us and of laws busing our white children to slum schools; perhaps the revival is a backlash against hippies, peaceniks, weirdos of all stripes. Or the new worship of Redneckism may be no more than the clever manipulations of music and movie czars, ever on the lookout for profitable new crazes. Anyway, a lot of foolishness disguised as noble folklore is going down as the ‘Neck is praised in song and story.
There are “good” people, yes, who might properly answer to the appellation “redneck”: people who operate Mom-and-Pop stores or their lathes, dutifully pay their taxes, lend a helping hand to neighbors, love their country and their God and their dogs. But even among a high percentage of these salts-of-the-earth lives a terrible reluctance toward even modest passes at social justice, a suspicious regard of the mind as an instrument of worth, a view of the world extending little further than the ends of their noses, and only a vague notion that they are small quills writing a large history. They are often friendly in their associations and may sincerely believe themselves to accept “ever feller for what he is”; generally, however, they own more prejudices than a U-Haul could carry.
Not that these are always mindless. No, some value “common sense” or “horse sense” and in the basics may be less foolish than certain sophisticates or academicians. Some few may read Plato or Camus or otherwise astonish: it does not necessarily follow that he who is poor knows nothing or cares little. By the same token, you can make a lot of money and still be a Redneck in your bones, values, and attitudes. But largely, I think—even at the risk of being accused of elitism or class prejudice—the worse components of ‘Neckery are found among the unlettered poor.
Attempts to deify the Redneck, to represent his life style as close to that of the noble savage are, at best, unreal and naive. For all their native wit—and sometimes they have keen senses of the absurd as applied to their daily lives—Rednecks generally are a sorry sad lot. They flounder in perilous financial waters and are mired in the socio-political shallows. Their lives are hard: long on work and short on money; full of vile bossmen, hounding creditors, quarrels, disappointments, confrontations, ignorance, a treadmill hopelessness. It may sound good on a country-western record when Tom T. Hall and Waylon Jennings lift their voices, baby, but it neither sounds nor feels good when life is real and the alarm clock’s jarring jangle soon must be followed by the timeclock’s tuneless bells. No, we need not perpetuate the Redneck myth. Indeed, our mudball ideally might show a net gain if it were possible not to perpetuate Rednecks themselves.
Now, the Rednecks I’m talking about are not those counterfeit numbers who hang around Austin digging the Cosmic Cowboy scene, sucking up to Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson, wearing bleached color-patched overalls and rolling their own dope, saying how they hanker to go live off the land and then stay six weeks in a Taos commune before flying back on daddy’s credit card. Fie and a pox on such damn fakers; may such toy Rednecks choke on their own romantic pretensions.
No, and I’m not talking about Good Ole Boys. Do not, please, confuse the two; so many have. A Good Ole Boy is a Redneck who has acquired a smidgen or much more of polish; I could call him a “former Redneck” except that there ain’t no such. One born a ‘Neck of the true plastic-Jesus and pink-rubber-haircurlers-in-the-supermarket variety can no more shuck his key condition than may the Baptist who, once saved, becomes doctrinarily incapable of talking his way into Hell.
And here a warning against ersatz Good Ole Bys, too: those who find it advantageous to employ exaggerated country drawls, cracker-barrel observations, and instant histories of their raggedy-ass downtrodden childhoods. On investigation, however, these prove to have been no worse than the proletariat elite; probably they lived in a big white house on the hill with daddies who owned the region’s biggest farm or the town gas works; their mommies belonged to bridge clubs or Book-of-the-Month or better. Lyndon B. Johnson was