Described by critic Arthur Knight as "perhaps the most extraordinary scene in American Film of recent years," this scene from Deliverance (1972) is perhaps the second-most memorable moment in the film. The first is Ned Beatty's rape scene in which his character, Bobby, is sodomized by a couple of mountain men. Over time these two scenes have coalesced to become one moment of terrible violence underscored by a banjo tune.
Long before it became synonymous with backwoods hillbilly horror, Dueling Banjos was a relatively famous piece of music. In its original incarnation, the song, written and recorded by Arthur Smith and Don Reno in 1955, was called Feuding Banjos. Feuding Banjos was played on two banjos, a five-string and a tenor. A couple of years later, in '57, a new arrangement was recorded, replacing the tenor banjo with a mandolin. This new recording was called Mocking Banjo.
Mocking Banjo was hugely popular and was copied a great deal throughout the late 1950s and early '60s. The song was so widespread and well-known that it seems to have eclipsed the original to the point where many people didn't know Mocking Banjo's source material.
Such was the case when, in 1963, The Dillards recorded a song called Duelin' Banjo that featured a showdown between a five-string banjo and a guitar. The Dillards copywrited Duelin' Banjo as an arrangement and adaptation of a public domain folk song, and it is this version that appears in Deliverance, retitled Dueling Banjos.
Deliverance wasn't the first movie to marry bluegrass music with images of the hill country and its people, but it was the most powerful and gave rise to a persistent stereotype: hillbillies are degenerates who are wary of outsiders.
In truth, bluegrass developed into a musical genre in college bars and music festivals, a far cry from the backwoods with which it's associated. In fact, bluegrass was first considered a type or subgenre of jazz. During the mid-century, a great deal of regional and historic musical styles, including blues, fell under the jazz umbrella. Still, even then the bluegrass sound was associated with hillbillies and often considered to be a lower cultural offering. Not until a favourable review of the album Foggy Mountain Banjo in 1954 did bluegrass music transition from backwoods folk music to art.
Bluegrass music's first non-diagetic use in film was likely in a 1961 movie called Football As It Is Played Today. The filmmaker, Joe Anderson, chose bluegrass for its tempo, being perfect for his experimental film that showcased an Ohio State University football game in fast-motion. The film was meant to be humorous and when Anderson paired his movie with Dallas Rag by the New Lost City Ramblers, everyone cracked up and he knew he had nailed it.
The film won a prize at the American Film Festival and got a fair bit of exposure. Not everyone was pleased, though, and the Ohio Sate football coach lobbied to have the soundtrack changed prior to television broadcast because he thought the music "made Ohio State look like a cow college." Still, enough people saw the original film for the pairing of fast motion and bluegrass to make a lasting impression and bluegrass found its way onto television as ad music.
In 1962, The Beverly Hillbillies premiered on CBS and bluegrass was solidified in the pop-cultural consciousness as hillbilly music. Even though bluegrass musicians were trying to distance themselves from the hick music stereotype, the sitcom's popularity overpowered the efforts of struggling artists. And then along came Deliverance ten years later with its own distinct impact on the musical (and cultural) stereotype.
Describe by one reviewer as "[p]erhaps the most extraordinary scene in American films of recent years," the Dueling Banjos scene in Deliverance is an incredible moment. For just a couple of minutes nothing of any great import happens. Two people engage in an kind of musical battle that manages to bridge a huge cultural gap and the moment is enjoyed by all, characters and audience members alike. It's diagetic music of the first order, a brilliant, unselfconcsious scene that doesn't move the story forward but leaves a lasting impression on the audience.
In much the same way as people were upset by the possible cultural connotations embedded in Football, southerners took umbrage with Deliverance, believing the film promoted demeaning images of the Appalachian people. The film could be read as an indictment of hillbillies (it isn't), but the fact of the matter is the hill folk were poorly regarded well before 1972; the hillbilly stereotype dates all the way back to the early 20th century.
Hillbilly as an identifier first appeared in the New York Journal in 1900. The author defined a "Hill-Billie" as "a free and untrammeled white citizen who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him." The word was widespread after that and in the '20s was used by the mountain people themselves as joke or insult.
The wedding of "hillbilly" and a certain musical style came in 1925 when a mountain string band was asked for a band name when they arrived at New York recording studio. They self-mockingly identified themselves as "a bunch of hillbillies" and so a producer named them The Hill-Billies. The band was a hit and they played up their mountain heritage onstage, dressing up in overalls and straw hats.
Despite The Hill-Billies' success and the growing popularity of "hillbilly music" hillbilly itself was still a negative term, a kind of dirty word. And although bluegrass had grown popular as a jazz and folk music offshoot, it's mountain roots meant a built-in cultural stereotype was already present when Anderson chose bluegrass--not for its associations but for its math.
If Deliverance is guilty of anything, it's transforming a stereotype: from isolated, uneducated backwoods hill folk to murderous, isolated, uneducated backwoods hill folk. The music hasn't changed any--just our (poor) understanding of what it represents.
Otto, John Solomon. (2002). Hillbilly Culture: The Appalachian Mountain Folk in History and Popular Culture. Appalachia Social Context Past and Present, 4.
Rosenberg, Neil V. (1983). Image and Stereotype: Bluegrass Sound Tracks. American Music, 1(3), 1-22.
Silver, Timothy. (2007). The "Deliverance" Factor. Environmental History, 12(2). 369-371.