The Background of Rednecks
Redneck has two general uses: first, as a criticism used by outsiders, and, second, as a term used proudly by people who identify themselves as rednecks. To outsiders, it is generally a term for those of Southern or Appalachian rural poor backgrounds — or more loosely, rural poor to working-class people of rural extraction. One popular explanation for the name is that it refers to the sunburned neck Southern farmers developed from working outside in the sun. Another possibility is the West Virginia Coal Miners March, when miners wore red bandannas around their necks in support of the opportunity to unionize.
Early Rednecks: The Hatfields, of the Hatfield-McCoy feud
Early rednecks were fiercely independent, and frequently belligerent, and perpetuated old Celtic ideas of honor and family. This sometimes led to blood feuds such as the Hatfield-McCoy feud in West Virginia and Kentucky.
People stereotyped as rednecks are largely descendants of the Irish, Ulster-Scots and Lowland Scots immigrants who traveled to North America from Northern Ireland and Scotland in the late 17th and 18th centuries.
People characterized as rednecks, and sometimes merely as southerners, serve in the U.S. armed forces at a much higher rate than other Americans. Stereotypical rednecks, and especially Tennesseans, are known for their martial spirit. Tennessee is known as the "Volunteer State" for the overwhelming, unexpected number of Tennesseans who volunteered for duty in the War of 1812, the Texas Revolution (including the defense of the Alamo), and especially the Mexican-American War. During the Civil War, poor whites did most of the fighting and the dying on both sides of the conflict. Poor Southern whites stood to gain little from secession and were usually ambivalent about the institution of slavery. They were, however, fiercely defensive of their territory, loyal to family and home and typically resolute in the cause of independence from the Union.
Although the stereotype of poor white Southerners and Appalachians in the early twentieth century, as portrayed in popular media, was exaggerated and even grotesque, the problem of poverty was very real. In the 1920s and 1930s matters became worse when the boll weevil and the dust bowl devastated the South's agricultural base and its economy. The Great Depression was a difficult era for the already disadvantaged in the South and Appalachia. In an echo of the Whiskey Rebellion, rednecks escalated their production and bootlegging of moonshine whiskey. To deliver it and avoid law-enforcement and tax agents, cars were "souped-up" to create a more maneuverable and faster vehicle. Many of the original drivers of stock car racing were former bootleggers and "ridge-runners."