Sit and Wait for the Sadness
The Ozarks bear some resemblance to their cultural cousin southern Appalachia and to any other spot where poor white Americans live on soil too rocky to farm. These lands get lumped into what demographers call Southern Highland culture—a nice term for “hillbilly.” People hunt and fish, quilt and crochet, weave baskets and can summer vegetables, and play banjos and dulcimers. Of course, the modern world is mixed in: Hillbillies also drive Fords, eat McDonald’s, and own iPhones. But there is a sense that no one here has stopped relying on the land. The handicrafts celebrated in museums weren’t revived by young hipsters; they’ve been practiced in an unbroken chain.
What sets the Ozarks apart from other hill country is a trait of the early 19th-century generation that first settled there.
What sets the Ozarks apart from other hill country is a trait of the early 19th-century generation that first settled there. All that rich farmland farther west, being taken by the government and sold at a discount to white Americans? Ozark settlers never made it that far. Tired and scared, they didn’t so much settle as stop. From the start, the Ozark spirit was passive, nagged by a vague feeling that life was beyond control: Sit down, and wait for the black sadness to settle in. The folksongs are about hard times, dead children, and men and women murdered for love. Peaks and hollows—like Petit Jean Mountain and Goodnight Hollow, are named after little kids lost in the woods. Though people worship God, they are obsessed with the devil and warn of the spooky caves he dwells in.