Hike Faster, I Hear Banjos: Misconceptions about the Southern Appalachians

For many hikers who’ve never set foot in the southern Appalachians—especially those who’ve never been east of the Mississippi or south of the Mason/Dixon Line—some of the only cultural knowledge they may get is through movies and television. Shows like, Dukes of Hazzard, Hee-Haw, and In the Heat of the Night, are distorted windows into a world that doesn’t actually exist.

When it comes to misrepresenting the south, perhaps the biggest offender them all is the movie Deliverance, with its dark portrayal of the people of north Georgia as backward hicks with a propensity for sexual deviancy.

Since part of the Appalachian Trail passes through a portion of Rabun County, the same county in which Deliverance was filmed, it’s a good place to discover what the people of the region are really like.

 “Deliverance ruined this place” -Billy Redden

Billy Redden, aka Banjo Boy in the Movie, “Deliverance.” Now, 46 years later, he’s an employee at the Clayton Wal-Mart. Oh, and in case you ask, he can’t play a lick on the banjo. Photo: Arnold “Bloodhound” Guzman

Meeting Billy Redden—the face of Deliverance’s famous Dueling Banjos scene—who became the poster boy for derogatory stereotypes of the Southern Appalachians, was rather anticlimactic. Standing there before me in the Wal-Mart parking lot was an older man who, at first sight, didn’t seem to resemble his former teenage self. Yet, this soft-spoken man, a Wal-Mart employee of 12 years, graciously agreed to let me take a photo of him holding a banjo I borrowed from a friend.

Working outside in the warm Georgia sunshine allowed him a chance to smoke a cigarette or two, while occasionally rounding up shopping carts. Although I was unable to get him to take off his glasses, from time to time I was able to see around his glasses and saw the unique vestigial eyes he was famous for; the same sleepy eyes that caught the attention of the casting crew that came to his school in 1972.

Born in Dillard, a town just a few miles up the road, Billy has lived in Rabun County since his birth in 1956. When he was in 5th grade, movie scouts came to his school looking for someone to play the Banjo Boy. It didn’t take long for them to choose Billy, with those narrow eyes and plain features. He said his mother, however, wasn’t keen on him acting in this movie at first, but eventually gave permission for him to play the role.

Billy said he spent one week with the actors producing the Dueling Banjos scene. He said that the cast and crew were enjoyable to work with and that Ned Beatty had a playful sense of humor. Often, after a long day of working on the scene, when Billy was done with his part, Ned would say, “Give’m a couple bucks,” which got ad-libbed into the scene on the final shoot. He told me that the hardest part was when he had to go back to school and catch up with the rest of the class, “It’s a wonder I didn’t fail the 5th grade.” Unfortunately, Billy said, “I only made 500 bucks off that movie.”

However, many years later, his appearance in Deliverance attracted the attention of well reputed director, Tim Burton, who hired Billy for a small role where, once again, he played the banjo on a porch in the bizarre fantasy movie, Big Fish. Billy said he really liked working with Tim saying how nice he was to him. He said that, although he made a little more money in that movie, it still didn’t amount to much.

Although his small role in either movie didn’t launch a successful acting career, it has changed the course of his life because, from time to time, random people come along asking to meet the famous banjo boy. He shared with me how a while back a man drove down to Clayton and asked Billy to show him all the places of interest in Rabun County, including some of the sites where the movie was filmed. He told me, “After showing him all around the area, the man gave me $400. I don’t make a lot of money and if people want to come down here and give me money for showing them around, I’ll take it”. His story, having struck a compassionate chord, moved me to reach into my pocket and pull out the two $20’s I had. I said to him, “Well, I don’t have 400 bucks but I hope this helps”. Without hesitation, he pocketed the bill with a brief nod of thanks.

Later on in his life, Billy saw the stereotypes that the film promoted and realized what this was doing for the reputation of the people of the county he loves. “Deliverance ruined this place,” Billy told me. Looking around at the people in the parking lot, Billy insisted, “These are good people around here”.

The mayor of Clayton, GA speaks on local culture and racism

Another firm believer in the people of Rabun County is Jordan Green, mayor of Clayton. Born and raised in Rabun county, he’s lived here all his life and can’t imagine a better place in which to live. At 31, he is not your usual picture of a small town mayor. Being a full-time firefighter in Gainesville, an hour drive from Clayton, he does his job as mayor on the side, sometimes having to use up vacation from the fire department just to attend meetings. But that’s what you do when you’re a young man who wants to make a difference in the place he loves.

Mayor Green, age 31, a very casual person on his day off, accompanied by his girlfriend Ashleigh. Photo: Arnold “Bloodhound” Guzman

Jordan Green, dressed in a teeshirt and faded jeans, was not exactly who you would expect to be the mayor of a town, a man who would look equally at home driving a race car, a four-wheeler in the mountains, or riding a motocross bike. But this man standing before me had an air of subtle alertness; a confident, capable man who could handle himself in any situation without breaking a sweat. His confidence was conveyed in the way he firmly shook my hand, which was more than a handshake—it was a manshake—the kind of contact that underlies a sturdy character.

As we sat down in the Starbucks section of Ingle’s, we began talking about the stereotypes the rest of the country has about the people of the southern Appalachians. I asked Mayor Green, “Is racism an issue in this part of Georgia? Do non-white hikers coming off the AT have anything to fear from being hassled or attacked for their skin color as they enter the local towns?” He paused for a moment, carefully considering his answer, then began to explain how much of northern Georgia was split in their allegiance during the Civil War, some of the counties siding with the Union, Rabun county being one of them. Consequently, Rabun county doesn’t have strong historical ties to the Confederacy as some of the surrounding counties do, which explains why there aren’t as many of the Confederate Battle flags flying in this part of Georgia. He said there is a small African American community in Clayton that gets along fine with the mostly white community. He assured me that people of color had nothing to fear coming off the trail into Clayton. At this point, his girlfriend, Ashleigh, spoke up and said that all her life growing up in Rabun county, “Growing up, we didn’t even know racism was a thing.”

Speaking on the negative connotations that the movie Deliverance invokes, Mayor Green said that, although the movie cast the region in a negative light, “most people let the movie roll off their back.” He went on to explain how his county is not backward, poor, and ignorant, as the entertainment media would have you believe. For example, Metro Atlanta, one of the largest international cities in the country is just an hour and a half away. Down the road in Dahlonega is North Georgia University. A few miles west of Clayton is the exclusive lake Burton, with posh lake houses and the exclusive private golf course, The Waterfall Club.

As our meeting progressed, I observed groups of well-dressed people walking into the store. Being Sunday, it was probably the after-church crowd. More than once I witnessed African Americans and white folks strolling in groups together, smiling as they conversed. At one point, a group of young women walked out of the store, all wearing hijabs, laughing comfortably as they walked past, with nobody gawking and staring. It was surreal seeing everyone respectfully going about their business in a part of the country that the movies and TV shows had led us to believe was the heart of prejudice and racism, backwardness, and ignorance.

I pointed out to Mayor Green that even the Hate Map, produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center, showed that, aside from a KKK organization based in Ellijay, GA, the rest of north Georgia had no formal racist organizations. He nodded his head.

Mayor Green, wisely pausing to think before answering questions. Photo: Arnold “Bloodhound” Guzman

Clayton has a lot to offer hikers

As far as trail communities go, Clayton isn’t on the ATC list (yet), but there are several good reasons for hikers to make the 20-minute hitch to Clayton:

  • Clayton Wal-Mart For resupply, this Walmart is only a 21 minute drive from Dick’s Creek Gap. The nearest other Wal-Mart from Dick’s Creek Gap is in Blairesville, about 36 minutes away.
  • There is an excellent outdoor store, Wander North Georgia ,  in the charming downtown district, where the hikers can get hiking gear
  • There’s a great local all-you-can-eat place, called  Henry’s Country Buffet where hikers can go to replace all those 5000+ calories they’ve burned each day on the trail.
  • There’s a few budget hotels available for those wanting to zero in style.

The mayor said that the city of Clayton has a downtown development authority that works cooperatively with downtown business to ensure that the downtown continues to thrive, unlike so many other failing small towns all across the country. Mayor Green told me that when he’s had a hard day’s work an hour down the road in Gainesville, he feels a peace come over him when he re-enters the mountains of Rabun county; there’s no place he’d rather live.

All of the vintage buildings in the quaint downtown district were in an excellent condition and occupied by all kinds of thriving little shops. Photo: Kessiah Gipson

 

There is a relaxing pace to this quaint little town not rivaled by many Photo: Kessiah Gipson

“These are good people around here”

From talking to Billy Redden, to old man Spencer, door greeter at Wal-Mart, to several people around town, including Mayor Green, they all said some version of Billy’s “These are good people around here” statement.

One of the better examples I could find of the ‘Good People’ was Kessiah (Kee-shah) Gipson. Born and raised in Rabun County, she is a trained police officer, currently the secretary for the City Police Department. A wife and mother of two great boys, she recently discovered she has a tender spot in her heart for hikers.

In the last few weeks, she’s gone to a special place she knows of, a remote forest service road near the GA/NC border where the AT crosses, and she and her husband set up a grill and serving table, serving burgers, hot dogs, drinks, and snacks.

She’s been keeping up with thru hiker’s blogs and learning who the hikers are and where they’ll be and offers help when she can. She doesn’t know why Clayton doesn’t do more to try to attract hikers but as for herself, she plans to keep doing trail magic and help out hikers any way she can.

Kessiah surrounded by hikers. She’s really enjoying this trail angel thing. Photo: Kessiah Gipson

 

Providing post cards for hikers to mail from the trail is one of Kessiah’s special touches. Photo: Kessiah Gipson

 

Kessiah’s husband cooking burg’s and dogs on the tailgate grill. (Photo: Kessiah Gipson)

The moral to this story: Don’t believe anything you see at the movies or on TV about the south… go and experience it for yourself

If you ever find yourself at Dick’s Creek Gap and you’re looking for a good place to resupply, don’t ever be afraid to hitch into Clayton. They’re good people who’ll treat you right. Oh, and don’t be afraid of banjo music…. the melodious, happy tones make the beauty and wildness of this region come alive.

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Comments 2

  • Chuck Crookshanks : Apr 4th

    Thoroughly enjoyed the article. I started my hike March 24 and got off the trail after completing 32 miles. I am definitely not finished hiking the AT and plan on completing the rest of Georgia after I lose some weight and my knee feels better. I have been fortunate to meet wonderful people both on and off the trail and your article is just another reminder of the kind of people that are common along the trail. Thanks for posting.

    Reply
  • Susie Piontkowski : Apr 7th

    Loved reading your well-written and very detailed article about the great city of Clayton, Ga and beautiful Rabun County. I live in Raybun county in Sky Valley Georgia. My husband and I moved here in 2015 and hike all of the amazing trails near us including many sections of the AT. We began doing trail magic last year. We don’t have a favorite spot yet, but we did do something this year that wAs a little unique. We follow hikers on the AT journal and picked out a couple who started on February of this year. We started signing their guest book and then offered to take them as guests into our house for a zero as they got off the trail at Rock Gap nc. We enjoyed each other so much that we arranged to pick them up at Newfound Gap and went into Gatlinburg with them where we rented a condo with them. We now communicate with them by personal email as well as reading their journal entries. They are Which Way and Next Step. We love all aspects of goodness the AT offers to people who are willing to reach out. Every hiker we have met has been an amazing example of what happiness and appreciation for the world around them is. We look forward to meeting more hikers on the AT and now including Clayton as a get off city!
    Thanks for your article.
    Susie Piontkowski

    Reply

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