Queen of the Hillbillies: Writings of May Kennedy McCord. By May Kennedy McCord. Edited by Patti McCord and Kristene Sutliff. (University of Arkansas Press, 2022, Pp. 336)
Reviewed by Leigh Adams
May Kennedy McCord may never have written her own book, but her granddaughter Patti McCord and Missouri State University emeritus professor Kristene Sutliff have edited a collection of her work drawn from both her published and unpublished writings, titled Queen of the Hillbillies: Writings of May Kennedy McCord.
Published by the University of Arkansas Press as part of its Chronicles of the Ozarks series, the book is broken into subject categories that include geography, history, culture, customs, music, folklore, and flora and fauna. The pieces include material from McCord’s columns for two different Springfield, Missouri, newspapers, her private papers, and KWTO’s magazine Dial. The material covers the 1930s through the 1960s.
McCord’s writing is lively, and as often as not, she seems to include the voices of the many readers from all over the Ozarks who wrote to her to comment on her columns or to add to or correct them. Many times, she wants to set the record straight for readers about the Ozarks’ people, language, and culture, and she generously shares what she learns from those loyal readers.
Though McCord wasn’t a trained folklorist, a lot of what she collected and published would easily fall into that category. Born in Carthage, Missouri, and raised in Galena, McCord has a clear love for the land, the people, and their stories and music, and she often wrote and spoke about them as well as welcomed more information. In one example from the chapter on death and burial, McCord writes about feather crowns, pillow feathers that wind themselves together so “that a crown would form in the pillow of a dying person, especially if the person had lived a good and saintly life” (124). The editors then follow this piece with several examples of stories on the subject sent in by her readers over the next seven months. Certainly, McCord’s columns were participatory long before the days of social media.
The best part of reading this book is McCord’s voice. Her turns of phrase are often fascinating and funny, and she has a keen eye for how to skewer particular types of people. Noting of one gentleman, “He wasn’t worth the powder and lead to blow him into the next dispensation, but he could sit longer, lie harder, and spit farther than any yokel who ever wore shoe leather. . . ” (55).
In a piece from her personal papers, she begins a story about an Ozarks politician by noting of politicians in general, “If I were a politician, I wouldn’t have any trouble about a speech. A politician always has just one, and when you’ve heard it, you’re all washed up with him. He points with pride and he views with alarm. He consumes a lot of water from a pitcher during his speech. It looks important” (104). She ends the piece by noting of the unnamed politician, “He was a good chap. He didn’t have much book learnin’, and his diploma wasn’t made of sheepskin and tied with a ribbon, but it was made of rugged honesty. He wove his own philosophy from the solitude of his own mountains, and you know, sometimes there spring up men like that who shake nations” (105).
One of the more entertaining pieces appears in the chapter titled “The Ozarks Country.” In it, McCord “reviews” a Thomas Hart Benton’s painting Ozark Musicians. The piece begins, “When a Hillbilly tries to go ‘arty’ it’s time something should be done. It was raining like pouring buttermilk out of a jug, but little did that matter—I had to see what it was all about. ‘Art for Art’s sake, you know’”(42). What follows is a thorough roast of the artist and his painting, which she deems a caricature. She is generous enough to note, though, that as she travels to other places, she fears she might fall into that same trap despite her good intentions.
And that’s a good part of the charm of Queen of the Hillbillies. Not only does she not hold back her opinions on all kinds of subjects, but McCord’s writing gives readers the delight of phrases like the one above analogizing rain with pouring buttermilk as well as a look into the ongoing work of showing and preserving what is real and good about the Ozarks and its people.
Leigh Adams isn’t from around here, but she’s lived two thirds of her life in the Southern Missouri Ozarks and shares a deep affinity for its land and people. An associate professor of English at Missouri State University-West Plains, she worked with C. D. Albin to produce Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies as its assistant editor. She is a co-founder of the Ozarks Studies Symposium at MSU-WP and is a founding member and officer of the Ozarks Studies Association.