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Ghosts of Hillbilly Past Haunt Arkansas Tourism

4 min read

Remember Bob Burns and his famous bazooka? Or H.L. Mencken’s vitriolic views of Arkansas?

Surely you’re not alone. Both Burns, a comedian and musician from Van Buren, and Mencken, an irascible newsman from Baltimore, had their heyday before World War II.

How about Orval Faubus? Yes, he’s in the history books.

The three were mentioned this month in an attachment to the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism’s bid solicitation for an advertising vendor to promote the state as a tourist destination.

Burns, Mencken and Faubus, you see, are obstacles to drawing visitors, even though they’ve been dead for decades. They’re culprits in branding Arkansas as a backward, bigoted hillbilly state. “Thanks to the notorious contributions of humorist Bob Burns, journalist H.L. Mencken and Gov. Orval Faubus, the State has struggled for years to establish a positive public perception,” the document said.

This brought a few giggles, even though the tourism and the advertising contract are serious business. The biggest state marketing contract, it is worth about $14.4 million for the fiscal year beginning on July 1, 2017, and Parks & Tourism is seeking a “fully integrated marketing communication vendor” to get the word out: See our state, visit our parks, patronize our businesses.

That’s where Burns, Mencken and Faubus crop up as naysayers, undoubtedly along with the unmentioned Lum & Abner and maybe the cartoonish Daisy Mae. Arkansas has been the butt of rube jokes for more than 150 years. “The Arkansas Traveler,” the state’s official song, describes a settler suffering under a leaky roof. Asked why he won’t fix it, the Arkansan replies that it’s too stormy to do the work. Asked why he doesn’t do the job in better weather, he says that on a fair day, the roof doesn’t leak.

The hillbilly aura has faded, though, and we can point to many embarrassments more recent than the barbs of Burns, who told backwoods yarns on the radio and played his bazooka, which inspired the popular name of the antitank weapon.

There’s the school board member in Blevins who wore blackface and overalls and held a sign reading “Blak Lives Matters.” This wasn’t in the age of Mencken, who once described Arkansas as “perhaps the most shiftless and backward state in the whole galaxy.” It happened only a few months ago. Even nowadays the state can’t have a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. without pairing him with Robert E. Lee.

Faubus left a deep stain on the state during the Central High School integration crisis, calling out the National Guard to keep nine black students out and prompting President Dwight D. Eisenhower to federalize the Guard and order support for integration.

But that was in 1957, six decades ago. Still, Burns, Mencken and Faubus pose a “lingering image problem occupying the top of the list” of tourism impediments, the state says.

But try to envision this kind of conversation in 2017: “Sure, Arkansas seems nice at first glance, but did you hear Bob Burns’ stories about the kinfolks back home? I’m not sure I’m ready for that. And Mencken’s description of Arkansas women by the roadside, picking lice off their children like mother monkeys in a zoo? We don’t want the kids infested. Let’s go to Kansas instead!”

Arkansas native Brooks Blevins, a Missouri State University professor and author of “Arkansas/Arkansaw: How Bear Hunters, Hillbillies and Good Ol’ Boys Defined a State,” calls lingering dismay over the state’s backwoods image “the gift that keeps on giving.”

“As long as there is an Arkansas, there are going to be folks in Little Rock wringing their hands over the state’s image problems — or nowadays mostly perceived image problems. Even if the rest of the country were content to let it go, we’re determined not to.”

Blevins reckoned there are “only about three dozen people still around” who remember Bob Burns, and not even that many who read Mencken’s musings hot off the press.

“The Faubus stain is still visible, but that’s one that the state shares with the rest of the South, even the rest of the nation.” Arkansas is still the butt of jokes, “but not so much as we used to be,” Blevins said. “In our homogenizing nation, ridicule seems to be more class-based than regional these days. Yes, there’s still something to the hillbilly image, but I doubt it’s the debilitating thing image-conscious folks think it is.”

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