But tractors and cow poop aren’t the festival’s only draw. There are jonnycakes and clam chowder, as well as massive warm cider doughnuts, pumpkin pie, fried zucchini, and bratwurst. There is small stage where bluegrass and country singers run through renditions of “King of the Road” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Late Sunday morning, a pair of teenaged karate students performed a choreographed nunchucks demonstration to the tune of “Dueling Banjos,” the song made famous by the 1972 film, Deliverance.
Which gets to the heart of what a swamp yankee is, really. A swamp yankee is not quite a redneck, not quite a hillbilly, but definitely features elements of both. Coincidentally, a brand-new roadhouse called Billy Hill’s — a joking reference to its owner’s hillbilly qualities — was celebrating its grand opening just down the street from the festival. Saturday’s event featured a performance by RI’s former country-singing wunderkind, Billy Gilman (who is now 26).
While the origins of the name swamp yankee are unclear, it’s generally agreed that the term refers to colonial descendants living in the rural parts of western Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut. The term can be an insult or a badge of honor, although it’s so regionally specific that linguist Ruth Schell probably wasn’t far off when she predicted in a 1963 article that the expression might die off altogether in a generation or two.
When asked whether they consider themselves swamp yankees, Reed and the other Chariho Rotarians nod in agreement. “I guess you could say that,” Reed says.