Southern Complexities: Lynyrd Skynyrd & Race

I can’t speak to everyone’s experience, but when I was growing up I always found Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of those bands that always seemed to have  good songs on (classic rock) radio but was generally unlikeable. The reason Lynyrd Skynyrd was unlikeable was simple: they were stupid, racist hillbillies. The band embraced elements of Southern culture that made me uncomfortable, like the Confederate flag. One of their most popular songs was about a redneck State and endorsed a racist governor! But man, were those songs good.  Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of those bands I’d appreciated from afar.

Then about a year ago I heard “Sweet Home Alabama” on the radio. Rather than dismiss the song outright, I decided to actually listen to the lyrics. Being a recovering English major, I decided to apply the same techniques of literary analysis I’d use to fake-understand Coleridge to try to fake-understand Lynyrd Skynyrd. It turns out that listening to a rock song via a fuzzy FM radio station is not the best way to study lyrical depth. I decided to go home and pull the lyrics up online and listen to the song again.  Thus began my slow descent into studying Lynyrd Skynyrd. I’m going to write a whole lot more words, but for those with little patience (or interest) let me sum up my rambling tirade thusly: Lynyrd Skynyrd, it turns out, was not the band you think they were. I don’t think there’s a band more commonly misunderstood that Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Lynyrd Skynyrd hailed from the South, and with that comes some complicated baggage, but I wouldn’t call them racists. The band wrote a lot of really fantastic, really surprising songs. The amazing part is that I didn’t come to this conclusion after hearing some buried b-side or un-heard deep album cut. The opposite is actually true: Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote and recorded fantastically genre-subverting rock songs that became massive hits!

There are three areas where the uneducated have Lynyrd Skynyrd all wrong: race, guns, and drugs. The band’s image, along with it’s membership, has shifted and changed over the decades so let me be clear as to what incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd I refer to in this essay. As most of you know, in 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd was involved in a devastating plane crash that killed a great number of people.  The Lynyrd Skynyrd that I’m writing about was the original band, fronted by singer Ronnie Van Zant, who essentially ceased to exist after this terrible plane crash.  The band cobbled together from the crash survivors and Ronnie’s younger brother, Johnny Van Zant, is Lynyrd Skynyrd in name only as far as I’m concerned.  I will explain my specific reasoning for this later, but to put it simply: Lynyrd Skynyrd (1964-1977) were anything but stupid, racist hillbillies…the post-crash band, while not stupid hillbillies, tend to embrace the stereotypes commonly associated with Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Plus the songs aren’t a tenth as good, so there’s that.  This first post will specifically examine Lynyrd Skynyrd and race.  If people are interested I’ll post the others on guns and drugs.

LynyrdSkynyrd

Just a couple ‘o good ‘ole boys.

Look, I’m not going to attack or defend the Confederate flag.  I was born and raised in Missouri, a State that neither the North nor South seems to want to claim as their own. Personally, I wouldn’t own a Confederate flag but that said, I don’t think there’s a single flag on Earth that isn’t soiled by oppression and blood to some degree. Maybe if I’d been raised in a true Southern State I’d be able to understand the whole Confederate flag thing. Musically, Lynyrd Skynyrd is playing straight-up black music.  I don’t mean that in the way that we all know that rock music is basically a watered-down version of the blues…I mean Lynyrd Skynyrd is basically a blues band. Oh sure, the band is hailed as pioneering the so-called southern-rock genre, but what is that but the blues played by white folks (and maybe with a twang)?

How unfortunate.

How unfortunate.

The bands blues roots don’t necessarily prove the band wasn’t racist, but I find it difficult to believe a bunch of kids would grow up and sound like Lynyrd Skynyrd if they hated black people. Further proof that the band wasn’t a pack of racist hillbillies can be found in their song “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” off their second album SECOND HELPING (1974).  The song is about a kid who hunts up spare change in order to pay a local guitarist to play him a song.  “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” celebrates both the blues and the many faceless people who practice it’s harsh ways (and die penniless). Is the character of Curtis Loew the best depiction of a southern black man? Probably not, Loew’s a drunk who appears to do nothing all day but wait for white kids to bring him money so he can buy more cheap wine. But Loew, who is seen as “useless” by society at large was the “finest picker to ever play the blues” according to the narrator of the song. I think “The Ballad of Curtis Loew,” which is supposedly based on a couple of people the Van Zants’ knew growing up, is actually a pretty good metaphor for what happened to bluesmen in this country.  Revered by young, white rock stars, American culture at large ignored our treasure trove of blues musicians. How many phenomenally great artists died penniless or lived on incomes subsidized by royalty checks from guys like Eric Clapton who covered their songs?

Okay, so Lynyrd Skynyrd liked the blues, going so far to write a song about how sad it was that most people ignored brilliant blues musicians: what about “Sweet Home Alabama”?  “Sweet Home Alabama” isn’t the terrible racial albatross many think it is. For starters, the most important fact that people seem to miss about Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Sweet Home Alabama” is this: Lynyrd Skynyrd are from Jacksonville, Florida.  So if the band is from Florida, why did they write a song called “Sweet Home Alabama”? Two words: Neil Young.

In 1970, Neil Young wrote a song called “Southern Man” for his classic (and fantastic) album AFTER THE GOLD RUSH.  “Southern Man” is a fiery indictment of the terrible racism that pervaded in the American South.  The song mentions slavery, racism, cross burning: all the stuff white Southerners love to talk about. Young’s song is seemingly about one “Southern Man” but really points the finger at an entire region of the country. Now if Neil Young has just recorded “Southern Man” we might not have “Sweet Home Alabama.” But Young penned another song called “Alabama” that attacked the State who was governed by the infamously pro-segregationist governor George Wallace. Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” both as a response to Young’s two songs.  “Sweet Home Alabama” mentions both Young by name and alludes to his song “Southern Man,” the song is about Alabama because Neil Young singled Alabama out, not because the band is from Alabama. A surface reading of the song suggests that Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t care for Canadian Neil Young picking on the State and that “Well I hope Neil Young will remember/a southern man don’t need him around any how.” Equally, the song appears to endorse governor Wallace…or does it?  The lyrics state: “In Birmingham they love the governor/Now we all did what we could do/Now Watergate does not bother me/Does your conscience bother you?/Now tell the truth.” These lyrics suggest that Lynyrd Skynyrd is in support of Governor Wallace and his racist agenda, right? Possibly, but Lynyrd Skynyrd might also be fucking with us.

Ugh. There's that damn flag again.

Ugh. There’s that damn flag again.

For starters, Birmingham is not the capital of Alabama…Montgomery is the State capitol.  Why is this a big deal? Rather than mentioning Montgomery, the seat of power, the song mentions the State’s largest city.  What was going on in Birmingham?  The state was full of civil unrest in the 1960’s but a lot of the worst stuff happened in Birmingham.  The police used water cannons and attack dogs to try and stop protesters, including Martin Luther King Jr.  Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant pointed out in an interview in 1975 that the line “In Birmingham they love the governor” is immediately followed up by “boo, boo, boo” by the backing vocals. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s somewhat puzzling mention of the then-recent Watergate scandal suddenly makes sense: Lynyrd Skynyrd is not bothered by Watergate because they didn’t do anything wrong, that was an evil act purported by a politician. Likewise, Lynyrd Skynyrd is suggesting that things aren’t as black and white (pun intended) as Young suggests in his song and that not all Southern men love Governor Wallace.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s song also suggests that all Southerners cannot be lumped into one category.  In point of fact, that kind of thinking is just as wrongheaded as the racism that Young was rallying against.  In this context, the “we all did what we could do” line appears to be a reference to all the protests that took place in Birmingham. The problem of “Sweet Home Alabama” is that the people hoisting it up as the redneck song to end all redneck songs aren’t as smart as the people who wrote it. Lynyrd Skynyrd proves the old adage about judging books by their covers to be correct: just because someone singing has a Southern accent doesn’t mean they aren’t literate and possessing wit. Further mudding the waters of “Sweet Home Alabama” is the fact that Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd were not enemies as many people think, but actually were friendly admirers of each other.  Many fans that missed the irony in “Sweet Home Alabama” also failed to notice that Ronnie Van Zant frequently wore Neil Young t-shirts. He’s even wearing one on the cover of the band’s 1977 album STREET SURVIVORS.

Van Zandt is third from the left.

Van Zandt is third from the left.

A better look at the same shirt.

A better look at the same shirt.

Likewise, Neil Young sported a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt several times in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

Neil Young wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt.

Neil Young wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt.

Much like the Confederate flag, “Sweet Home Alabama” has a complicated history and has different meanings for different people.  That the song has confounded generations of people is surprising, but perhaps the death of song’s chief architects explains why the song’s obtuse meaning has remained a bit of a secret for so long. Worth noting, in 2009 the State of Alabama started using the phrase “sweet home Alabama” on its license plates.  Given that both potential readings of the song are generally unflattering to Alabama, one wonders why the song would be used on anything official from the State.  It’s impossible to know the inner workings of other men’s hearts, but based on “Sweet Home Alabama” I wouldn’t characterize Lynyrd Skynyrd as racists. The band members grew up in another era, I’m sure they had some degree of prejudice (which everyone has to some extent). That said, for a band making millions of dollars off a Southern image, I think the band had a progressive attitude when it came to the subject of race.  A large part of the band’s attitude, no doubt, stemmed from their love of music—specifically blues music. Consider this the next time someone dismisses popular music as “unimportant.”

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4 thoughts on “Southern Complexities: Lynyrd Skynyrd & Race

  1. Sarca says:

    Thank you for this – I learned something today. Very informative and well-written.

  2. Robin Renee says:

    This is a great article. I remember when I was a little kid, I didn’t even realize all that the Confederate flag symbolizes; to people I knew growing up it just meant you liked Southern rock. As I got older I realized that seeing that flag might mean I’d do well to stay away from the person or place displaying it. I agree it is a complex symbol and I don’t like to live in assumptions, but I also like to be aware and avoid racial confrontation.

    I actually like “Sweet Home Alabama,” but sometimes feel weird singing along. I tend to agree with your analysis of the song – It doesn’t seem to pan out as racist to me overall, but that little bit of uncertainly about it has given me pause. In the end, it’s almost in the “Too Classic” category for me. I like the song, but don’t need to hear it too often. “Freebird,” for the Too Classic category, is Exhibit A.

    Anyway, it is a very good thing to unravel these complicated histories. There is so much still to uncover re: music and race. I also would like to hear your thoughts about Skynyrd,in relation to guns and drugs.

  3. lpon45 says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post for a few days, weighing how to respond, because it strikes close to home. I like those first-generation Lynyrd Skynyrd songs, too, and I have several on my iPod. They’re catchy, well-played and original. And you’re absolutely right: without Ronnie Van Zandt to further clarify what this particular song is about (and whether he wore the Neil Young shirt out of respect or sarcasm), it’s open to a lot of interpretation depending on the audience’s mindset and so will be experienced in radically different ways.

    On the one hand, you have Merry Clayton, one of the backup singers featured in the documentary “Twenty Feet from Stardom,” who sang on this track. She didn’t originally want to sing the song – she had done her own version of “Southern Man” on a solo album – but her husband convinced her to do it as her own form of protest: as she told an interviewer last year, “Okay, I’m going to go to this session, but you better believe I’m going to be singing through my teeth ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’”

    On the other hand you have the idiot song of last summer by Braid Paisley and LL Cool J, “Accidental Racist.” If you are lucky enough to have avoided hearing it, here’s the tale it tells: Mr. Paisley is called out at a Starbucks (full of liberals, I’ll wager) for wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt with the Stars and Bars on it … and Mr. J tells him it’s aight: “If you don’t judge my do-rag, I won’t judge your red flag.” Dreadful music, vapid lyrics and an awkward understatement of the issue here.

    The South will never have a clean past and so, in my personal opinion, white folks cannot use the symbols of that past in any way, shape or form to celebrate their present. I speak from experience. I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. My high school’s mascot was the Rebel, our fight song was “Dixie,” and during football games and pep rallies we’d wave the Confederate flag with true joy and conviction. This was a generation after the civil rights movement and it was not even questioned. Even as we’d explain this to goggle-eyed outsiders as our way to express our “Southern Pride,” we knew enough not to play the song when we were at away games in the city where the teams were predominantly African-American. We knew what all those symbols represented, and we should have known – and done – better by leaving them behind.

    That’s why the line, “Does your conscience bother you?” bugs me. It comes off as dismissing Gov. Wallace and his ilk with a shrug: kind of, “C’mon, where’s your sense of humor?” when someone doesn’t find something funny for a really good reason. I agree with you that Ronnie Van Zandt and his band clearly respected black musicians and aren’t necessarily bigots. But this song tolerates a more subtle kind of racism, and any nuance the original song may have had gets lost when it’s framed by Kid Rock or Brad Paisley as nothing more than a catchy tune by a kick-ass band.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment everyone.

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