Tag Archives: Lynyrd Skynyrd

Southern Complexities: Lynyrd Skynyrd & Guns

There’s no denying that Americans love guns.  The American identity if one of rugged independence, rather than have other people solve our problems we’ve always wanted to solve them for ourselves.  Guns let us do that.  The American West was tamed with men and guns.  Living on the frontier provided many Americans their only opportunity to own land, which has always been another important component of the national identity. The problem of the frontier life is that it’s remote and generally lawless, thus the necessity for a gun.  Having a gun was a matter of life and death: guns are powerful tools. With a gun a man could feed his family, protect his livestock, and fight off the most dangerous thing on the frontier—other people.

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Rural America still possesses many of the same qualities that made the frontier so dangerous, which is why the gun culture is strongest there.  That said, at this point, the national identity of the rugged, independent cowboy is so ingrained in our culture we don’t even think about it. It’s for this reason that people living in cities still worship at the altar of the might gun. All of this would be mildly fascinating if the tool in question were a hammer or a screwdriver…but a gun is a tool designed to kill, so the prevalence of gun culture is a bit more important.

And while I certainly wouldn’t call Jacksonville a rural community, Lynyrd Skynyrd did originate in the South where the gun culture is strongest.  Not surprisingly, the band has a complicated relationship with guns. The band’s 1975 album NUTHIN’ FANCY opens with the track “Saturday Night Special.” The song’s title refers to cheap, easily accessible handguns that are typically of a low caliber and even lower quality.  The song features three verses, each highlighting the mayhem created by a gun: a thief breaking into a house and shooting an occupant dead, a man who shoots his friend after drunkenly accusing his friend of cheating at poker, and finally the possibility of shooting oneself when drunk on whiskey. The song’s chorus features the lines: “Mr. Saturday night special/got a barrel that’s blue and cold/Ain’t no good for nothin’/but put a man six feet in a hole.”  The song’s final verse suggests that for everyone’s protection we take all these guns and toss them into the ocean.

The sentiment behind “Saturday Night Special” is strong and it’s surprising that this track would not only be the leadoff song on NUTHIN’ FANCY, but this song was a modest hit for Lynyrd Skynyrd.  The band had to know that their fan base held a strong contingent of gun-owners. Unlike the twisty meaning of “Sweet Home Alabama,” there is no mistaking the motivation behind Van Zant’s lyrics in  “Saturday Night Special.”  But as plainly didactic as “Saturday Night Special” is, things are never cut and dry with Lynyrd Skynyrd. The very next track on NUTHIN’ FANCY, “Cheatin’ Woman,” is about killing an unfaithful lover with…a handgun. Murdering a lover is a common motif in blues music, and for a band as deeply entrenched in the blues as Lynyrd Skynyrd to write a song using this motif isn’t particularly surprising. I do find the choice of track order interesting, did Lynyrd Skynyrd intentionally sequence “Cheatin’ Woman” and “Saturday Night Special” back-to-back in order to make a larger statement? While on the surface it may seem surprising that the band would follow such a progressive-minded song like “Saturday Night Special” with a song like “Cheatin’ Woman,” this duality is found throughout the band’s catalogue.

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The simplest explanation for much of this duality in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s music is that the songs are not necessarily always autobiographical.  Ronnie Van Zant never shot and killed a woman, and just because he wrote a song about doing so doesn’t necessarily mean that he was giving murder an endorsement.  The same could be said for Van Zant’s position on gun control in “Saturday Night Special.”  Perhaps that song was written from the perspective of a wormy city dweller? I highly doubt that, however, because “Saturday Night Special” is so impassioned and so against what band like Lynyrd Skynyrd would be expected to write about.

Another reading of “Saturday Night Special” might be that the band is railing not against guns per say, but the rather the dangers of impulsivity. The song’s name is derived from a cheap, easy to acquire firearm.  The tragic deaths littered through the song are the result of rash, spur of the moment decisions: a thief stumbles upon a man inside the home he’s robbing and a drunk man gets in a heated exchange with his friend over a game of cards.  There are a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd songs about slowing down and practicing various forms of moderation.  The issue of impulsivity in regards to violence first raised its head on the band’s debut album 1973’s (PRONOUNCED LEH-NERD SKIN-NERD) in the song “Gimme Three Steps.”  While not a hit when first released, “Gimme Three Steps” has become a staple on classic rock radio.  In “Gimme Three Steps” we again see someone rashly brandish a firearm.  The song’s narrator is at a bar, talking to a woman, when a man storms in with a gun and threatens him.  Rather than act tough or mouth off, the narrator asserts his innocence (“Wait a minute mister/I didn’t even kiss her”) and then asks for the titular three steps in which he can make a hasty exit. The criticism in “Saturday Night Special” appears to fall on firearms themselves, until the very end when Van Zant sings about tossing all the guns into the ocean before “some fool” comes around with a gun.

What’s fascinating about this song is how it’s essentially a song about not fighting. Beating a hasty retreat in the face of danger is universally an uncool thing to do, but somehow Lynyrd Skynyrd were able to write a (awesome) song about doing just that. Both songs feature guns and do not fit the typical tough-guy mindset seen in a lot of popular music. And in both songs, the violence (or threat of violence) is senseless and not in anyway glorified.

my-bullets

 

It’s worth noting that the band’s fourth album GIMME BACK MY BULLETS and its title song has nothing to do with guns or ammunition.  Apparently, the song is a reference to the Billboard music charts, which used typographical bullets.  On the official Lynyrd Skynyrd website, the band states that over the years fans who misunderstood the lyrics literally threw bullets at the band when they performed the song live. Rock songs, like all good poetry, sometimes requires more than a simple surface reading in order to be fully understood.  A band like Lynyrd Skynyrd, with its hard-charging guitars and Southern connotation is both embraced and written-off by many music fans without giving them the proper amount of contemplation.

Oh, dear...

Oh, dear…

Lastly, the current incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd recently put out an album titled GOD & GUNS. Obviously at this point Skynyrd is not the same band that wrote “Mr. Saturday Night Special,” thanks to both the passage of time and the deaths of key members of the band. Still, I think the track “God & Guns” off the album is a fascinating departure from the classic era’s stance on guns. I’ll confess that I haven’t spent much time listening to this album (because the one time I did, I found it to be rather disappointing), but perhaps in a future post I’ll examine it more closely.

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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.

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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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