Guilty pleasures? Two Lyndrd Skynrd songs: I would be interested in American feedback on this posting because in Europe we may be missing a lot of the way in which that band, and Sweet Home Alabama in particular resonates over there. Although I knew of the song before it’s mostly known over here from the soundtrack (and wasn’t it a good one?) from Forrest Gump. That film managed to render the song anodyne – the capacity of mainstream media to render difficult material bland is a topic in itself. But it isn’t. This much I know: Neil Young recorded a song called Southern Man. I don’t actually think it’s a particularly good song but it was – to say the least – not universally well received:
Southern man better keep your head
Dont forget what your good book said
Southern change gonna come at last
Now your crosses are burning fast
I saw cotton and I saw black
Tall white mansions and little shacks.
Southern man when will you pay them back?
I heard screamin and bullwhips cracking
How long? how long?
Sweet Home Alabama was the response. You will see on the clip a Confederate flag being wagged enthusiastically (yuck!).
Big wheels keep on turning
Carry me home to my kin
Singing songs about the Southland
I miss Alabamy once again
And I think its a sin, yes
Well I heard Mr Young sing about her
Well, I heard ole Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
Southern man don't need him around anyhow
The southern US states have a history of vicious racism. The last lynching was as recently as the late 1960s (now they do that sort of thing legally with lethal injections after due process which apparently constitutes progress). So were the band simply a bunch of racists? I think the answer is more complex than that. We tend to think of rock and roll as radical, as challenging to the existing order but such a view underestimates the power of conservatism. You can grow your hair long and play in the band but not abandon the comfortable certainties of upbringing and belief system of a conservative (and perhaps the word conservative is a euphemism) society. Some identities are problematic – for example Southern US white, Ulster Protestant, Israeli – but they are nonetheless held. What tends to characterise them is a deep defensiveness – for obvious reasons – namely that they are perceived as relatively privileged (rightly, but again it’s not as simple as that) as against the group with whom they are in close up and often violent conflict– the southern US black, Ulster Catholic, Palestinian. I know what a Marxist would say – namely that they suffer from false consciousness and need to recognise that for example that the poor white has more in common with the poor black than, for example, the rich white who has just foreclosed on their mis-sold mortgage - and have considerable sympathy with that view but again (this is getting repetitious) it’s not as simple as that.
For products of a strand underpinned by the religious right, two quotes may be apt (1) St Paul – ‘I am what I am’ – Sweet Home Alabama seems essentially a collective assertion of this proposition. Okay, you are but how to move on? (2) John Wesley – ‘why should the devil have all the good tunes?’ In this case the devil does – I have to admit that Sweet Home Alabama is a brilliant piece of rock and roll. As is Simple Man (the second clip). Again, in Simple Man the underlying sentiments are deeply and self-consciously conservative. You can smell the defensiveness.
Don’t ask me. I’m just a European with libertarian/left sympathies. I’ve never even been. Probably close up contact with the southern US white Republican would send me psychotic in very short order. I really would be interested in feedback on this one…
As they may well still say on the exam papers for all I know ‘discuss’.
Oh and as a parting shot, here’s a clip from Top Gear, a BBC petrolhead TV programme and usually to me mind-numbingly tedious but in this programme they went to Alabama with stuff written on their vehicles that they thought might not go down too well with the locals. It was their finest hour. Observe the consequences…