Sunday, 15 June 2008

Yer Rock & Roll 13

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

Southern man

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…


Verdant Earl said...

A couple of thoughts here.

While "Sweet Home Alabama" was written in response to Neil Young's "Southern Man" (and "Alabama"), it was mostly tongue-in-cheek and a lot of people didn't get that. The members of the band were actually friends with Young. They just thought that Neil was "shooting all the ducks just to kill one or two" as Ronnie Van Zant put it.

Van Zant would often wear a Neil Young t-shirt on stage in concerts and at one point they tried to get Young to perform the song with them but they couldn't fit it into their schedules. Young has performed "Sweet Home" a few times in concert as well and has stated that he really likes the song. He gets it.

The line about how they love the governor in Birmingham was totally misunderstood. In the song it was actually followed with some boos. This was for George Wallace, a Democrat who supported segregation, and the members of the band were against racism. I don't know what political parties they belonged to, but they also supported Jimmy Carter - another Democrat - for President in 1976. Hell...they weren't even FROM Alabama. Most of them were from Florida.

Anyway, I think they were trying to say that they were proud of some of their Southern roots while still poking fun at Neil, a Canadian, and some of their own brethren.

Daisy Deadhead said...

Neil Young was just finishing a show when he heard the news of the plane crash. He immediately went back to the stage, announced their deaths and sang "Sweet Home Alabama"--with his own name in it.

Such class.

white rabbit said...

Earl - Thanks - good response. I sort of figured most of this but it is dificult to get a handle on in several thousand miles and 30-odd years away. I think the criticism of Young' song (apart from it being a bit of dirge) is spot on. His mistake was in appearing to treat southern whites as an undifferentiated mass who all thought the same way. I'm glad LS were with the good guys as I rather like them.

The law of unintended consequences seems to have kicked in, though. The trouble with tongue in cheek is some people are dim, get hold of the wrong end of the stick and take it at face value...

Did you like the 'Top Gear' clip? I think it's hilarious.

Verdant Earl said...

That Top Gear clip was funny and scary at the same time. The pickup truck o' rednecks who showed up at the gas station was frightening.

One weird thing about "Southern Man". It was released on a album called "After the Gold Rush" favorite Neil Young album and one of my all-time favorites by anyone. Well the album was supposed to be the soundtrack for a movie penned by Dean Stockwell, the actor, and somebody named Herb Bermnan, which may or may not have been a pseudonym for Captain Beefheart...I think.

The movie was never made and the screenplay has been lost in time someplace. Maybe Beefheart, Stockwell and Young rolled it up and smoked it because it was supposed to be some crazy shit!

Anyway, weird because "Southern Man" became the most popular song on the album but also the one that doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of it.

Mr Pineapples said...


Erm...aint cha a bit behind the times?

Mr P was listening to these songs when He was a mere kid in school. It's amazing to Mr P that the Wabbit has only just heard of Southern Man and The Skyns....I mean!

Is this the raw-cutting edge journalism that is your Blog?

Come on buddie

Come on

M said...

ah dear, let me tell you of my last encounter with a redneck.

I was happily strolling along a street in the Deep South. Truck comes roaring around the corner, comes to a screeching halt, Mr Redneck (baseball cap, vest and all!!)leans out of the window and yells:


right,that never happend in Blighty to me !!

Are our men shortsighted or what????

So much for the "charming" men in the Deep South ;)

btw. great choice of topic as usual

Meatbe said...

Hi Andrew. I have always enjoyed Sweet Home Alabama--not as a social commentary, but rather as a musical masterpiece. I do not believe that the song would have remained as popular as it is if it were truly viewed as advocating racism.

For the record: I was born in Kentucky, and have always lived either there or within 15 miles of that state's border. I agree with you that the American South has a long and tragic history of brutal racism. I do believe, however, that great progress has been made during my lifetime. This progress has largely come about through court-mandated desegregation and affirmative action programs.

Now, many of the leading lawyers, judges and other professionals with whom I come in contact are people of color. Whereas my grandparents were able to cite numerous examples of blatant racism and unfair treatment of minorities, I have rarely witnessed such displays. It is no longer socially acceptable in the South or anywhere else in America to overtly display racism.

Regrettably, racism still exists, and will probably always exist, in the hearts of some. The progress fostered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, though, has been remarkable.

That Hank said...

I'm a Skynyrd fan, and have been for most of my life. I'm also a white, working class southerner with far left political tendencies, for what it's worth. Ol' Bug Eye's got it right on this one - the song's meaning is often mistaken by those who would use it to support their own fucked up beliefs. (See also, U.S. republicans and the song "Born in the USA".)

Skynyrd weren't any more racist than the rest of the leftist white kids of their era. Sure, their views on race may have been fairly simplistic, but they were out and out against the segregation and hatred of the times. Listen to "The Ballad of Curtis Lowe" for a quick look at young, southern white kids' fascination with the blues surrounding them.

By the way, redneck doesn't mean racist. Heck, I know at least one black redneck - dixie flag on his jumped up truck and all.

white rabbit said...

Thanks guys - interesting exchanges. I think Hank hit the nail on the head with the "Born in the USA" analogy. At least I can like LS with a clean conscience now!

Oh and MiMi - I don't know what to say - at least in front of these nice people ;)

That Hank said...

Like it says in the song, man - turn it up!

white rabbit said...

Hank - shall do! It was an interesting exchange because I think the song causes general confusion here - we don't quite get it and wonder what is going on...

Anonymous said...

For one in my life I really enjoyed Jeremy Clarkson; but why leave it at Alabama, the rickets capital of America . Perhaps he should go to:
- France with a car painted (in French) "Italian food is the best in world", "Your nouveau wine tastes like ink", "French apples the worst in the world" and "Vichy remembered".
- Greece with a car painted (in Greek) "why shouldn't Turkey bully you, that's what you do to Macedonia?", "how dare the people of Lesbos call themselves Lesbians?" and "You're right to complain about people claiming Alexander the Great was bi-sexual, he clearly had no interest at all in women".
- London with a car painted "only a city full of morons could elect Boris Johnson" : similar messages could be given in the whole of Italy, Sedgefield,the whole of the USA, etc.
The list is endless...

Daisy said...

You've been tagged!

More music please! :)

Daisy's Dead Air: Seven songs meme

Anonymous said...

I loved the Skynrd clips; it's music I grew up with, as is Neil Young's. I never bothered much with the political message.

That Top Gear clip is a riot. The anonymous commenter above seems a little touchy to me. Of course you can do that sort of thing in other places; what's that got to do with it? The great hilarious film "My Cousin Vinny" says it all.


Frank Partisan said...

Southern culture is being assimilated, just as all culture in the US, goes to the bland.

I prefer Johnny Cash, or Louisiana as zydeko music, for my southern music.

Cheezy said...

And what about the rumour that some Neil Young fans tried to dig up Ronnie Van Zandt's grave to see if he was buried in his Neil Young t-shirt? Apparently the coffin wasn't opened though...

Thanks for popping by my place after all this time, whiterabbit :) I'm not sure I'll be reviving it anytime soon, but as you're a local, feel free to give me a yell if you fancy a beer down the Nightingale sometime! I'm always up for a pint of Ordinary...