Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Songs South: The Southern Thing/The Three Great Alabama Icons

The Drive-By Truckers: The Southern Thing  
The Drive-By Truckers: The Three Great Alabama Icons

For our last theme, Jukebox, I somehow figured out a way to write about the Gettysburg Battlefield. However, the connection between this theme, Songs South, and the Civil War, not to mention the war’s continuing influence on American culture as we approach the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, is certainly more obvious. Being born in, and having lived my whole life in the North, though, I have to admit that I don’t have personal knowledge of what Southerners think, and to be fair, not all Southerners, or Northerners, for that matter, think the same thing.

But what I want to start off by discussing, and I’ll get to the music eventually, is the fact that throughout the South, Confederate politicians, generals and other “heroes” are honored with monuments, school names, and maybe most egregiously, by the Federal Government with at least 10 Army bases named for generals who took up arms against the very forces that now honor them (and in other inexplicable ways). President Obama, the country’s first African-American president (whose wife’s maternal great-great-great-grandmother, Melvinia Shields, was a slave) has even sent a wreath to be laid at the Confederate Memorial in the Arlington National Cemetery (on land that was formerly Robert E. Lee’s home, and which is bordered by the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway), despite a petition signed by many prominent historians urging him not to do so. To again reference petition signer Professor McPherson, “I don’t think it appropriate for a president to send a wreath honoring a group that tried to break up the United States.”

I also don’t get it. Benedict Arnold was one of the most effective American generals in the Revolutionary War until he switched sides, and did some damage for the Brits (including, interestingly, capturing Richmond, the future Confederate capital). But there isn’t a Fort Benedict Arnold anywhere, or a Benedict Arnold High School. (Yes, there are a few historical markers commemorating his pre-traitorous accomplishments, and a few that generally commemorate his achievements, but simply omit his name, but had he never turned traitor, things would have been very different.) We don’t honor Aldrich Ames or Tokyo Rose, or John Walker, Jr. or any of the Americans who have assisted Al Qaeda or ISIS. And I suspect that many of the supporters of honoring Confederate “heroes” who took up arms against Americans are the same people who still call Jane Fonda a traitor for having expressed support for the North Vietnamese government (but not actually, you know, shooting any Americans).

It’s actually pretty clear to me: Article III, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution states:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. 

And while I wasn’t there, I’m pretty confident that people like Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Nathan Bedford Forrest (who likely led a massacre of black troops at Fort Pillow and was an early leader of the Klan), and the officers and men that they commanded were “levying war” against the United States. I don’t buy the arguments made by Southern apologists that secession wasn’t illegal—it was—or that no Confederate was convicted of treason—that was an embarrassing matter of political expediency, not to mention that the 14th Amendment made it clear that anyone engaged in acts of “rebellion” had certain rights taken away.

Much has been written about the Southern “Lost Cause” nostalgia, and all of that is too much to tackle in what is, really, a music blog, so let's talk about music. There are few bands that are as committed to analyzing their Southern identity as the Drive-By Truckers (who I have written about many, many times). In fact, there may not be any other bands that do so to the degree that the Truckers do. They come by it naturally—the founding members, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, are from Alabama, and the band is essentially centered in Athens, Georgia. But Hood has been especially vocal about the fact that his upbringing was not traditional—his father, David Hood, is a legendary Muscle Shoals sideman and producer, who appeared on countless great records with black musicians—and his family was anti-segregation when that was not the popular thing. And Athens, where he ultimately settled as an adult and where he lives, is a liberal bastion in a conservative state.

Southern Rock Opera is considered to be the Truckers’ defining album, and while it may not be my favorite (I like a couple of the later ones with Jason Isbell a little better), it clearly is the one that not only moved the band into the public eye, it crystalized their viewpoint and, for better or worse, set them up as analysts of what Hood, in “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” called “the duality of the Southern Thing.” In an excellent essay for The Bitter Southerner website in 2013, Hood discussed the legacy (and burden) of Southern Rock Opera, and defined the “duality of the Southern thing” as

being from a region that is known for great music and literature and art and something called “Southern hospitality,” but is also known for Jim Crow laws, slavery, racism and the Ku Klux Klan. I talked about being fiercely proud of the good parts of my heritage and mortified and ashamed of the bad parts, the ones that too often define how other people perceive us. 

And that’s what both of these songs are about.

“The Southern Thing,” is a song which Hood wrote to tie the whole project together. It is, stylistically, probably the most “Southern Rock” song on the album, and it describes, with some examples, the duality that he feels as a Southerner who is proud of his identity, even if he doesn’t agree with every—even most—of the stereotypes of that identity. Better you should read the lyrics, than for me to try to summarize them.

The next song on Southern Rock Opera is “Icons," a spoken word essay about Ronnie Van Zant, Bear Bryant and George Wallace, as paradigms of the duality, and points out that there were Southerners who were against segregation and racism, just as there were Northerners who supported it. But the song is mostly about Wallace, who as the song notes was an avid segregationist and racist, yet, at the end of his career, “opened up Alabama politics to minorities at a rate faster than most Northern states or the Federal Government. And Wallace spent the rest of his life trying to explain away his racist past, and in 1982 won his last term in office with over 90% of the black vote.” Despite that, Hood consigns Wallace to hell,

not because he's a racist… His track record as a judge and his late-life quest for redemption make a good argument for his being, at worst, no worse than most white men of his generation, North or South… But because of his blind ambition and his hunger for votes, he turned a blind eye to the suffering of Black America. And he became a pawn in the fight against the Civil Rights cause.

Hood notes in the Bitter Southerner piece that this song is, for the most part, written from the viewpoint of his father. He also mentions that Wallace’s grandson is a big fan of the Truckers.

Interestingly, when they perform the songs live, they switch the order, which makes sense from a performance standpoint—in essence “Icons” acts as an introduction to the more rocking “Southern Thing.” Here’s a video from a 2012 show (recorded and edited by DBT fan extraordinaire “Jonicont”) that shows this—and that Hood goes way off script, to make some topical political points, without losing the underlying message.

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