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.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


OK, it's BAND SOUTH in this case, but that's allowed, and is probably a pretty good opportunity to give this bigintheUK band a buzz, not least given my equivocal and almost love-hate relationship with them. Are they known of across the pond? Somehow I doubt it, except to the core of anglophile anglophone addicts whom I know exist in no small number. But their whole identity is rooted in a dingy lacklustre version of northern England, their name being wholly ironic, marrying kitchen sink reality to luscious, silky tunes and arrangements. And thereby lies my issue, as the sharpness of the lyrics may often be missed within the sheen given to the songs, sometimes leaving a faint lingering taste of saccharine where the vinegar should be.

Paul Heaton, because they were basically his band and brand, even if ably supported by a core of regulars and a float of occasionals, formed the group in 1988, along with fellow Housemartin, Dave Hemingway. Within that earlier and quirky, shortlived group, also including Norman, later "Fatboy Slim", Cook on bass, they sent a bizarre mix of marxism and christianity to the top of the UK singles charts with an acapella version of Caravan of Love. His abiding acerbic style was well characterised by the title of their first LP, "London 0, Hull 4" , Hull being, shall we say, one of northern England's less glamorous cities.

Rather than a traditional jangly guitar based quartet, The Beautiful South started life with an altogether different vibe, with shared vocal duties between the two ex-Housemartins and the first of three subsequent female vocalists, with often lush keyboards. Songwriting duties, largely Heaton's forte, were shared with Dave Rotheray on guitar, and they hit the ground running with this song, "Song for Whoever", which neatly sets out the stall for their aforementioned sweet cynicism, the theme of the "self-serving industry of lovesongs" being a recurring motif.. The front cover, above, also gave some clue to those prepared to search beyond melodies alone. In 1991, they also won the Brit award (think British Grammy) for best video, "A Little Time", their only actual number one single, reproduced below:

Following this there followed a steady stream of successful albums, with a change of female vocalist between their 3rd and 4th, and the sound increasingly embellished by added horns. However, before Briana Corrigan left, the band managed their biggest US exposure with this, "We Are Each Other" in 1992.

Jacqie Abbot, who replaced, had a slightly less astringent style and lasted for a further six years, the sound gradually becoming more influenced by country and/or soul stylisations, which her voice suited well. Here is a good example, "Perfect 10". The group called it a day in 2000, before a desultory final incarnation in 2003, with now 3rd female singer, Alison Wheeler. Whilst the thrill had largely gone, this line-up did produce a last-gasp covers record, in 2003, with "Golddiggas, Headnodders and Pholk Songs, largely successful major transformations of well-known popsongs of the past 30 odd years, and a lasting favourite of mine. Knowing we like a good cover over here on Starmaker Machine, here is a key track, Blue Oyster Cult's Don't Fear the Reaper". Citing "musical similarities", maybe the irony of this irony being beyond them, they folded for the final time in 2007.

Interestingly, at the time of writing, Paul Heaton has reunited and put out new material with Jacqui Abbott, whilst Hemingway and Wheeler, together with some of the core erstwhile musicians, have re-grouped as The South, basically a tribute act to their old selves. One suspects that neither Heaton nor this version have each other on their respective christmas card lists..........