Singing Loudly: The Duality of the South

Singing Loudly

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Duality of the South

It can be argued that the elections this year showed that the South is still misunderstood. Whether this misunderstanding relates to the South doing something good or just that we don't understand fully the evil they are capable of is not something I'll explore right now. However, I don't understand why people have become this surprised about the division/misunderstanding.

Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Drive By Truckers have all addressed the misunderstanding of the south by the north in wonderful songs.

The Drive By Truckers addressed the feud in their song from Southern Rock Opera called "The Three Great Alabama Icons". Those icons discussed in the song/essay are George Wallace, Bear Bryant and Ronnie Van Zant. They describe the problem of the north misunderstanding of the south,

It wasn't till years later after leavin' the South for a while that I came to appreciate and understand the whole Skynyrd thing and its misunderstood glory. I left the South and learned how different people's perceptions of the Southern Thing was from what I'd seen in my life. Which leads us to George Wallace. Now Wallace was for all practical purposes the Governor of Alabama from 1962 until 1986. Once, when a law prevented him from succeeding himself he ran his wife Lerline in his place and she won by a landslide. He's most famous as the belligerent racist voice of the segregationist South.

Maybe some of you don't know the history of the supposed feud between Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd. If you don't, then do you ever question any of the lyrics to Sweet Home Alabama? In it they reply to Neil Young's "Southern Man" by saying,

Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ole Neil put her down.
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
a southern man don't need him around anyhow.

What some people don't know about Skynyrd is that this album, and especially this song, is a response album. They wanted to defend the South and the Southern way of life. The lines in "Sweet Home Alabama" are a direct response to Young's anti-racist, anti-cross burning "Southern Man" and "Alabama" songs.

Those two songs were cry to stop one of the most racist, dirtiest politicians in the south, George Wallace. In Southern Man, Young sings:

Better keep your head
Don't 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?

And calling out the state of Alabama in "Alabama":

Oh Alabama
Banjos playing
through the broken glass
Windows down in Alabama.
See the old folks
tied in white ropes
Hear the banjo.
Don't it take you down home?

But did Lynyrd Skynyrd really hate Neil Young? It would seem so from the lyrics of Sweet Home Alabama, but this would later be charged as nothing but an urban myth. Still, they don't seem to agree with each other or understand each other.

This all seems to go back to the North and South misunderstanding each other. Ronnie Van Zant said about Sweet Home Alabama and Neil Young,

"We wrote Alabama as a joke. We didn't even think about it - the words just came out that way. We just laughed like hell, and said 'Ain't that funny'... We love Neil Young, we love his music..."

So where did things go wrong? Why does this image exist? It seems to go back to the infamous legacy of George Wallace. As the Drive By Truckers explain,

Wallace had started out as a lawyer and a judge with a very progressive and humanitarian track record for a man of his time. But he lost his first bid for governor in 1958 by hedging on the race issue, against a man who spoke out against integration. Wallace ran again in '62 as a staunch segregationist and won big, and for the next decade spoke out loudly. He accused Kennedy and King of being communists. He was constantly on national news, representing the "good" people of Alabama

And Lynyrd Skynyrd was up on the stage singing about the South and Alabama with a backdrop of the Confederate flag, which is a clear signal to the desire for another society where slavery is a fact of life. Yet, if you listen closer to their songs you can hear a different picture than the image of Alabama that they send. As Drive By Truckers say,

And bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd attempted to show another side of the South. One that certainly exists, but few saw beyond the rebel flag. And this applies not only to their critics and detractors, but also from their fans and followers. So for a while, when Neil Young would come to town, he'd get death-threats down in Alabama.

The funny thing about this hatred of Neil Young is that the South also seems to have a problem understanding the North. It has been written that Van Zant would frequently wear a Young t-shirt to screw with the people who didn't get the humor and irony in Sweet Home Alabama.

The North still felt like outsiders looking in on this society that they had no understanding of. For those who lived in the South there was certainly a different point of view. You see the things that don't make the national news. You talk to the people who live there and don't believe, and often for good reasons, that they are being racist. The confusion is earmarked by Drive By Truckers,

Wallace was viewed as a man from another time and place. And when I first ventured out of the South, I was shocked at how strongly Wallace was associated with Alabama and its people. Ya know racism is a worldwide problem and it's been since the beginning of recorded history, and it ain't just white and black. But thanks to George Wallace, it's always a little more convenient to play it with a Southern accent

To be fair, how could the North not decry this sort of behavior? Wallace goes from being a supporter of human rights and equality to promoting segregation because it gets him in office? It seems that Wallace was able to represent the views of one majority and secure his place in office while completely ignoring the minority, or black, voice. However, this is the duality of the South.

The Drive By Truckers continue:

Ironically, in 1971, after a particularly racially charged campaign, Wallace began backpedaling, and he 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. Such is the Duality of the Southern Thing.

I think that speaks a lot to what we don't get today. This moral voice that is speaking is one that is confusing. Just as Wallace never represented the blacks but was able to get their votes is similar to the fact that the Republicans don't represent the Christians but they are getting their votes. The crossover because of the faith values and whatnot was outstanding. Hispanic voters and Jewish voters switching over in droves is not something that just happens.

This is the Duality of the South. It is also the Duality of the Right. We don't understand it because you can't understand it; it's an enigma. Those of us in leadership positions, like the Young and Van Zant line of players, understand that neither party is wanting to ignore morals, religion, and faith. However, those who are on the outside see two different worlds that might or might not really exist. The key thing being it's hard for people from the Blue states to really understand what happens on a day to day basis in the Red States. It's the same thing for those in the Red who believe the Blue states are full of immoral, unethical, and unfaithful heathens.

This disconnect is the duality of our political system.


Very concise and to the point. It is able to start a lot of discussions in many different directions.
A good tool for teachers.
Thanks for the words.

By Blogger DW Smith, at 8:39 AM, February 02, 2011  

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