Monday, July 15, 2013

Drive-By Truckers - The Three Great Alabama Icons

"Now Ronnie Van Zant wasn't, from
Alabama, he was from Florida..."
“I grew up in north Alabama back in the 1970s when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. I'm speaking, of course, of the three great Alabama icons: George Wallace, Bear Bryant, and Ronnie Van Zant. Now, Ronnie Van Zant wasn't from Alabama, he was from Florida, he was a huge Neil Young fan but in the tradition of Merle Haggard writing Okie From Muskogee to tell his dad's point of view on the hippies in Vietnam, Ronnie felt that the other side of the story should be told. Neil Young always claimed that Sweet Home Alabama was one of his favorite songs and legend has it that he was an honorary pallbearer at Ronnie's funeral, such as the duality of the southern thing.

"there's few things more loved in
Alabama than football and the men
who know how to win at it.
...and Bear Bryant wore a cool looking red checkered hat and won football games, and there's few things more loved in Alabama than football and the men who know how to win at it. So when the Bear would come to town, there would be a parade. Me, I was one of them pussy boys cause I hated football, so I got a guitar but a guitar was a poor substitute for a football with the girls in my high school. So my band hit the road, and we didn't play no Skynyrd, neither. I came of age rebelling against the music in my high school parking lot. It wasn't until years later after leaving 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 had seen in my life, which leads us to George Wallace... 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 Lurleen in his place and she won by a landslide. He's most famous as the belligerent racist voice of the segregationist South, standing in the doorways of schools and waging a political war against the federal government that he decried as hypocritical. Now Wallace 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 he spoke out loudly. He accused Kennedy and King of being communist and he was constantly on national news representing "the good people" of Alabama.
"Racism is a worldwide problem and
it's been like that since the beginning
of recorded history... but thanks to
George Wallace, it's always a little
more convenient to play it with a
Southern accent."

...and you know race was only an issue on TV in the house that I grew up in. Wallace was viewed as a man from another time and place, but when I first ventured out of the south I was shocked at how strongly Wallace was associated with Alabama and its people. Racism is a worldwide problem, and it's been like that 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.

... 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 their fans and followers. So for a while, when Neil Young would come to town, he'd get death threats down in Alabama. Ironically, in 1971, after a particularly racially charged campaign, Wallace began back peddling and he opened up Alabama politics to minorities at a rate faster than most northern states or the federal government. Wallace spent the rest of his life trying to explain away his racist past and in 1982 he won his last term in office with over 90% of the black vote, such is the duality of the southern thing.

...and George Wallace died back in '98 and he's in hell now, 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. 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 Civil Rights cause.

...fortunately for him, the devil is also a southerner.

So this song is going to take place in hell told from the Devil’s point of view, as he does what any good southern would do when company is coming. He brewed up some good sweet tea and he whoops up some southern hospitality for the arrival of the new guest.”

The Drive-By Trucker’s song “The Three Great Alabama Icons” is equal parts song and essay. I learned a lot about all three men being discussed, George Wallace, Bear Bryant, and Ronnie Van Zant. Now I always known who Ronnie Van Zant was but like most Canadians when I learned about how Neil Young was feuding with Skynyrd I naturally took Neil’s side and it was only after sometime did I come to appreciate the duel nature of Lyndyrd Skynyrd and how the feud was largely deliberately ironic. I do not watch football, nor do I care much about the men who can win at it, so I had no idea who Bear Bryant was before hearing this song. As for George Wallace, I only knew what the Drive-By Truckers would suspect I might know. I knew Wallace as the belligerent voice of the segregation south and thought nothing more of him than as a racist jack ass, and it is always interesting learning the whole story of the life of a man like Wallace.

I really like the line “George Wallace died back in '98 and he's in hell now, not because he's a racist” you could make the agreement, however weak, that Wallace was not a racist. It seems more likely that Wallace’s racism stemmed from apathy than active hatred. He had no interest in holding black people down, he simply had no interest in them whatsoever and when popular opinion suggested to him to kick them out of schools and segregate them the fool did it without any thought. It took a push for any action to be taken against black America by Wallace and while this is splitting a fine hair, since it hardly matters why someone is a racist, it does suggest that racism was not in fact the prime motive of any of his actions.

And it wasn’t just African Americans who were affected by the belligerence and racism of a man like Wallace, it is because of men like him, that the stereotype of the backward racist hick perseveres as representation of the south, but of course it’s madness to think that everyone from Alabama behaviours or thinks that way, after all “racism was only an issue on the TV” for a young Jason Isbel as well as many others.

Even though I grew up in the great white north here in Canada I can relate to the duality of the south. Racism and Canada rarely go in the same sentence but the pathetic way we handle our problems with the aboriginal people stemming from the days of colonialism make us really no better than America and the pathetic way they dealt with their problems stemming from the African slave trade. And if you think subtle casual racism doesn’t exist here in Canada (and unfortunately probably everywhere) you need to start paying closer attention. And speaking of subtle racism, white guilt is everywhere there are white people and I never took kindly to the notion that I was a racist by default because I was white. The younger version of me never understood this label of evil I was being asked to accept, because when I was a child, racism was only an issue on the TV. I believe the stereotyping of the racist south is one of many extensions of the stereotyping of white people being evil. Men from another time should not represent anyone anymore.

Racism is a problem worldwide and it has been since the dawn of civilization and it is only sometimes black and white. And even the worst of the racist, like Wallace, when you break it down are rarely motivated by hate, usually they are pushed by something else, and this in no way excuses anything, in fact it makes it all the more pathetic really. We hate to admit it to ourselves but Wallace was a complex human being just like any of us, it would be so much easier if we could just write him off as a racist jackass and nothing more. Make no mistake Wallace should burn in hell, but not because he’s a racist but because he was willing to be a racist for his own selfish gain, and it is this kind of hatred that seems to linger the longest, and big issues like this are always more complicated then they initially appear.

I cannot add anything more to what the Drive-By Truckers have already said about the duality of the south, but I can voice my understanding of it. “The Three Great Alabama Icons” is a great essay and it opens a huge dialogue not just about the nature of the south but also politics and racism as a whole.

Think about it.

Until next month keep on rocking in the free world.

- Colin Kelly

1 comment: