Music of Black Origin

Sweet Home Alabama: the Southern Rock Saga, BBC4, 13 April 2012

The Lynyrd Skynyrd song eponymous with this fine documentary is a difficult beast. Undoubtedly a catchy tune (Eminem, poet of northern, urban decline, riffed on it in 8 Mile) , it easily justifies its legendary status in American music. In fact, Sweet Home Alabama is endemic to American music. There is not a main street in New Orleans, Memphis or Nashville – all places where far finer songs have been written – that you will not hear this song coming from a bar at some point in the evening.

That cannibalising effect would be reason enough to be suspicious of it, but the backstory makes for a more unpleasant read. Sweet Home Alabama is a response to Neil Young’s broadside against cross burning and lynching, Southern Man. Instead of merely rebranding the South as America’s spiritual home of manly work and rest and relaxation as is often assumed it does, the song equates Governor George Wallace’s support for segregation with Watergate. Live and let live, it says, we have our own way.

Knowing this makes it impossible to approach James Maycock’s documentary without a small amount of prejudice (although Young and Skynyrd frontman Ronnie van Zandt not only made up but later collaborated – Young wrote Powderfinger for the band). The story it tells is slightly more complex, even if it doesn’t begin to explain to the outside observer why playing in front of a giant Confederate flag is cool.

For a start, almost all rock music came from African-American origins in the mid to late-sixties. Therefore, the documentary argues, southern musicians showed a fair amount of broad-mindedness in pursuing their muse.

By way of example, Duane Allman featured on Wilson Pickett’s cover of Hey Jude. Second, Lynyrd Skynyrd assisted Jimmy Carter in his Presidential election campaign – a sure sign of no-hoper liberalism for today’s America. Third, southern rockers had long hair and thus endured the taunts of their conformist (and red-necked) neighbours as ‘hippies’. Fourth, although left unmentioned, Greg Allman went on to marry and record with Cher, ticking both the Native American and the what-were-you-thinking boxes.

In the style of the documentary, these facts don’t quite paint a picture of anything, yet they do illustrate why life was a little more attractive on the other side of the tracks. As Keith Richards puts it in his biography:

There’s food going, everybody is rocking and rolling, everybody’s having such a good time, and it was such a contrast from the white side of town, it always sticks in my memory. You could hang there with ribs, drink, smoke… You wake up, where am I? And there’s a big mamma there, and you’re in bed with her daughter, but you get breakfast in bed.

If the documentary argues anything, it is that the increasing gulf between black and white in the wake of the King murder drove the Allmans and Skynyrds to strike out on their own. In honesty, you can hardly argue with Malcolm X’s assertion that blacks were widely patronised by white southern society. Martin Luther King Jnr’s great rival said of Gone with the Wind, the classic text of the Lost Cause, that it made him want to crawl under a rug. Yet its author, Margaret Mitchell, was a long time donor to black education. Despite writing unfavourably about farmhands, she did not believe African Americans were incapable of learning.

Like Malcolm X, Lyrnyrd Skynyrd were a product of their own cultural uncertainties, determined to defend their own identity and relatively indifferent to others. Unlike Gone with the Wind, which was the catalyst for the introduction of black Americans to the ranks of the Academy Awards winners, southern rock brought little acclaim directly to black musicians. Indeed, southern rock was long regarded as the poor relation of the American music scene. The 1970s saw Duane Allman killed in a motorcycle accident and three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd in a plane crash; Howlin’ Wolf went to college and Chuck Berry went mad.

More to the point, California was invaded by Canadians.

Is it safe to admire southern rock and not be cast as a Jeremy Clarkson type (Top Gear famously has the Allman Brothers as its theme music)? The jury is most definitely out on that one, although Eric Clapton regarded Duane Allman as a great guitarist and the two duelled on Layla.

For my part, I think it is the Texan Janis Joplin who most exemplifies the fruitful blending of black and white music (such as they can be distinguished) and gives due respect to these origins. Enjoy this:

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