This Southern rock band is now a flag-waving joke, but back in the '70s when frontman Ronnie Van Zant was alive, Lynyrd Skynyrd articulated the hopes and dreams of people who were more than just hillbillies.
The Confederate flag is the little black cloud that has obscured Lynyrd Skynyrd’s legacy. It’s undoubtedly the reason – the reason no one is willing to admit – that it took so long for them to achieve the dubious honor of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I have no excuse for the latter-day Lynyrd Skynyrd. I really don’t care how many flags they wrap themselves in so that we know they are the real thing, but I would like to offer a justification for the original, real Skynyrd.
Most people trace the roots of Southern Rock directly back to the Allman Brothers Band. Fair enough: Geographically and musically, that’s succinct. Yet lyrically, the Allman Brothers – references to Southern towns aside – brought little to the table as far as a Southern perspective was concerned.
Ronnie Van Zant, however, was another story. His manifesto came in the form of “All I Can Do is Write About It;” in the song, he worries about the rest of the country encroaching on the South. “I’m not tryin’ to put down no big cities,” he writes, “but the things they write about us is just a bore.” All he can do, he reminds us, is write about the South as he knew it.
From the outset, the songs he and the rest of the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote were distinctly Southern; from the “cutting the rug” line in “Gimme Three Steps” to the way he pronounced “hawnky tawnk,” you were never going to mistake him for anything but a cracker.
And we – and by “we,” I mean other crackers – Southerners (from here on out read Southerners and crackers, rednecks, hicks and hillbillies as the same thing) needed that. During Ronnie Van Zant’s career, the South was still reeling from the civil rights movement and George Wallace. We had a lot to be ashamed of, but if Chicago and Watts were any indication, so did the rest of the country.
Ronnie Van Zant never embraced racism. His “Ballad of Curtis Loew” has him risking a whipping to go hear a black man play the dobro. He subtly, playfully boos George Wallace in “Sweet Home Alabama” (listen for the female singers right after the line about Birmingham and the governor).
What he did embrace were Southerners, and in that, embraced their symbolism in the form of the Rebel flag. In taking up the Stars and Bars as a symbol of Southern pride, Lynyrd Skynyrd drew a cultural Mason-Dixon line. As members of the last cultural group whom still, to this day, it is okay to slur – that being rednecks – it was ironic that Lynyrd Skynyrd wrapped themselves in that particular flag.
But the Southerners listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd weren’t interested in irony – we still aren’t. What mattered was that one of our own was finally writing songs about us, the poor white trash and the hillbillies. Someone was paying attention, and seeing that there was more to us than the rest of the world could see.
Here was someone writing about both the banality and the pathos of life for the majority of Southerners. From the belligerent guy in “I Ain’t the One” who refuses to marry a girl he may or may not have gotten pregnant, just because he’s been told it’s the right thing to do, to the Mama who tells her son to be a “Simple Man,” to the boy who watches his father die from drinking “Poison Whisky,” these are characters that, while maybe not unique to the South, are still yet characters that every Southerner knows.
It took a Southerner to write about the South in a way that Southerners can accept and be proud of. I don’t think there’s a hick alive who doesn’t understand what Van Zant meant by “Workin’ for MCA.” The lyrics outline Lynyrd Skynyrd’s hardscrabble rise in the music business, but the tone is that of every country boy who has gone to the city and discovers its citizens assume he is illiterate and ignorant.
But Ronnie Van Zant and Lynyrd Skynyrd were not above pointing out the flaws of the South, either. Two of their best, and most enduring songs, “Saturday Night Special” and “I Never Dreamed,” take on two of the South’s most venerable traditions – guns and the “helluva fella.”
In “Saturday Night Special,” Van Zant writes that “handguns are made for killin’/they ain’t no good for nothing else.” A significant portion of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s fans are just the same kind of “fools” carrying .38s that Van Zant warns of in the song, a fact he was no doubt well aware of when he wrote the song, yet he makes no concessions for these fools.
“I Never Dreamed” attacks another Southern stereotype: the Southern boy brought up to hell-raise and be an emotionless man’s man. In the song, Van Zant recalls a father who told him “always be strong son, don’t you ever cry,” and now that he’s found someone to genuinely love, finds that advice sorely lacking. “I never dreamed I could feel so empty,” he says, and you can hear both his sorrow and his surprise to know that his daddy was wrong.
Lynyrd Skynyrd and Ronnie Van Zant wrote more great songs than there is room to go into here. The sad part is, they will never get the respect they deserve; they will never escape the shadow of the Confederate flag.
Ronnie Van Zant probably could have overcome that association. But the real Lynyrd Skynyrd was over when the plane that carried Van Zant and the group’s guitarist Steven Gaines crashed in 1977. The bastard version of the group that survives to this day has become an embarrassment that only further dims the popular view of the group, waving the flag to remind us that, yes, Skynyrd is still going and if you don’t believe them, they have the Rebel flag to prove it.
What they don’t have are more of the great songs that Ronnie Van Zant could have written to redeem them.
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