Sunday, July 7, 2013

Ronnie and Neil

Neil Young 
Ronnie Van Zant

I've been in Seattle for the past five days spending time with friends from the South.  They're ex-pats of a sort, but even amidst the coniferous forest and white firs, these boys are southern.

Still, understanding what it means to be from the South is a tricky thing.

We have to contend with the ideas that people outside the South have about the South.  Then there are the experiences we as southerners have had with other southern people; and perhaps most paradoxically, there's us: race and rebellion and DIY culture all knotted up in our ontology, kindness and gentility flanked by a deep spirit of independence and self-determination that is tempered, seemingly, only by the grace of God.

Sasha has been spinning a lot of Neil Young and Skynrd this week.  We've also discussed endlessly the new Jason Isbell record, which is markedly more introverted than his previous releases.  And all these guys have some remarkable musical connections.  

Isbell has a knack for writing well about what it means to live in the South.  Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, Isbell's former bandmates in The Drive By Truckers, are also particularly poignant in their musical accounting of life in northern Alabama.

Just before Isbell joined the Truckers in late 2001, the band issued a landmark 20-song release: The Southern Rock Opera.  The album's lead track, Ronnie and Neil, instantly challenges the listener to understand the tension between the lived experience of the South and the perceptions of the South by those who don't live there.

In Ronnie and Neil, Patterson Hood used the public rift between Ronnie Van Zant and Canadian Singer-Songwriter Neil Young to illustrate the point.

"Church blew up in Birmingham
four little black girls killed
For no goddamn good reason

All this hate and violence can’t come to no good end
A stain on the good name 

A whole lot of good people dragged through the blood and glass
Blood stains on their good names and all of us take the blame...

And out in California, a rock star from Canada writes a couple of great songs about the Bad shit that went down...

...Meanwhile in North Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd came to town
To record with Jimmy Johnson at Muscle Shoals Sound
And they met some real good people, not racist pieces of shit
And they wrote a song about it and that song became a hit."

This musical sparring between Skynard and Neil Young began in 1970 when Young released Southern Man The song immediately struck resonant emotional chords - chords which both told a truth about life in the south and obscured much of what it meant to be southern. 

"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?"

Van Zant challenged Neil Young's didactic simplification of the South in Skynrd's 1974 top ten hit, Sweet Home Alabama:

"Well I heard mister Young sing about her (Alabama)
Well, I heard ole Neil put her down 
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember 
A Southern man don't need him around anyhow."

For Van Zant and Skynrd, the south was about family and music, natural beauty and kinship; but was it possible to love the south without subscribing its more sordid parts?  

The Truckers certainly think so.  In The Southern Thing," Patterson Hood proclaimed:  

"(The South) Ain't about no hatred - better raise a glass
It's a little about some rebels but it ain't about the past
Ain't about no foolish pride, Ain't about no flag
Hate's the only thing that my truck would want to drag

...Proud of the glory, stare down the shame
(The) Duality of the southern thing."

Perhaps, then, at the center of today's Southern Man and Woman there lives a paradox. A love of one's own culture and family mixed with an openness and welcome; a spirit of rebellion washed over with a sense of collective responsibility; In the South, a firm grasp on a difficult history helps us focus on the future.

In typical fashion, Isbell seemed to sum up well this tension in a recent Facebook post about Paula Deen.

Ronnie and Neil nurtured a positive relationship through to Ronnie's early death in October of 1977, although Thrasher's Wheat contends that Young didn't actually serve as a Pall Bearer in Young's funeral.  Still, Hood sang about the duality of Ronnie and Neil, an emblem of the duality of the South: 

"Now Ronnie and Neil became good friends their feud was just in song
Skynyrd was a bunch of Neil Young fans and Neil he loved that song
So he wrote ‘Powder Finger’ for Skynyrd to record
But Ronnie ended up singing “Sweet home Alabama” to the Lord
Neil helped carry Ronnie in his casket to the ground

And to my way of thinking, us southern men need both of them around."


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