I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
Originally published March 4, 2009, and presented here with some revision.
This brings back memories of riding in my uncle’s car as a youngster. This was one of a few tapes in the glovebox (can’t remember the others – I’m sure Linda Ronstadt was at least in there) and I knew “Southern Man” so I popped it in. I recall it being nice background noise then, a trifle, a period piece that didn’t quite connect with me the way his early-90s output, such as “Rocking in the Free World,” did (ugh… stupid Pearl Jam covering that song everywhere). In the intervening years, however, it became my second favorite Neil Young album (after Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere), and it still holds a sentimental place in my heart. There were very few mixtapes I made in college that didn’t have “After the Gold Rush” on it – the combination of plaintive piano, fantastic imagery of doubt, loss, hope – incredibly evocative. “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” and “Cripple Creek Ferry” are also among my favorites – some sentiments seem trite or cliché these days, but this is the source. This is the classic.
But the best part of this album may be the song that provided the sparks that Neil Young flickered on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Dixie-flagged tinderbox. You should all know Young’s “Southern Man,” one of most memorable protest songs of all time:
“The lyrics of ‘Southern Man’ are vivid, describing the racism towards blacks in the American South as perceived from the viewpoint of a Canadian. In the song, Young tells the story of a Southern man (symbolically the entire South) and how he mistreated his slaves. Young pleadingly asks when will the South ‘pay them back’ for years of abuse and racism” (Wikipedia).
Not too crazy, right? I don’t think any sane-minded, justice-loving person can fault Neil for his sentiments. Obviously from this vantage point in 2010, with the benefit of hindsight (and I argue that you could have easily come to this conclusion in 1970, even in the emotionally charged climate of Civil Rights America), it would be almost criminal to even consider siding with anyone else but Neil Young on the question of the song’s subject matter.
So why be rational when you can be blindly angry? Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd sure as hell was, and on their 1974 sophomore album Second Helping (cheap shot alert [to further and unnecessarily belittle the object of my criticism]: what an obviously stupid album name), the South – represented by Van Zant’s band of roots rockers – rose again as it were, this time in song. “Sweet Home Alabama” retorted: “Well I heard mister Young sing about her / Well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down / Well, I hope Neil Young will remember / A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” Ooooh! Scandal. So it appears that Ronnie Van Zant, representing the Southern United States, specifically the state of Alabama, doesn’t in fact agree with Neil Young, and moreover, wants him to stay the hell away from the South. Here’s what I think about that: Pbbbbbbtttttt!
All childishness aside. Speaking of blind anger, it looks more and more like I’m the one who’s actually guilty, not Ronnie Van Zant. (Well, as far as I know, anyway.) The funny thing is, Skynyrd’s piss take at Young was really for the way “Southern Man” was written as a universal representation of southerners – their aim was to debunk that all-encompassing critique. (Although there was no specific rebuttal in “Sweet Home Alabama” of Young’s assertions – the lyrics to the song kind of glossed over that part.) So whatever his intentions and whether or not he leaned toward or away from Civil Rights advocacy, barring more research that I frankly don’t care to do (if you hadn’t noticed, I’m not a Skynyrd fan), Ronnie Van Zant cannot come under fire from me if I am to retain any good conscience about the matter. To make matters worse, or at least to further unfound my arguments, before Van Zant’s tragic plane-crash death, Young and Skynyrd professed mutual respect and admiration for each other. Young was pleased to have been mentioned in a song by a band he liked, and would frequently cover “Sweet Home Alabama” in concert. Van Zant was known to wear Young’s Tonight’s the Night t-shirt, and Crazy Horse’s Billy Talbot would wear a Lynyrd Skynyrd shirt on occasion.
So let’s all hug and celebrate the professional courtesies extended by these musicians, effectively quashing a feud started forty years ago. I think that my own personal judgments of Skynyrd as redneck drunkards have clouded any objective analysis I can give on the subject, but it’s fun to get riled up every once in a while, pretending I’m a crotchety old man shaking his cane at the neighborhood kids. I don’t hate the South – parts of it are quite lovely – but it’s so easy to hear the adjective “Dirty” applied before it and nod in agreement. And Lynyrd Skynyrd is 75% of the reason I feel that way. (Chipper Jones represents the other 25%.)
Good album though – After the Gold Rush is a classic.
RIYL: The Byrds; Buffalo Springfield; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young