Thursday, June 25, 2015

Sweet Home Alabama

When Lynyrd Skynyrd Tried to Ditch the Rebel Flag

Skynyrd's Rickey Medlocke, Johnny Van Zant, and Gary Rossington
So for the past week, in the wake of the horrific shootings in South Carolina, the argument over the flying of the confederate or rebel flag has raged on, obviously in lieu of more productive discussions about guns or violence. However, in spite of the fact that I believe that there are bigger issues to address, I do think that it is a positive thing to address the fact that for over a century, African-Americans (largely) in the south have had to contend with a symbol of their oppression shoved in their face every day by their neighbors, and even be forced to see it flying on government buildings.

Though I hardly believe that it will solve the problem of deep seated racism in America, to see the rebel flag removed from government buildings would be a nice symbolic victory. Also, though the rebel flag has its defenders, I don't think that they have a lobbying organization with the power of the National Rifle Association, so it's a more realistic goal. Just in the last week, we have seen many unexpected people come out in support of taking the flag down from state Capitol buildings (though, again, it's probably easier for the likes of Mitt Romney to come out as anti-rebel flag than anti-gun), and even seen it removed from the Capitol grounds in Alabama.

Still, this will probably not have a huge effect on people who wish to fly the flag on their own property. In fact, it has already been seen that some wish to deny the racist aspects of the rebel flag, and see this movement as an assault on their culture and their rights. (Surprise, surprise, most of these people are white.)

You may remember when the classic southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd stated in 2012 that they would be no longer be using the rebel flag in their concerts. Their fans had a shit fit.

When promoting their latest album Last of a Dyin' Breed, band members Johnny Van Zant , Gary Rossington, and Rickey Medlocke said in a CNN interview that they had stopped using the flag because of the racial connotations. "We didn't want to be associated with that particular thing," lead singer Johnny Van Zant said. It was an admirable step forward, albeit of a bit late one, for a band whose members and fan base largely consist of self-proclaimed rednecks. It should be noted, however, that they still remained ignorant of the fact that the flag's racist meanings are inherent, believing that the negative connotations are somehow something new. Guitarist (and sole remaining founding member) Gary Rossington asserted that "through the years, you know, people like the KKK and skinheads and people have kind of kidnapped the Dixie or rebel flag from the southern tradition and the heritage of the soldiers. That's what it was about. And they kind made it look bad in certain ways." One could say that he's kind of full of shit and that he is deluded in thinking that the flag did not represent racial oppression from the very beginning, but on the other hand, at least it's clear that Lynyrd Skynyrd doesn't want to be associated with the KKK. That's a step, right?

Don't get me wrong. I think that Lynyrd Skynyrd is a fine band. Sure, those who know me will remember how, in that past, I've referred to them as a "second rate Allman Brothers,"  and I do stand by that, but being a second rate Allman Brothers is better than being a first rate Grand Funk Railroad (if that makes any sense). With their powerful three guitar line-up they were a force to be reckoned with. At their best, they were powerful, hard-rocking, and lyrical at the same time, bombastic, yet unpretentious.  Though they didn't flaunt the influence of black artists, it was clear that their sound was a marriage of all the sounds of the south, from country, to blues and soul. I do not have a single bad thing to say about the original Skynyrd (which disbanded in 1977 after the plane crash which took the lives of guitarist Steve Gaines, and leader and front-man Ronnie Van Zant among others).

Sure, many of their fans were rednecks. Sure the band flew the confederate flag at their concerts. I'm not going to defend the use of a symbol that is so clearly associated with racism and slavery, but I will posit that there was a time when it was easier to be blissfully ignorant of that association. Even the Allman Brothers, who, unlike Skynyrd, tacitly acknowledged the influence of black artists and proudly had a multi-ethnic line-up, occasionally used the confederate flag in promotional materials.

Thus, I will not begrudge Lynyrd Skynyrd's for their use of the confederate flag during the 70s (I'm sure it's easier for me as a white dude), but I will be fiercely critical of anyone who continues to fly that flag now that its true meaning is clearly known and emphasized. It is amazing to me that there are people who still maintain that it is a symbol of southern pride and nothing more, declaring that it is not racist in the slightest in spite of the fact that it is a symbol of an insurrectionist movement originally based on preserving the right to own human beings.

Well, these people exist, and a lot of them are Skynyrd fans.

The outcry that erupted among the band's fan base in 2012 was swift and vicious (as swift and vicious as internet trolling gets, I suppose). It was so bizarre to see how many Skynyrd fans were so vocal in the defense of the flag and their anger at the band for abandoning it. They took it really personally, and vented in their messages. A beautiful example comes from some dude calling himself celtwarrior who wrote "skynyrd scalawags: now there is a catchy name. Love that Yankee money don't you Rossington and crew." (It should be noted that were a number of fans who applauded the band's decision, and also noted that the original band was considerably more left-leaning.)

It takes a special kind of asshole to defend an indefensible symbol. It also takes a special kind of asshole to try to tell artists what they should do. And so it saddened me to see the group bow to the wishes of this bunch of highly specialized assholes and declare that they would continue to use the flag as a backdrop at their concerts.

Soon after the announcement and the backlash, Gary Rossington wrote on the band's website: "Myself, the past and present members (that are from the South), are all extremely proud of our heritage and being from the South. We know what the Dixie flag represents and its heritage; the Civil War was fought over states rights."

Way to take a stand guys.

A less seditious makeover
To their credit, looking at the Lynyrd Skynyrd website today, the confederate flag was hardly to be found. I didn't see it in any stage photos. Looking hard, I found that they still sell some guitar picks that have the rebel flag in their design, but most of the website made prominent use of the American flag instead. Perhaps they ultimately did what happened at the Alabama Capitol building and should be done all over: Take it down when no one's looking and unceremoniously let the symbol disappear.

A little disclaimer here. I am aware that not all Skynyrd fans are idiotic reactionaries. At the same time, I don't feel bad making fun, particularly after reading comments fans left on the CNN website ("'Sweet Home Massachusetts' has kind of a nice ring to it") made me realize that to a number of these people, an association with my home state is the worst insult ever.