Songs of the South

07022015-TW-Bent NotesWith all the talk recently about the true nature of Southern identity and the importance of a piece of cloth whose meaning changes with each passing generation, I decided to use this month’s column to look at a group of songs that deal with four very Southern topics: religion, race, family and, for lack of a better term, stereotypical redneck idiocy.
I chose these songs because they manage to steer away from the standard take on these timeworn tropes and instead offer an eccentric, sidelong glance at the familiar, sometimes from deep in the heart of Dixie and other times from the perspective of a wide-eyed outsider. Whether these songs make listeners laugh, cry, or reach for their fully licensed, Constitutionally protected firearm, I hope they at least agitate some brain cells and start a few arguments.
“Southern Thing” (Drive-By Truckers) – Hailing from the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama, the Truckers delved into the contradictions inherent in the Southern experience right out of the gate. “Southern Thing” is the most straightforward look at the racial and historical contradictions of the region the band has ever offered.
“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”
Lead singer Patterson Hood, whose father played bass alongside some of the finest black soul singers of the 1960s, summed up his tangled feelings on the subject with what would become the most quoted lyric of his career:
“Proud of the glory, stare down the shame
Duality of the Southern thing.”

“Burning Hell” (John Lee Hooker) – The late great Mississippi bluesman was known more for his drinking and carousing songs than his meditations on the afterlife. When Hooker did address religion in his songwriting, however, it was with a defiant, nearly enraged voice. “Burning Hell” ranks among the boogie maestro’s most focused, intense performances.
“I don’t believe, I don’t believe in no heaven
I don’t believe in no hell
When I die, where I go, nobody knows”

“Rednecks” (Randy Newman) – With it’s litany of dumb Bubba stereotypes and liberal use of the “n” word, Newman’s tale of race baiting politics and class resentment is polarizing to say the least. Is the man satirizing the way Southerners are viewed by their Yankee cousins or laughing in their faces?
“We talk real funny down here
We drink too much and we laugh too loud
We’re too dumb to make it no Northern town”
While the song slyly points out that racism is hardly confined to the South, it’s lasting impression is one of sneering anger.
“We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks
We don’t know our *** from a hole in the ground”

“Play It All Night Long” (Warren Zevon) – Speaking of stereotypes, the “Werewolf of London” singer delved into the deep end with this tale of alcohol, incest, guns, and… Lynyrd Skynyrd. The lyrics are dire enough that it would be impossible for me to reprint the verses in a family newspaper, but the chorus of this cartoon blast of bile gives a good indication of its general embrace of the horrific.
“Sweet home Alabama
Play that dead band’s song
Turn those speakers up full blast
Play it all night long”

“Granny” (Vic Chestnutt) – The late Athens, Ga songwriter’s quiet meditation on family and loss, “Granny” follows a young boy as he observes his grandmother during her daily routine, watching and asking questions as she prepares some pimento cheese, cleans blackberry seeds from her false teeth, and tells him about his deceased grandfather.
“Granny, Oh Granny
Where did your husband, my grandaddy go?
Where did your husband, my grandaddy go?
She said he went off to heaven just before you were born”
Like a haiku, the song uses a minimum of words and notes to call forth the mystery, sense of peace, and underlying sadness a child experiences in the presence of a grandparent. After three almost dirge-like verses the song lifts as the grandmother offers a prayer for her loved one:
“She said, you are the light of my light and the beat of my heart.”


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