Pledging Allegiance to "Heritage"

Conversations about rock-and-roll music inevitably come up in my life. If the guitars and amp stored in my office don’t start it, the row of recent CDs on our living room bookshelf does. Those conversations always come around to the same question: "What’s your favorite band?"

Usually the exchanges end there, too, often with a blank stare and a polite, "Oh, I see." I always have a current favorite, but, for the past 12 years (since The Clash fizzled), normally people of any age haven’t heard of it.

I don’t plan it that way. I think of myself as a pretty mainstream, burgers-and-fries sort of guy. The music that really pushes my buttons is a very specific and fragile blend of country, gospel, and rhythm and blues. At various times this mix has been called rockabilly, Southern soul, Southern rock, and country blues, but I always know that sound when I hear it. And it probably lost its last shot at mass appeal in the 1970s when the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd literally crashed and burned.

These days my favorite band is The Bottle Rockets. A few years ago, I bought their first album (called simply Bottle Rockets), sound unheard, because I loved the name, and because a newspaper reviewer said they sounded like The Clash jamming with Lynyrd Skynyrd. He was right, except that The Rockets use more fiddle and steel guitar than Skynyrd ever did. The second album (The Brooklyn Side) has the same rocking, tin-roof sound, but with the pop melodicism of NRBQ.

The Bottle Rockets are Southern Missourians, descended from the late, great Uncle Tupelo, the seminal So-Mo band that launched a wave of 1990s country-rock that has absolutely nothing to do with The Eagles. Brian Henneman, The Bottle Rockets’ principal songwriter and singer, was a roadie for Uncle Tupelo. He tuned their guitars and hauled their amps, waiting his turn.

Aside from sounding like the great lost Southern rock band of my own personal dreams, The Bottle Rockets are socially and politically engaged, and their politics are intensely local. They sing about burned-out trailers; a teen-age welfare mother who "loves Carlene Carter and Loretta Lynn"; and a guy whose only hedge against the void is watching stock car races, bass fishing, and bowling on TV all day.

They don’t sing about the rain forest in Brazil. Instead, in "Manhattan Countryside," they sing about "the woods they chopped down to make Hardee’s Number Two."

ON THEIR FIRST album, The Bottle Rockets also have a song about the Confederate flag ("Wave That Flag"). From a distance, ranking on good old boys who wave the Stars and Bars may seem like a too-easy target. But up close and down home, the Confederate banner evokes a whole Nurembergian complex of questions about history, regional identity, and moral responsibility.

In the song, the guy with the flag in the back window of his truck says it’s not about slavery, it’s about "being a rebel." The singer replies, "being a rebel ain’t no big deal, but if somebody owned your ass, how would you feel?" Then he sums it all up, "It’s a red, white, and blue flag, but it ain’t ours."

The banner of The Lost Cause has been in the news lately, down here and nationally, with battles over its place at various Southern state capitols and, most recently, its use at Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) football games. The New South baby yups who wave the flag at Ole Miss have little else in common with Henneman’s "good old boys." Among this neo-Confederate elite, the appeal is not to rebellion, but to the sacred cow of "heritage." They claim the Confederacy is part of the history of white Southerners, and that they have as much right to their ethnocultural symbols as anyone else (read "the uppity blacks").

This is a half-truth that is worse than a lie. The true part is about history. Pretending that slavery and the Civil War never happened is impossible. Too many bodies (African American and Confederate) are in the ground to airbrush the evidence off the Southern landscape.

The lie is about the flag itself and what it represents. The Stars and Bars is not a timeless emblem of the Southern states. It came into popular use quite recently, in the 1950s, specifically as a symbol of white Southern resistance to desegregation.

In our local daily paper, an Ole Miss alumnus recently recalled graduating from the school in its centennial year of 1948 without once seeing the Stars and Bars on campus. It’s not the banner of anybody’s great-great-granddaddy who, for the usual complex of evil and honorable reasons, died at Shiloh, at least not anymore. Today it’s the banner of the thugs who spit on black school children at Little Rock and waged war to keep James Meredith off the Ole Miss campus in 1962. Anybody proud of that needs confession, counseling, or maybe an exorcism. n

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, lives and writes in Ripley, Mississippi.

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