Members Only Content Get a Reader's Pass

KHAN: Can Southern Rock Survive Cancel Culture?
Peter Keys, Mark Matejka, Johny Van Zant, Rickey Medlocke, Keith Christopher, Gary Rossington, Dale Krantz-Rossington and Carol Chase of Lynyrd Skynyrd perform during during Day 3 of the 52nd Festival D'été Quebec (FEQ2019) on July 6, 2019 in Quebec City, Canada. (Photo by Ollie Millington/Redferns)
Ollie Millington/Redferns via Getty Images

As the Left attempts to demolish all vestiges of the complex history of America, Southern rock may very soon find itself in the crosshairs of cancel culture if the madness continues unabated. This includes the likes of The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Band. It’s not hard to imagine that such artists, songs, and albums will be de-platformed from the likes of Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, etc., to appease these history-erasing mobs.

Currently, there is virtually no room to discuss or contextualize any monument, statue, or song that commemorates the South and its complicated history in any meaningful way. Instead, amid all the current protests, acts of vandalism, and destruction, it must all be eradicated, sight unseen.

While there are many songs that epitomize the somewhat nebulous definition of Southern rock in various ways, perhaps the most emblematic example remains The Band’s sonorous lament, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The Band and that particular song alongside the likes of The Allman Brothers serve as the progenitors for the genres that would later come to be defined as Southern Rock and Americana.

Ironically enough, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” was written in 1969 by a Canadian, Robbie Robertson, and sung by Levon Helm, a native Arkansan. Although a bigger hit for Joan Baez, only when one hears it sung by Helm, with his hauntingly tortured vocals, are the depths of the song fully realized.

The song is a fictional account of Virgil Caine, a Rebel soldier and a poor white Southerner. It details some of the last days of the Civil War alongside portraying the profound exhaustion and growing despair that emerged for many in the South after its loss to the North.

The opening verse of the song begins with the aftermath of one of George Stoneman’s raids behind Confederate lines that had torn up supply routes to Robert E. Lee:

Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train
Till Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again
In the winter of ’65, we were hungry, just barely alive
By May the tenth, Richmond had fell, it’s a time I remember, oh so well…

The chorus, in particular, serves as a kind of grand eulogy for the Confederate South. It captures so many of the complex emotions by way of lyric, melody, and harmony that arose among so many Southerners in the wake of such defeat for generations to come:

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,
and the bells were ringing,
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,
and the people were singin’.

In the context of the song, Robert E. Lee is presented as a fallen hero, not a turncoat or a villain. From the perspective of the forlorn protagonist, Virgil Caine, this makes perfect sense. The song continues:

Back with my wife in Tennessee,
When one day she called to me,
“Virgil, quick, come see,
there goes Robert E. Lee!”
Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood,
and I don’t care if the money’s no good.
Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest,
But they should never have taken the very best.

The song’s final verse emphasizes the contempt and resentment that would emerge for generations in the South toward the proverbial North with its many hypocrisies and carpetbaggery:

Like my father before me,
I will work the land,
Like my brother above me,
who took a rebel stand.
He was just eighteen, proud and brave,
But a Yankee laid him in his grave,
I swear by the mud below my feet,
You can’t raise a Caine back up
when he’s in defeat.

Legendary music critic, Ralph J. Gleason, considered the song a literary masterpiece that rivaled all other historical accounts of the Civil War. In his review for Rolling Stone, Gleason wrote:

[L]ean and sparse like a Hemingway short story…Nothing that I have read, from Bruce Catton to Douglas Southall Freeman, from Fletcher Pratt to Lloyd Lewis, has brought home to me the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does. The only thing I can relate it to at all is the ‘Red Badge of Courage’. It is a remarkable song, the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Rick and Richard Manuel in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn’t some oral tradition material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of ’65 to today. It has the ring of truth and the whole aura of authenticity.

Levon Helm’s own elaboration on the writing of the song is quite telling also according to The Music Aficionado:

Robbie and I worked on the song up in Woodstock. I remember taking him to the library so he could research the history and geography of the era for the lyrics and make General Robert E. Lee come out with all due respect. It was another of those workshop songs we worked on a long time before we got it down. Robertson’s take on the events that ripped the nation apart are not siding with any of the parties but rather describe the sentiment and human suffering of a confederate soldier at the end of and shortly after the war.

And, yet, amid so much praise and nuanced analyses, it’s simply a matter of time before the Left will actively seek to castigate and discard a song like ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” It will be maligned and misconstrued as some racist song that supports slavery and white supremacy instead of being one of the great chronicles of the South and the Civil War ever written.

Similarly, it’s impossible not to also mention Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Southern rock classic “Sweet Home Alabama” as progressives continue to decimate our cultural landscape. It’s brash, defiant tone and praise toward all things Southern makes it an easy target for the Left.

Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote the grand homage to Alabama and the South in response to Neil Young’s derisive song, “‘Southern Man.” Young had painted the South with tired stereotypes and broad strokes in that particular song though, according to NPR, he would later come to regret it:

In his 2012 autobiography, he stated that he deserved that musical jab, writing, “I didn’t like my words when I wrote them. They are accusatory and condescending.”

In fact, Young would end up eulogizing the band by playing ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ in concert weeks after the tragic plane crash that killed many of the founding members of  Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1977.

Even Dr. Henry Panion III, a black professor of music at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, considers Skynyrd’s Southern anthem universal for all Alabamians. In an interview with NPR from 2018, he stated the following:

What they were trying to do when they wrote it was say, “Everybody’s talking about the South, but there are some wonderful things about the South…And everyone don’t necessarily subscribe to the policies and practices of bigots and racists.”

Will Southern Rock be afforded such nuanced assessment in the future?

Related: Fallon, Kimmel and Stern: Here’s the Naked Truth Behind Cancel Culture