by Bert Clere
15 June 2017
When an artist dies young, it freezes them in place forever. But the case of Ronnie Van Zant is a little different. Forty years ago this October the Lynyrd Skynyrd frontman died in a plane crash with bandmates Steve and Cassie Gaines. Ever since then his place in popular culture has been as volatile as the accelerating culture wars. Not even his grave has been peaceful. It finally had to be moved because of looters. The uneasy place of his body reminds us of the uneasy place of his demographic in US culture and politics. There’s often lively debate about where a deceased artist would stand politically as politics and culture evolve after their death. Would Ronnie Van Zant be a Trump supporter today? Or would he have the nuanced appreciation of Obama that Merle Haggard expressed before his own death? Such questions are hard to answer because the living Ronnie Van Zant was a mystery.
Shout out “Freebird!” with an exaggerated southern accent in a group of well-educated progressives and you’ll usually get a chuckle. But behind the chuckle are uneasy currents of class and politics. The disservice of the “Freebird!” crack is it misrepresents what a truly great and complex rock artist Ronnie Van Zant was. He was fortunate to have a cavalcade of talented musicians around him, but he was always the creative heart and soul of Lynyrd Skynyrd. If Led Zeppelin was the biggest rock band of the 1970’s, Skynyrd was the wayward cousin. Not as polished and mystical, but every bit as loud with a unique lyrical beauty often imitated but never equaled. As Skynyrd biographer Mark Ribowsky says, “People never really knew who Ronnie Van Zant was during his lifetime because he always had that reputation of the bar-brawling redneck, good old boy. And he was that. But he was actually a very smart, very talented songwriter and singer, and I don’t think he felt he was ever understood, which is what led to a lot of his reckless behavior with drugs and booze and women.”
Van Zant grew up idolizing Muhammad Ali and dreamed of becoming a boxer. In his life and music he was always fighting, but rarely spiteful or mean. In an essay on Elvis Presley and redneck culture the late Mississippian Will Campbell wrote, “I am also trying to say that the redneck, even in this post-industrial, technological age, has hung onto a scrap of individualism, and thus offers hope of deliverance from the technological concentration camp we have built…I am trying further to say that in this vitality, this rebelliousness, this commitment, this dogged determinism, this recalcitrant, complaining, murmuring, seething hostility and seeming helplessness in the face of political and social exploitation, there may yet emerge deliverance from that body of death in the race/poverty which stalks and haunts and infects our land and is getting worse with every national election.” Ronnie Van Zant saw himself as a redneck and it was the artistic ethos he embraced. His hardscrabble background was a source of pride to him. But there were many aspects of him that contradicted the redneck stereotype. He was not ignorant of the world nor did he seek to be a vulgar reactionary. The ambiguity of his lyrics makes him hard to pin down on a liberal, conservative cultural spectrum. He was fiercely protective of the South, but generally tried to address critics of Southern culture in a tongue-in-cheek rather than incendiary way.
The most famous, beloved, and notorious example of this will always be “Sweet Home Alabama.” It is certainly a blustering rebuke to Neil Young’s “Alabama” and to general criticisms of the South directed its way during and after the Civil Rights Movement. But did Van Zant agree a little with the critics? Was he supporting opposition to the segregationist Wallace when he sang “In Birmingham they love the Governor/Boo! Boo! Boo!/Now we all did what we could do”? The line “Watergate does not bother me,” is disturbing. But take it with the line “does your conscience bother you, tell the truth?” and you see a little better what Van Zant was getting at. Richard Nixon benefitted enormously from Southern support, but he was not a product of the South, anymore than Donald Trump is today. Watergate was a national issue, just as Trump’s movement is a national issue. Van Zant idolized Neil Young and wore his t-shirts. No doubt part of him was quite sympathetic to the Canadian liberal, as beautifully dramatized by the Drive By Truckers in the song “Ronnie and Neil.”
Still, those who see evasion on the race issue in “Sweet Home Alabama” have a fair point. Van Zant was from Florida, not Alabama. But he loved and recorded in Alabama, and defended it as the backdrop of southern experience. He was never shy about hoisting the Confederate flag at concerts or cheering on those waving it in crowds. With General Lee on TV and The Outlaw Josey Wales popular at the box office, the 1970’s were an apex for Confederate iconography in pop culture. Behind the waving of the Confederate flag was a reluctance to fully confront racial injustice. Van Zant claimed the flag as a s symbol of pride, but like so many who wave it he seemed unaware of or unwilling to consider the anger, pain, and fear the flag understandably evokes. For blacks who endured centuries of enslavement, legal discrimination, and terrorist violence, Alabama was most often not the same sweet home as it was for whites. Van Zant might have seen pride, family, and neighborly love in the flag, but Confederate symbols simply cannot e dissociated from the systems of slavery and segregation which they were created to defend and uphold.
Years before Van Zant and Young, Robert Johnson sang “Sweet Home Chicago” as an ode to escape and new horizons. Van Zant’s instincts were roused to defend his people, warts and all. But he did address race head on in the moving song, “The Ballad of Curtis Loew.” It’s an acknowledgement of the indebtedness rock music owed to black southern bluesmen, a moving portrait of such itinerant musicians in the era Van Zant grew up in. Van Zant sought to pay respects to the man discriminated against by his government and denied opportunity and a fair shot by the institutions around him, the man who picked up a guitar to defiantly show a hostile world his worth. Indeed, the sympathy for black pain shown in the story of Curtis Loew stood in tension with Van Zant’s embrace of the Confederate flag. To tie that flag to its role in Loew’s disenfranchisement was further than Van Zant was willing to go, but necessary for us if we are to fully reckon with Southern history and its painful chapters.
Even with all the Confederate flags, Van Zant rarely showed much interest in the Civil War in his music. His focus was modern, generally the struggles, loves, longings, successes, failures of the working class South of his time. The song “Things Goin’ On” is a blistering indictment of government inaction and indifference towards the ghetto and poverty. Its general message could be translated pretty effectively from Van Zant’s Florida in the 1960’s to inner-city Baltimore today.
Van Zant could be violent and boasting, but this was always tempered by a large helping of warmth and humility. This is what kept him from descending into triumphant jingoism or egotism. “Saturday Night Special” is still one of the most honest and effective treatments of gun violence in popular music. With his characteristic half-playful, half-serious attitude, Van Zant points us exactly where jingoistic gun waving leads: death for you and me. It was life that Van Zant was interested in, and he sought to squeeze as much out of it as he could in his relatively brief existence. In his music there is always an awareness of loss and melancholy pervaded by the joy and struggle of being alive.
The two most meaningful Skynyrd songs for me will always be “Tuesday’s Gone” and “Simple Man” off their first album, pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd. I first discovered it at a particularly lonely and vulnerable time in my life. At age 14 I’d suffered my first serious bouts of OCD with accompanying dark thoughts, alienation, and severe anxiety. I felt isolated and adrift in the rural NC county in which I lived. Yet in those songs I heard a fellow traveler reaching out to me. “Tuesday’s Gone” is about losing love, and just as much about the existential loneliness we must all confront at some time or another. “Simple Man” is a guide to spiritual truths that are a balm for our achievement-obsessed, materialistic culture. This anchor of values and gentle wisdom speaks to us and points us in a different direction when we are at our meanest and most despairing.
The world moves at a fast pace, and Van Zant famously asked if we would remember him. That question has long been answered. But we must remember him accurately. He was a great musician and lyricist who fronted a great and influential band. The hard rock of Skynyrd bled into the clashing sounds of AC/DC and Metallica. Their wistful, melodic searching was a precursor to the grunge of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains. In his lyrics Van Zant sought the complex and playful South beyond the stereotype, and in this the Drive By Truckers, Jason Isbell, and Sturgill Simpson are his musical children. He was an artist who sang the truth as he saw it, and passed through the rising waters of the culture wars with a sly and gentle swagger.
Bert Clere is a writer trying to figure out what comes after postmodernism. You can follow his experiments at twitter.com/BertClere.