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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood Tackles Hateful Flags and Southern Heritage in New York Times Essay

Posted By on Thu, Jul 9, 2015 at 3:34 PM

In 2001, I was commissioned by Simon & Schuster to write a book on the music and culture of the South. Beginning just after the desegregation of public schools in the late 1960s, Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race, and New Beginnings in a New South follows my own life, the lives of my friends, and the music that carried us through a particularly turbulent time in Southern and American history.

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While doing research for the book, I stumbled on a new album from a Georgia band called Drive-By Truckers. Southern Rock Opera was the musical mirror image of the narrative I had proposed for Dixie Lullaby. It was a concept album dealing with thorny issues of racial collaboration in music and on ball fields of the 1970s, the flagrant racism that still existed in the culture at large, and what it meant to come of age in the South during this period just after the monumental changes wrought by the civil rights movement.

I contacted the band’s chief singer and songwriter, Patterson Hood, whose smart and very personal essay, "The South’s Heritage Is So Much More Than a Flag," appears in today's New York Times. I had learned that Hood was the son of bass player David Hood, whose all-white studio band in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, backed some of the greatest soul singers of the ’60s and ’70s, including Aretha Franklin and the Staple Singers. David and Patterson Hood would serve as the bookends to my story; they represented what was good about the past and the future of the South, respectively.

By 2004, the year Dixie Lullaby came out, I expected that in the coming decade we would be witnessing dramatic cultural changes. After all, a young senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, had given a stirring speech at that year's Democratic National Convention, and he was poised to be a contender in the next election. I would never have predicted that more than 10 years later, things would be even worse — that on the one hand, the country would elect Obama its first black president and the Supreme Court would legalize same-sex marriage, but on the other, Obama would be bombarded at every turn by racist swill and that immigrants to this country (and their children) would be regarded as less than human. Not only that, but the very Southerners and other Americans who continued to defend the so-called rebel flag as some kind of symbol of Southern heritage would show a level of disrespect for a sitting president that we'd never before seen.

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In both Dixie Lullaby and Southern Rock Opera, the so-called rebel flag was only a tangential character — a relic whose symbolism was so clearly hurtful by the 1970s that even the rabble-rousing Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd eventually stopped using it as a backdrop at its concerts. (A very different Lynyrd Skynyrd lineup touring today uses it again.) The flag represented everything about the South that was unworthy of celebration: its legacy of human bondage; a bloody, misguided war that killed more than 600,000 Americans and nearly ripped apart the country’s heart and soul; the spectre of deep-seated racism that continued to divide Southerners for another 100 years, when civil rights began to shift the culture towards some kind of normalcy.

And yet here we are, in 2015, and only now has South Carolina finally acknowledged the hideous, hateful symbolism of the so-called rebel flag. (Mississippi still hasn't eliminated the stars and bars from its official state flag.) 

It’s important that South Carolina has decided to take down the flag, but for Republican Gov. Nikki Haley to proudly proclaim that “it’s a new day in South Carolina” is disingenuous. Only a year earlier, Haley — the nation's first woman of color elected to governor — had downplayed the damage, emotional and otherwise, caused by the continued presence of the so-called rebel flag on government property.

“I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state,” Haley told the Washington Post in 2014. “I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”

Haley was careful not to offend a constituency that, also disingenuously, claims the so-called rebel flag is about heritage, not hate. Haley was not speaking for black South Carolinians.

It took a horrible massacre at a black church to change minds.

But even as the minds of the South are changing, a frightening number of Americans still defends its antiquated symbol of hatred. Patterson Hood, in his Times essay today, addresses some of those people. They come to his band's shows, Hood writes, having completely misunderstood the Drive-By Truckers' deeply thoughtful lyrics.

According to Hood:
When Drive-By Truckers were recording “Southern Rock Opera,” we were very concerned about how the record would be received. We wanted to back up everything we said with documented facts, lest we be construed as apologists — lest someone not notice that a sympathetic song about George Wallace was written from the Devil’s point of view. And we made a conscious decision not to discuss the so-called rebel flag. We didn’t want our narrative getting bogged down in a debate about an antiquated symbol, one we considered a moot point in any case. My own coming-of-age story revolved around much more important things like going to rock concerts and trying to get a date or hanging out with friends on weekends. The flag might have been a backdrop at Lynyrd Skynyrd concerts, but beyond that it wasn’t really anything any of us thought much about at the time.

It was only later, when we started playing songs from the album at shows, that we noticed that fans were bringing rebel flags and waving them during a song called “The Southern Thing.” The song was written to express the contradictions of Southern identity:

Ain’t about no foolish pride, ain’t about no flag
Hate’s the only thing that my truck would want to drag
You think I’m dumb, maybe not too bright
You wonder how I sleep at night
Proud of the glory, stare down the shame
Duality of the Southern Thing.

Instead, people were treating it as a rallying cry. I’m still grappling with how easily it was misinterpreted — and we rarely play it today for that reason.
Hood’s essay is one of the more eloquent pieces to be written recently on the issue of the so-called rebel flag — and what it means for those of us who grew up in the South to be continually saddled with its duality.
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About The Author

Mark Segal Kemp

Mark Segal Kemp

Mark Segal Kemp is SF Weekly's former Editor and the author of a book called Dixie Lullaby, as his tinge of a southern accent will attest.


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