The Rebel Flag, the Drive-By Truckers, and the Duality of the (not so) Southern Thing

A Republican Party activist sports a Rebel flag license plate in Pennsylvania, a state that did not secede from the Union in 1860-61.

A Republican Party activist sports a Rebel flag license plate in Pennsylvania, a state that did not secede from the Union in 1860-61.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m crazy about music. Music made by people who care about making good music. So I couldn’t resist combining some good music in this entry with a bit o’ southern history. If you haven’t heard of the Drive-By Truckers before, you need to remedy such an obvious personal cultural deficiency and get some of their albums NOW. That said, the Truckers are, in my not-so-humble opinion, one of the finest American rock and roll bands of this or any other generation.

Hailing from Alabama, they often get tagged under the unfortunate banner of “Southern Rock.” While they do focus on the South in much of their recorded output, and make no bones about being proud of their Dixie heritage, their music goes much deeper than the mere Rebel-flag wavin,’ backwoods lifestyle pimpin,’ Murica’ lovin,’ jingoistic slop that Nashville is currently spewing out like a ruptured hernia. Indeed, the Truckers make uncompromising American, not southern, music, and they speak to a broader issue in American history that is well-worth addressing.

For this post I want to especially emphasize the Rebel flag wavin’ aspect of southern — and, as we’ll see, American culture — that is still an issue in contemporary life within, and outside of, the South. I’m going to do this by addressing what Drive-By Truckers front man Patterson Hood calls “the duality of the Southern thing.”

Perhaps the Truckers’ signature album is their 2001 double-disc rock opera appropriately titled Southern Rock Opera. In a recent essay for the Bitter Southerner blog, Hood ruminates on Southern Rock Opera’s cornerstone song, “The Three Great Alabama Icons.” In spoken-word fashion against the bluesy backdrop of his band-mates, Hood discusses “the duality of the southern thing,” which he defines through the lens of his “love/hate/love relationship with my home region.” Hood finds himself being simultaneously proud of “being from a region that is known for great music and literature and art and something called ‘Southern hospitality,'” but is also ashamed of a South “known for Jim Crow laws, slavery, racism and the Ku Klux Klan.” The three Alabama icons discussed in Hood’s song – segregationist Governor George Wallace, University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, and Lynyrd Skynyrd band leader Ronnie Van Zant – all embody this duality.

Wallace was, of course, the symbol of the modern segregationist South who famously stood in an Alabama schoolhouse door to block racial integration. In the song, Hood emphasizes Wallace’s shameless embrace of segregation as a vote-getting strategy that ultimately doomed him to an eternity in Hellfire. Bryant symbolizes the spirit of hard work, determination, and cultural pride that Hood sees as one of the South’s greatest strengths, while Ronnie Van Zant embodies the “newer South” that tries to proudly wave the Rebel flag to honor southern heritage while also trying to distance that flag from its violent and racist Confederate origins.

Each of these characters represents the good and bad aspects of the South — aspects that Hood has dealt with his whole life. For Hood, the more negative aspects of southern culture — especially its reactionary conservative tendencies — have come to influence the social and political divisions “between rural and urban, blue state and red state,” that currently wrack American culture. Thus, Hood sees the less-savory aspects of the southern past as aspects worth expunging because they prevent a more progressive vision of southern culture from emerging. They prevent the “good” side of the southern duality from getting noticed, assuming you equate “goodness” with progressive politics and a vibrant culture of non-corporate arts. I generally do, but let’s move on.

Hood is really addressing an issue that popular culture and historians continue to ponder: is the South different from the rest of the United States? The answer, I think, is yes and no. Let’s tackle this question by considering the role of the Confederate flag in contemporary culture. I grew up in Northeast Ohio, a few miles from the western Pennsylvania border. These two states did not secede from the Union in 1860-61. They instead voted for Abraham Lincoln and sent thousands of soldiers to crush the southern slaveholders’ rebellion. Nonetheless, it’s not uncommon to drive through Ohio and Pennsylvania and see Rebel flags hanging from porches and made into pickup truck license plates. What’s the deal here?

Generally, you’ll see the stars and bars more commonly displayed in rural areas of the Midwest. These areas tend to be politically and culturally conservative. Those sporting the rebel flag outside of Dixie see it as a general symbol of rebellion that stands for broad, highly-subjective ideals like patriotism, tradition, moral values, Christianity — stuff like that. Indeed, few of these folks, even full-on racists, have any dreams of reinstating chattel slavery or forming another separatist republic. But the Rebel flag’s appeal north of the Mason-Dixon line (I’ve even seen it in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where I went to graduate school) lies in its functioning as a symbol of a general conservative worldview that is not just southern; rather, it is deeply American.

Folks like Patterson Hood, who grew up in the South, and Yankee outsiders like myself tend to look down on the worst aspects of southern culture to make ourselves feel better about our own more progressive cultural backgrounds. This is a legitimate stance, as many aspects of southern history deserve to be criticized and rejected. But, whether we like it or not, everything we don’t like about southern history — slavery, racism, crony politics, segregation, income inequality, its penchant for cheap labor, and yes, the Rebel flag — also existed or still exist outside of the South. These are American, not just southern problems, and although they may have been more historically concentrated in the South, we should be wary of conveniently using the South as a symbolic dumping ground for our own social ills.

The Drive-By Truckers, 2013. Still Alabama ass whuppin.'

The Drive-By Truckers, 2013. Still Alabama ass whuppin.’

What Patterson Hood calls the “duality of the Southern thing” is, in many ways, the duality of the American thing. Both the Southern and the American pasts are mixtures of good and bad, pride and prejudice, honor and shame that continue to influence contemporary culture in positive and negative ways. Maybe if we stop singling out the South, we’ll recognize that although it is unique in many ways, the South is also as American as apple pie, cheap lager beer, and the Drive-By Truckers. This recognition could go a long way to solving some distinctly American problems. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to drink some good sweet tea while campaigning for Sherrod Brown.

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