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Southern Rock and Black America

Southern Rock and Black Americans

            Southern Rock did not adhere to traditional southern views of Black Americans. Instead, Southern Rock actually celebrated Black American influence. Southern Rock actually used Black American blues music as one of its greatest influences. Southern Rock artists grew up in similar situations and could relate to the music sung in blues. They lived in low class southern society and endured many of the same troubles labeled white trash. Therefore many Southern Rock bands, especially the Allman Brothers, considered blue as its greatest influence. The Allman Brothers especially singled out jazz singer Miles Davis as a great influence. Says Dickey Betts, “a lot of our guitar arrangement ideas come from the way (Miles Davis and John Coltrane) played their horns together” (Wells 122). Southern Rockers paid tribute to blues music by including covers on their albums and performing certain blues songs in concert. Most popular Southern Rock bands covered at least one Black American Blues song and in some cases (Allman Brothers and Wet Willie) bands covered many. Muddy Water's "Trouble No More" and "Can't Lost What You Never Had," Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues" by the Allman Brothers. Memphis Slim's "Everyday I Have the Blues" by the Marshall Tucker Band. BB King's "The Thrill is Gone" by Charlie Daniels Band. Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally" by Molly Hatchet. Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" by Lynyrd Skynyrd. 
            Blues was not the only black influence on Southern Rock. The original Allman Brothers Band included a black drummer Jai Johnny Johnson and later added a black bassist, Lamar Williams, to replace Barry Oakley after his death in 1973. The Allman brothers were not the only interracial Southern Rock band. Wet Willie included a black backup singer and added in 1978 a black drummer T.K. Lively. Another example of black influence was the decision by Lynyrd Skynyrd to tour with blues musicians BB King and Muddy Waters after the 1973 release of their first album. Wet Willie later applied descriptions of traditional black music such as “soul” and “boogie beat” to Southern Rock in their song “Dixie Rock.”

            So gimme some nasty pickin Some blues on a black guitar

            Don’t you dig that Dixie, lady? No matter who you are

            You can hear me down in Alabama We’re playing down in Tennessee

            From Georgia to Louisiana, They’re dancing to the boogie beat

            Of that Dixie rock and that Dixie Roll

            Got a real good beat and whole lotta soul

The last line of the song typically would apply to black music such as jazz or blues music, but Wet Willie chooses to include it into this song out of respect of the impact blacks provided for Southern Rock.

Not only did black influences exist outside the music, several Southern Rock artists wrote songs specifically direct at promoting Black Americans. On their second album, Lynyrd Skynyrd included a song called “The Ballad of Curtis Loew.”

Ballad of Curtis Loew

The song featured an old black man with white curly hair who ran a small country corner store and played blues on the guitar for the narrator. The song does not reference any particular man named Curtis Loew, but instead appeals to the history of Black Americans in general. The chorus line of “people said he was useless them people all were fools / ‘cause Curtis Loew was the finest picker to ever play the blues” contains the most meaning in the song. “Useless” refers to the racism experienced by the blacks from the South in the Jim Crow laws and pre-Civil Rights Era. The narrator then calls these people “fools” because they failed to see the value of blacks in the South. These “fools” are the people who exploited blacks and fought against the Civil Rights movement. The narrator then praises the blacks when he calls Loew “the finest picker to ever play the blues.” This line not only glorifies the Blues music performed by black artists. It also celebrates the accomplishments of all Black Americans. Similarly, the narrator directly references the influence of the Blues on Southern Rock when he speaks of listening and admiring Loew play the Blues. “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” shows great admiration to blacks and thanks the Blues for its impact on Southern Rock.

Southern Rock directly showed support for the Civil Rights Movement by using direct references to Martin Luther King Jr. Two songs in particular showed admiration for MLK, Black Oak Arkansas’s “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” and the Allman Brothers Band’s “God Rest His Soul.” Black Oak Arkansas chooses to praise MLK directly by name saying:

Luther King was a good ol’ boy, raised in poverty

Couldn’t be broke or even provoked, made rock and roll history

Gave the people hope with a good full scope of freedom been denied

Politicians know that freedom grows, and because of that he died.

The identification of MLK as a “good ol’ boy” creates a familiarity with MLK, a term used in the South as a show of friendliness and respect. The third line describes MLK’s goals in his march on Washington of providing the people hope that he would help to restore the denied freedoms to Black Americans. The final line praises his death and the success of his cause. The purpose of the second verse is to provide inspiration to Black Americans even though they may stand as “underdogs…..against unbeatable odds.” The whole song is a tribute to MLK’s cause, his successes, his death, and his legacy among Black Americans. “God Rest His Soul” by the Allman Brothers instead focuses on MLK’s death and its impact on success of the Civil Rights Movement. The song never mentions MLK specifically by name, but the references to Memphis where he was assassinated and the focus on preaching are specific references to MLK. The lyrics describe the sorrow felt by the narrator at the news of King’s death. He says, “But Lord knows I can’t change what I saw / I say God rest his soul.” The entire song contains a remorseful tone at the loss of the great leader for Civil Rights. He references the cause of Civil Rights directly in the final verse when he says “What we gonna do when war is come…and we’re/ dying / dying for the cause I know.” These lyrics are a strong advocate for civil rights as the Allmans write they are willing to die for the “cause” of Black Americans. This song shows immense respect and sorrow for Black Americans and especially MLK. Both artists directly appealed to the MLK reference because he stood as the biggest icon behind the Civil Rights Movement.