Wednesday, June 3, 2009
in which we see a civil war in popular music -- and a (largely) civil discussion in the classroom
The Felix Chronicles, #31
It's the end of the semester in my Civil War course. We've looked at sectional conflict, the course of the war, and Reconstruction. Now we're in what I consider the seminar stretch, where I'm asking students to choose pop culture versions or renditions of the Civil War and to write research essays analyzing their explicit as well as implicit arguments.While they get up to speed with their projects -- which they will soon discuss as works-in-progress -- I'm devoting class time to modeling the kind of work I want them to do. To that end, we've watched excerpts from Birth of a Nation and, in an experiment, Gone with the Wind in its entirety (to my surprise, I have two African American students who express enthusiasm for the movie, though a third is writing his essay on the film's racism).That's taken up a lot of time. So now I need some quick hits -- literally -- to keep things moving.
Southern man, better keep your head
Don't forget what your good book said
Southern change gonna come at last
Now your crosses are burning fast . . .
Here we go:
"So, folks, what would the Neil Young who released this song in 1971 have us believe about the Civil War -- given, I'll add, that those two words don't appear in the song?"
"Well, it's pretty clear that he considers the South responsible for what happened," Aaron says.
"Why do you think so?"
"Why do I think so?" Aaron is confused by the simple-mindedness of the question.
"Yes. What evidence do you have that he wants us to hold the South responsible?"
Aaron gestures toward the Smart Board and reads the lyrics: "I saw cotton/And I saw black/Big white mansions/ and little shacks/Southern man, when will you pay them back?"
"You forgot the screaming and bull whips cracking," Zack notes. "A subtle point, I know."
"All right then," I say, sidestepping the humor. "We know what he's saying and how he's trying to make the point -- with words, at any rate. Cotton, mansions, bull whips: these are all images we associate with the antebellum South, even if they persisted long after the war. But the meaning of a song is never simply a matter of lyrics." I play another snippet: "How long how long?" Young intones. I shut it off abruptly. The point is to try to take the song apart, to be attentive to how it's put together.
"What are you hearing here?"
Silence. They need a prompt. "Are these sweet dulcet tones? Should Beyonce be envious?"
"He's mad," Chantel says.
"Yeah," her buddy Tanya pipes in." And the music. It's like, what's the word . . .It's like all bunched up, tangled."
"Gnarled?" I offer.
"Yeah. It's really gnarly. All those guitars."
"I hear pure rage," Rick says. "Young is furious."
"Or, at any rate, this character he's created is."
"Sounds like Young to me," Rick continues. Though this is questionable textual criticism, I'm not inclined to argue the point.
"All right then. We agree on what Young is saying, and see see that he uses a number of strategies to get his point across, not the least of which is the highly dissonant sounds he produces with his voice and the instruments. My next question is: Do you agree with him? Is he persuasive?"
"I think so," says Aaron, returning to the fray.
"Well, I mean, he's got a point, doesn't he? I mean the South was at fault for having slavery and fighting to keep it.."
"Is this something Young persuades you to believe?"
"Well he makes a damn good case."
"Does he, though? Is this a fair portrayal of the South?"
"I don't see why not."
"Here's one reason: Southerners weren't the only ones who owned slaves or used whips in American history," I say. "Here's another: He's painting with a pretty broad brush here. Southern man seems to be all Southern men. Southern white men, anyway. Plantation owner, small farmer, college student, whatever."
"I agree," Caroline says. "It's a little over the top."
"I think you're reading a little too much into this," Aaron says. "It's a song. It's not like he's writing an essay for a history class where he has to take in every point of view."
"Can you take in every point of view when you write an essay for your history class?" I ask.
"You know what I mean," Aaron answers, smiling but annoyed. "He's telling a story. He has a point of view. He's not writing an academic book." There's a whiff of contempt in "academic book."
"Well, sure," I reply. "He has a point of view. And so do I. And my point of view is that he's trying to bring you around to his point of view through a series of choices he makes, some of them likely to be unconscious, in writing the song. And one of the things I'm trying to do is to develop your powers of judgment."
I look up to the class as a whole. "You all know this song, right?" They nod. "How many of you have this song on your iPods?" About a third of the hands in the room go up.
"Can't say I've ever given it all that much attention," Asa, one of those who raised his hand, says. "I see what you're saying. But I still like it."
"No law against that, Asa. I just want you to understand that not everyone likes it as much as you do, and may have real reasons not to." He nods.
"What I want to do now," I say, is play another song, one that I think all of you know, and one whose history some of you may know. It's by a group that does not agree with Neil Young, and says so." I begin to play Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." There's smiling, nodding, and even a little foot-tapping as I play the song:
Well I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ole Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don't need him around anyhow
Once again, I stop the song abruptly. "OK. So how would you characterize this as a response?"
"It isn't much of one," says Caroline. "More like a non-response."
"Does the band make any effort to engage Young's song? To refute his reasoning? To offer an alternative take on the South?"
"Well I don't know about reasoning," Chantel says with some amusement. "But they they definitely have a different point of view!"
"You're right. In fact, let's hear a little more":
In Birmingham they love the governor
Now we all did what we could do
Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscience bother you? Tell the truth
"This song came out in 1974," I explain. "I believe everyone in this elective has taken "U.S. Since 1945 previously, yes?" Nods of affirmation. "So tell me: What was Watergate?"
"That was the Nixon thing," Tanya says.
"Yes. What Nixon thing? Which Nixon thing?"
"There was a thing about a hotel," Zack remembers. "What was the name of it?"
"The Watergate hotel." ("Someone says "duh." Some chuckles at this.)
"Right," Zack continues. "The Watergate hotel. A bunch of guys broke in looking for dirt on what's his name . . . McGovern. They got caught. Nixon said he had nothing to do with it. But there were tapes. They showed he did. He was forced out.""
"Admirably succinct, Zack. Nineteen seventy four, when this song was a top ten hit, was the year that Nixon resigned. But why is Lyrnyrd Skynryd bringing this up? What does Watergate have to do with anything?"
"I have no idea," he replies.
"I think maybe he's saying that he's got nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing to apologize for," Aaron says.
"Yeah. And that people who point fingers should shut the hell up," Asa says.
"Right," I note. "Nixon won 49 states in 1972, all but Massachusetts. The whole country elected him. Not just Southerners. And Southerners are not the only ones who have done things in American history that require apologizing. Hear that, Neil Young? You'd never know from hearing 'Southern Man' that every single one of the original thirteen colonies had slavery. We did what we could to fix our mistakes. Have you looked at yours?"
"Did Lynyrd Skynryd actually say that?" Tanya asks.
"No, not in so many words. But that's one way to read what they're saying," I reply. "It's sort of like that argument we discussed a couple months back, when Southerners responded to Northern critics of slavery by saying Northerners have their own white slaves in factories. But let me ask you something else: Who was the governor of Alabama in 1974?"
Silence. Then, Caroline: "George Wallace?"
"Right. And what was the slogan associated with George Wallace?"
More silence. "Wait," Hakim says. "Something about yesterday, today and tomorrow?"
"Segregation," Aaron says.
"Right: 'Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.'"
"Wow," Rick says. "I had no idea."
"Me either," says Caroline.
"Now that you do, how does this context affect your perception of the song?"
"I'm really not sure." Caroline sounds genuinely confused. You don't often hear a student express honest uncertainty in a classroom. Good for you, Caroline.
"Again," Aaron says, "I think you're reading too much into this, too. It's a song about pride. These people are talking about a place they love. Nobody really gives a damn about George Wallace or Watergate. That's the point."
"They say they love George Wallace!" Jenny interjects, irritated by Aaron's irritation.
"They say it more like: You hate George Wallace? Well, we love George Wallace. But Wallace isn't the point. What do you hear when you listen to this song? Sweet Home Alabama. Sky so blue. Comin' home to you."
I'm hearing echoes of Aaron's father here, chief of surgery at a large New York hospital. Mom, a truly lovely woman, runs a landscaping business and is a fixture of cafeteria bake sales. I hope the struggle for his soul isn't over. But for now, I'll take his side in this debate. "It's an expression of regional pride," I say. "Like Frank Sinatra singing 'New York, New York."
"Exactly." Aaron leans back, smiles, and nods. He's pleased that I get it.
"I should point out that Wallace later recanted his racial views views, and was re-elected with substantial black support. But at this point, the moment Lynyrd Skynyrd immortalized him, Wallace was an avowed opponent of black equality."
"Where does the name Lynyrd Skynyrd come from?" Chantel asks in a voice of idle curiosity.
"After their high school gym teacher, Leonard Skinner. Lynyrd Skynyrd was their mocking name for him."
"That's great," Zack says, beaming with amusement.
"Be that as it may, Zack, let me ask you a question: Do you think this song is racist?"
He winces. "I dunno. I mean, I guess so."
"Of course it's racist," Jenny says. "These people are saying they love a guy who considers black people inferior!"
"Well, they don't say that," I point out. "But they do say others do."
"No," she corrects me. "They say 'the governor's true.'"
I squint at the Smart Board. "You're right, Jenny." Her prompt leads me to see something else: "And note that last line: 'Montgomery's got the answer.' Montgomery is the capital of Alabama. It was also, you may remember, the first capital of the Confederacy before it moved to Richmond. But maybe I'm reading too much into it, right Aaron?"
"Right." He's trying to stiffen my resolve.
I pause. "Zack: You have this song on your iPod?"
"Yes I do."
"Knowing what you know now, should you have this song on your iPod?"
"Well, sure," he says after a pause. "I mean, I understand some people might be offended. But Aaron is basically right. It's just a song. Every song is probably offensive to somebody."
"Half the music on my iPod" is offensive," Hakim notes. "I've got Fifty Cent, Cam' Ron, stuff like that."
"What about you, Caroline?"
"Well, I don't have the song on my iPod. But I hear it all the time at parties or on the radio."
"If you did have the song on your iPod, do you think you would remove it?"
"That's a tough one." I wait for her to say one way or the other. When it's clear she isn't going to, I shift my gaze. "Zack, let me come back to you."
"Gee, thanks, Mr. Cullen."
"You said you will keep this song on your iPod, which of course is your right. And you point out that people have different tastes. Can I infer from what you've said that you would not choose to play this song at, say, a University of Alabama football game because it might give offense to some people?"
"Well, no," he says. "I mean there might be some people that get offended. But I don't think most would. He shoots a glance at Chantel. "But I mean, if we reached a point when a lot of people were offended, then I guess yeah, I would."
"You could also argue that a decision to stop playing 'Sweet Home Alabama' at an Alabama football game would also be offensive to some people," Aaron notes."I just don't think a song, whatever its message, has that much impact. I mean, I've got "Suck it or Not" on my iPod, just like Hakim. Does that mean I hate women? I don't think Jenny's going to turn into a racist because she hears 'Sweet Home Alabama' while watching the Crimson Tide."
"Like I ever would," she replies.
"You go to your brother's games," Zack notes. Jenny's brother is the quarterback on the school team, which has gone undefeated the last two years running.
"Well, yeah, for home games," she concedes. "But that's different. I never really know what's going on anyway."
"But this does bring up an interesting point," I say. "Can you imagine yourself 150 years ago, leaving your home in New York to go visit family or friends in Mississippi? You'd see slavery all around, but would you say anything about it? Would you think you should say anything about it? I mean, who would you be to pass judgment on something like that? What would you know?"
"That's scary to think about," Caroline says. "I'd like to think I'd speak out, but I'm not sure I would." No one follows up on that. We're about out of time -- and energy.
"Well, that's my attempt to get us back to the Civil War, from which we've drifted," I say, signalling an attempt to wrap this all up as class ends. "I'll end today by disagreeing with Aaron. I think he really does have a point: it is possible to read too much into a song," I say, looking at him and nodding before I shift my gaze up and scan the room as a whole. "But that's not the premise of this assignment, this class, or my career, and since you are at least for the moment stuck with me, I'm asking you to play along with me here. And that means taking seriously the notion that any song, any movie, any advertisement or whatever is making any number of assertions. Your job here is to figure out what one of those assertions is, explain why you think that particular assertion is being made, and then to evaluate the legitimacy of that assertion. Starting next week, I'm hoping you'll start presenting what you're working on." I think I've connected: they seem to be looking at me fairly intentently. "OK. See you tomorrow. We're going to have a discussion of what you're working on -- and I"ll be looking for volunteers to show a clip or play a song so we can have a discussion of the kind we did here today.
As they shuffle out, Hakim asks me, "Did you have these records when you were growing up, Mr. Cullen?"
"Indeed I did, Hakim."
"Did you know what they were really about?"
"Not right away. But eventually, yes."
"And you kept them?"
"Well I could say it was strictly for professional reasons."
"Ah," he says. "I guess it's legit, then. See you next tomorrow, Mr. Cullen."
"Take care, Hakim." He let me off the hook too easily, I think. These kids may think I raise these questions actually knowing how I'd answer them. But one of the great guilty pleasures of teaching is to push people to answer questions you don't know how you'd answer yourself.