The South’s Heritage Is So Much More Than a Flag

By Patterson HoodConfederate_Rebel_Flag_svg
First off, I love the Southland.

I was born and raised in Florence, Ala., a small town on the northern banks of the Tennessee River in a region known locally as the Shoals. It’s a Bible Belt community; my hometown was “dry” until I was nearly 20 years old. It was also the birthplace of some of the most beloved and important music of the 20th century.

W.C. Handy, sometimes known as the father of the blues and an important early jazz figure — the author of “Beale Street Blues” and “St. Louis Blues,” among other early standards — was born in Florence in 1873. The radical and ingenious producer Sam Phillips was born half a century later in McGee Town, a small farming community about eight miles to the northwest, two farms over from my family’s homestead. He nurtured the invention of rock ’n’ roll, discovering Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie Rich, Ike Turner, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, among many others.

On the south side of the river, the neighboring towns of Muscle Shoals and Sheffield hosted recording studios — FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, respectively — that along with Stax Records’ studio in Memphis became the epicenter of the soul and R&B explosion of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, the Staple Singers, Bobby Womack and many other African-American artists crossed racial barriers and recorded classic music with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who happened to be white. Together, they recorded landmark hits that were the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement.

The four towns that make up the Shoals are deeply religious and politically conservative, but they also hosted a bubbling underground of progressive thought, home to a vibrant minority of freethinkers and idealists. In our own mythology, we weren’t caught up in the bloody violence that will forever haunt the reputations of Birmingham, Memphis and Selma — we were too busy making joyous music. The elementary school I attended had already been integrated (peacefully, as far as I know) by 1970, when I started first grade. I never saw a burning cross or a burning church. That said, I’m sure there has been plenty of frothing at the mouth there recently over last month’s Supreme Court decisions, President Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church, the rainbow lights at the White House — and of course, the Confederate flag.

When I was growing up, I never thought much about the flag. My father, David Hood, was and still is a session bass player with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. His views on the Civil Rights era were shaped by the time he spent playing with Aretha and the Staple Singers. He looked at George Wallace and Bull Connor with great disdain, and was mortified to think that people around the world believed all Southerners were like that.

My father worked long hours at the studio, and I spent a large part of my childhood with my grandparents and great-uncle. Raised during the Great Depression, they were progressive by the standards of their generation and told me stories about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who the old folks said had saved Florence and the surrounding towns; and Wilson Dam, a World War I-era structure that crossed the Tennessee River just east of Florence, made the river navigable and provided the impetus for Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority, which electrified the region and brought it — sometimes kicking and screaming — into the 20th century. They also told stories about my great-great-grandfather, who fought for the Confederacy at Shiloh during the Civil War. They were always quick to say that he had been poor and never owned slaves, and had simply fought against a conquering army invading his home.

Such is the storytelling that pervades the Southern character. The South loves myths and legends, and while they may have roots in the truth, they often overlook certain complexities. We raise our children steeped in “Gone With the Wind” folklore and pretend that all the things we saw in “12 Years a Slave” didn’t happen.

As a songwriter, I’ve spent the better part of my career trying to capture both the Southern storytelling tradition and the details the tall tales left out, putting this dialectical narrative into the context of rock songs. My band’s best-known work, an album we recorded a decade and a half ago called “Southern Rock Opera,” is an examination of life in the South after the Civil Rights era, in the form of a coming-of-age tale of a Southern boy about my age who grows up to become a famous musician before dying in a plane crash while on tour. The album wrestled with how to be proud of where we came from while acknowledging and condemning the worst parts of our region’s history.

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:

It was around that time that I began paying attention to the flag flying at courthouses and state capitals. I started hearing things like “heritage, not hate” from people who were perhaps well-meaning, but were nevertheless ignoring the fact that their beloved Southern Cross flew at Klan rallies — that it was a symbol for a war fought on the principle of one man owning another. Let’s pause to think about that one for a moment: one man owning another. When our kindly Grandpa says “states’ rights,” that’s the “right” he’s talking about. Unfair tariffs? Many of the soldiers in the Civil War probably couldn’t spell “tariff.” But they certainly knew that the South’s economy and very way of life was built upon the backs of men, women and children of color.

Last month, a terrorist with a gun killed nine unarmed men and women in a church in Charleston and woke the people in our country up from sweet dreams of a postracial America, driving home just how far we still have to go. As the city mourned and tried to make sense of its grief, the State House of South Carolina still flew the rebel flag at full staff. Now the tide is turning; the state’s legislature voted to take it down from the Capitol grounds early Thursday morning, and it’s not impossible to think that other Southern states might do the same before long.

It’s high time that a symbol so divisive be removed. The flags coming down symbolize the extent to which those who cry “heritage, not hate” have already lost their argument. Why would we want to fly a symbol that has been used by the K.K.K. and terrorists like Dylann Roof? Why would a people steeped in the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Bible want to rally around a flag that so many associate with hatred and violence? Why fly a flag that stands for the very things we as Southerners have worked so hard to move beyond?

If we want to truly honor our Southern forefathers, we should do it by moving on from the symbols and prejudices of their time and building on the diversity, the art and the literary traditions we’ve inherited from them. It’s time to study and learn about who we are and where we came from while finding a way forward without the baggage of our ancestors’ fears and superstitions. It’s time to quit rallying around a flag that divides. And it is time for the South to — dare I say it? — rise up and show our nation what a beautiful place our region is, and what more it could become.

Why the Person Who Broke You Can’t Be the One Who Fixes You

loveThere is nothing in life that will make you stronger or screw you up more than heartbreak. I have only had my heart broken by one person in my life — and it was more than enough. Falling in love with someone isn’t only falling in love with an incredible person, a person you find to be one of the best people in the world. It’s also falling in love with the person you become when you’re with the one you love. Sometimes the person we love makes us want to be a person who isn’t especially great. But when your love does make you want to be a better person, what the two of you share has a real shot at lasting the test of time. Yet, there’s still more to it than just that. Falling in love is also falling in love with what you believe to be your future. Most often, losing this is what hurts the most. When you lose the love of your life, you lose a piece of yourself — the piece that holds you together. You lose the piece of you that makes you the good person you’ve become; you lose the piece of you that allows you to be you. So when your heart gets broken, you, too, in a sense, break. As there are different depths to love, I believe there are different depths to heartbreak. It only makes sense that the shallowest of loves leaves the shallowest of cracks, while the deepest of loves causes our hearts to undergo a sort of shattering. The heartbreak I’m speaking of in particular is of the deepest kind — the kind that only really happens once in a lifetime. I say only once in a lifetime because once we experience such heartbreak, we are never again the same. We become different people, scarred and nerve-damaged. We begin to look at life and love through a different shade of glass. We will never have our hearts broken in exactly the same manner, as we have lost the innocence that allowed for such vulnerability in the first place. When you completely give your heart over to someone — body and soul — and the relationship doesn’t work out, you lose that heart. It doesn’t matter if things didn’t work out because of them or because you yourself screwed up. It doesn’t even matter if there’s no one to blame. If you were certain that you would spend your lives together and have to face the reality that the future you have been looking forward to for so long has just been taken away from you, it’s going to hurt. A lot. Sad to say, it’s not a pain that goes away quickly. It takes time to heal — and you will most definitely need some healing. More importantly, you’re going to need some fixing. Someone is going to need to take the pieces of you lying sprawled out across the ground, and put you back together. The question is: Who? The answer is simple. Only one of three people in the world can fix you when you’re dealing with the aftermath of a broken heart. Either someone new who has yet to break your heart, that someone who did break your heart, or you — the one who had his or her heart broken. Each one of those three options has its benefits, but also tradeoffs. Finding someone new to love is usually our go-to. Most people very strongly believe that finding a new love to take the place of the old one is the best way to go. And for a good reason — because it works. If you fall in love with someone new, the pain from the old love goes away — at least for the time being. The problems with this are obvious. Finding someone new to love only works for as long as the love stays alive. As soon as the love fades or the relationship fails, that heartbreak that you buried way back when will likely resurface. The only reason it wouldn’t resurface would be if you were dealing with the pain from novel heartbreak. New love trumps old love just as new heartbreak trumps old heartbreak. Then we have the second option — getting back together with the person who broke you in the first place. I feel like I need to put some sort of disclaimer here: Although it is possible for your old love to fix you, to mend your heart and to make you happier than you ever thought imaginable — 100 percent possible — it’s highly unlikely. The person who broke you will almost never be the person who’ll fix you. Things always have a reason for not working out. Even if the reason is poor timing or lack of maturity, you are still carrying around a whole lot of baggage from the last time you two were together. Once a relationship fails, it almost always fails every consecutive time. When you break someone’s heart, you lose that person’s trust. If you don’t believe trust is the most important part of any relationship then you know absolutely nothing about relationships. Is trust re-gainable? Sometimes, I’m sure it is. Depending on the circumstance, you may be able to get past all the broken promises, all the painful memories, all the unpleasant emotions that arise every so often almost out of the blue. But in other cases — most, even — the trust is gone for good. Maybe the person who broke your heart can be the one to fix it… but the odds aren’t in your favor. Nothing is impossible, but going after the incredibly unlikely isn’t always in our best interest. Sometimes you have to accept that he or she will never again feel safe in your arms, and let him or her go. It’s not always easy to move on. Sometimes, it seems impossible. But you need to believe you will find someone else to love when the time is right. Statistically speaking, it’s almost impossible for there not to be another suitable match for you. Keep searching, be patient and you will find that person one day. Until that day comes, work on fixing yourself. Love does as much damage as it does because we allow ourselves to wallow in that misery. We hone in on it and allow the painful thoughts and memories to fill our minds and to seep into all the nooks and crannies of our lives. We wait to be fixed and by doing so gradually become more and more broken. You may be able to find someone to piece you back together, but there is only one person in the world who is guaranteed to do the job right. Only you can fix yourself the way you need to be fixed. Finding another lover can help, but it isn’t necessary. Waiting to find someone new to love or waiting to get back with that one that got away is dumb. Maybe you will meet someone new one day. Maybe you’ll get back together with the one who made you simultaneously happier and more miserable than you have ever been in your life. You can’t wait for someone else to motivate you to get your life straight. Remember, one of the main reasons we’re capable of loving another person as much as we are, is how he or she makes us want to improve ourselves and the lives we lead. Other people never really fix you. They only help you fix yourself. Be smart and fix yourself before you fall in love again. The better the person you are, the more likely you are to find your happily ever after. –

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