Song O’ The South: How the Allman Brothers made a Redneck Negress out of me

AN UNORTHODOX daughter of Dixie, born in the year of their classic Fillmore East live album, my life truly began when I heard the exotic, enigmatic and beautiful Afro-Celtic fusion of the Allman Brothers Band.

Inchoate reminiscences of longhaired and wild-eyed young hillbillies racing their pickup trucks along Chocolate City’s M Street as they drank beer and blasted ‘Ramblin’ Man’ still linger indelibly upon this mind expanded by Les Brers’ redefinitions of Americana and Soul.

With one jazz-fanatic parent working on Capitol Hill with intractable good ol’ boys and another having been raised in Daugherty County, Georgia, under the spectre of Jim Crow (some of those years on a plantation), de facto Afrocentrism was the law of the household. And intermittently discussion about the so-called New South heatedly included debate about the Allmans’ immediate heirs from Florida, Lynyrd Skynyrd, denounced for seeming to praise Alabama Governor George Wallace and proudly brandishing the Stars ‘n Bars.

Many of my parents’ friends were members of SNCC who migrated en masse to DC, after spending the ’60s persecuted and maimed by the likes of Wallace, Bull Connor, J. Edgar Hoover and myriad faceless Klansmen in notorious racist strongholds such as Sunflower County, Mississippi. The Message was clear: to embrace this emerging “southern rock” music was shameful at best and tantamount to race treason.

Nevertheless, my childhood inner world was tracked to the glories of ‘Jessica’ and I tacitly counted ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ as one of my favourite songs. During this same period, as an introvert whose turntable was my only “pet” and avid dissector of liner notes, I worshipped strange white men associated with the Allman Brothers in some form: Phil Walden Sr, Jerry Wexler aka Papa Dip, Bill Graham, Ahmet Ertegun.

Somehow, at age five, I believed I would simply grow up to become one of these heavyweights and magically produce high caliber music akin to that which the Skyman/Skydog Duane Allman contributed to at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. Dalliances on the edge of the rockbiz and the Allmans’ entourage lay years ahead of me, the death and drama that dogged the band throughout the ’70s as remote as the cross-cultural exchange between Scotch-Irish and African traditions on these shores that made the sextet’s revolutionary art possible.

Back then, I was neither an American nor embroiled in rockcrit, merely in love with utter sound. And I worshipped the Allmans for in the murky pool that was their masterpiece, ‘In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed’, this alienated Afro-Atlantic gal could see her reflection.

“You’ve got to consider why anybody wants to become a musician anyway,” Gregg Allman told Cameron Crowe, not long after the Skydog gone to Glory. “I played for peace of mind.”

That’s why I have always listened to the Brothers and consecrated a goodly portion of my soul to them. Born in a turbulent time as the Civil Rights Movement was overtaken by Black Power, being trapped in a dizzying volte face about the realities of our bloody land’s racial divide (at home and school), this Macon-based band proffered a true and seductive multiracial brotherhood as potent as Sly Stone’s.

My intellect was lured by the doomed romance of the South; my heart envisioned always a Dixie-fried pastoral where my contested body could thrive, the only place that would offer me solace… It wasn’t just the feathered jewelry & gingham halter tops, nor the red clay and kudzu as allure… it was the soothing balm that the Brothers’ music represented: a solution to the frightening tensions of an America perennially inhospitable to descendants of Africans and oppressive to the South’s poor whites.

All this complexity was captured in the mysterious and inscrutable visage of Jaimoe. From the annual Gotham gala that is Peakin’ At The Beacon (Theatre) to a sun-baked shed in Nashville, I attempted to fathom the ABB because their work seemed to emphatically reinforce the idea that America (like the black world) thrives on diversity. The music enables escape from the harsh reality of failed desegregation. At a recent Manhattan performance, Dickey Betts and his reconstituted Great Southern band delivered the most African ‘Elizabeth Reed’ I’d ever heard, so startling it seemed as if they were collectively reaching across through the Bight of Benin, the ethos of inclusivity, the terrible beauty forcing the listener to reckon with a haunting vision of freedom.

In person, the broken circle surrounding the ABB was unpleasant but in sound the twisting, turning hybrid arrangements have always given me peace of mind and my pen wings to soar. I am eternally indebted to Jaimoe, as his presence, wisdom and beauty certainly gave me license to embrace the Brotherhood and enjoy an intimate relationship with their music, an enlivening exchange that the majority of my generation of Soul Babies have sadly been deprived of (unable to get ‘round visions of hordes of drunken po’ white trash balling at sun-beaten sheds to sound + vision redneck manifestoes).

Truth is articulated from the soaring twin leads of Betts and Allman (& Haynes & Trucks the Younger) but the Natives cannot interpret what the drums are saying, ‘Blood. From the moment I heard ‘Ramblin’ Man’ (a twang-bangin’ hard bop mighty enough to penetrate the ‘Hood), I was trapped; couldn’t ever go home again and thus advanced bravely into an alien world that could never wholly welcome me.

It has been amusing playing “Count Da Negro” at shows played by Southeastern bands but I’m long over it. Truthfully, the sole person of African descent I’ve ever encountered whose Brothers obsession rivals mine (Chank aside?) is my ex-professor Lorraine O’Grady, a native of Boston and former rock critic close to the band in the era of Eat A Peach. Still, the Soul Babies need to don their boogie shoes and recognize. My paternal kin people reside partially in Albany, ten miles from Plains, Georgia. My granddaddy Rev may have been a key figure of the Albany Movement and my beloved Aunt Margaret Ann helped integrate Albany High School (to her peril), yet the Allmans’ and Phil Walden Sr.’s initiatives to elect Jimmy Carter – the only US President to literally change my life – were certainly vital to race relations (and foreign relations, especially regarding Africa).

“That’s when the trouble started in the family,” Gregg recalled (in the early ’70s) his past playing in Floridian mixed combos. “Going to play with them niggers again? We had to turn my mother on to the blacks. Took awhile, but now she’s totally liberated.”

Echoes of my mother, asking me en route to my favorites, the Black Crowes, “You going to see those rednecks again?” The 1990s brought me back full circle to the Allmanian Mothership, via bands like the Crowes (founded in Atlanta), the mighty ABB-spinoff power trio Gov’t Mule and the stellar Derek Trucks Band. The initial siege Les Brers laid upon my defenses has also enabled me to welcome the late great Gram Parsons, the sadly lost Big Star, Widespread Panic, the North Mississippi Allstars, the boogie/arena rock pastiches of the (defunct) Royal Trux, Billy Bob Thornton’s country rock celebrating down-home folks, the culture raids of Dirty South mavericks OutKast & Goodie Mob and the genius of Athens, Georgia-based Drive-By Truckers led by the new millennium’s greatest New South philosopher Patterson Hood, whose father David, as part of the fabled Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, befriended Duane Allman.

Skynyrd and Little Feat also hang tough in my esteem. This has led my friend and colleague Gregory “Ironman” Tate to dub me the Redneck Negress; another friend, Spoken Word artist Mike Ladd, accuses me of having a “cracker fetish”. But Lawdy, when faced with the cumulative glory of these (mostly) ole boys, what can one do but boogie?

All of these latter-day bands have benefited from the sprawling Jam Nation that flowers underneath the cracked veneer of the dominant teen pop and hip-hop genres. Having resided in Manhattan from the second year of the late great Wetlands Preserve’s operation until its unfortunate closing in 2001, there’s been perfect opportunity to witness most of these bands in action (as well as other ABB/Southeast satellites like Col. Bruce Hampton and his assorted outfits), plying their trade at the club (aka The House That Warren Built) in direct correlation to templates set by the Grateful Dead and the Allmans over three decades ago.

To be sure, Phish reigns supreme on this scene and the influence of funk legends like JB, Parliament-Funkadelic and the Meters have increasingly held sway on a whole subset of “jambands” but any serious consideration of the jam phenomenon cites the Allmans as deified ancestors for the peerless quality of their improvisations, their daring in blurring musical lines and their fame as road dawgs. And everybody, from Blues Traveler and the Dave Matthews Band to my friend Jeremy Yazinski, a Colorado-based veteran of Jam Nation, loves the Mule/ABB’s master guitarist Warren Haynes for his generosity of spirit with fans and players and ever-ready willingness to sit in with anybody.

Polling a cast of conspirators from good friend Eva Klapalová in the Czech Republic who’s one of few white faces to ever attend the ATL’s all-black Spelman College and got a fascinating take on the growing pains of the New South (she commented that her classmates would view the Allmans’ appropriation of the Blues as a rip-off of black culture) to film star Aunjanue Ellis, a black native of McComb, Mississippi, who remembers Skynyrd’s plane crashing barely five miles from her childhood home, the consensus is that the Allman Brothers Band makes meaning out of their joyful noise which scorches borders.

The Drive-By Truckers’ masterpiece Southern Rock Opera best sums up the tensions we’ve felt growing up southern (or Yankee) in the postwar era, trying to stare down the legacies of racism, guilt, blood memory and shame that characterise the Southland while also revelling in the fleeting pleasure of perfect peach cobbler and the Allmans playing for free in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. Patterson Hood could be singing for Duane and Gregg when he warns, “Stay out the way of the Southern Thang!”

But Hood doesn’t have to convince me that my treasonous act of wandering knee-deep into the redneck rock milieu was warranted no matter the personal cost. Just as it was clear from the git-go that the Black Crowes’ blues rock revivalism was far more genuine than the British Invasion’s incursion into sonic Africana, and that when Haynes bellowed “Where’s my mule, where’s my forty acres? Where’s my dreams, Mr. Emancipator?”, the muhfuhkuh MEANT that shit. Gregg Allman, all those years ago with his moaning cry to heaven on ‘Dreams’, earned his right to sing the blues in my estimation. No matter that churches have recently been burnt in the Deep South, furore has raged over the Confederate flag flying above South Carolina’s state capitol and, most horrific of all, James Byrd Jr. was dragged to his death in Jasper, Texas – hope for eradicating the Great Divide central to North American history remains because simple men touched by creative genius such as the Skydog, Ronnie Van Zant and Gregg Allman have laid their lives on the line in pursuit of freedom as an ideal. If there are black folks out there amongst the great silent majority that prizes country music who can get to that, perhaps more of ‘em will be outed as ABB fans as the new century rolls on. They’ve got two “Duanes Apparent” in Derek Trucks and the Allstars’ Luther Dickinson to spur them to enlightenment.

Allman the Younger is not merely the best white blues singer of the postwar period; he’s one of the greatest singers the genre’s ever spawned. And he is so fortunate to have been matched by his string-slinging equals, Dickey Betts and Brer Duane. Their fetishised œuvre may not have halted the march of bigotry and violence, yet the Allmans’ recordings have irrevocably changed the world. Within the arena of rock & roll, they scorched the division between the Dionysian and Apollonian approaches to the music by displaying simultaneous virtuosity and soul. There’s a reason the Brothers remain one of the topmost concert draws, despite their dramas, like The Road, going on forever: I was witness to the going of Jack Pearson, the sacking of Betts, the ascendance of Derek, the death of Woody, the return of Warren to the fold and the high point of the 30th Anniversary concerts in New York. All within little more than two years… have mercy!

The best that southern culture may have ever offered, the Allman Brothers are not isolationist idiots, inbred mad dogs, unrepentant rednecks – they are mine, as grits and bullets and scuppernong wine and the treasures of Stax/Volt are mine. I own them for I left the tribe long ago to sing a song of liberation in their midst. In their long shadow, Macon seemed heaven on Earth; it was essential to eat at Mama Louise’s H&H and brave Candace Oakley’s wrath on pilgrimage to Duane and Berry’s graves at Rose Hill. The jams are a site of hope, an inspiration to connect. The band’s legend still sparks me. Like Chiron of Achean myth, the Allmans are wounded healers, both eternal teachers and students, whose music bridges between the mundane and the divine.

Those restless knights of blues-rock continue to crusade in our favour, invoking the historical, mythical and metaphorical south enmeshed in pure sound to elevate their music above the same old. To quote Woodrow Wilson’s rave review of D.W. Griffiths’ Birth Of A Nation, the Allmans’ classics from ‘Don’t Want You No More’ to Haynes’ ‘Soulshine’ are “like history writ with lightning”. Their ‘Revival’ always renews the flesh and the spirit. Yes, this Sister of the Road can feel it. Love is everywhere

Dedicated to Mama Louise.

© Kandia Crazy Horse, June 2002

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