Submitted by Isolau Vanickova
In 2000 the tombs of Lynyrd Skynyrd front man Ronnie Van Zant and one of his band mates were vandalized near their hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. For uncertain reasons, the vandals had attempted to remove part of Van Zant’s cremated remains. Many speculated on whether the perpetrators were doing it out of disrespect or adoration. Either situation seemed plausible, with the ubiquity in that band’s hometown of raging drunk “free bird” criers and their distraught and rebellious children alike. For many southerners in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s heyday, Van Zant’s message was a sort of vindication. Unavoidably embedded in the spirits of the times around them, many of the young whites in the South wanted neither to allow for the bigoted system to triumph nor to pander to northern paternalism, such as that criticized by Van Zant and company in “Sweet Home Alabama,” his tongue-in-cheek response to Neil Young from 1974.
The message seemed clear enough: We can do it ourselves, “Montgomery has the answer.” In fact, it is precisely in the song’s lyrics expressing the progressives’ collective national disdain for pro-segregation Alabama governor George Wallace that the particularizing blow against Young is delivered:
“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…”
Young, for his part, adored the independent solidarity expressed by his musical counterparts. If the “southern man” was thus vindicated, both reunited with his comrades to the north and unimpeded by their economic and cultural dominance, then the formula for a certain change had been created. Perhaps the most important example of that change can be found today not in the change to unity between southern freedom riders and northern student protestors, but in the change in Governor Wallace to a particular sort of born-again Christianity. Although he publically claimed that a 1972 assassination attempt had changed his perspective on race, one cannot help but think that Wallace’s future political ideology – one thriving if not predominant today – had already been arrived at by Young and Van Zant. As the man who had once physically stood in the path of federal troops at the University of Alabama to prevent its integration began to seek the black vote, those in the young white vote had already begun to seek new terms for their place in American society. This new ideology, shared by Van Zant and Wallace alike, came to be known as “states’ rights”.
“States’ rights” had long been the calling card of pro-segregationists in the south as it had been of their pro-slavery civil-war era ancestors. Opposition to the federalist system has never been exclusively southern nor exclusively conservative as it is most familiar to us today, but what was unique about Wallace’s political craftsmanship was its ability to so thoroughly alter the entire nation’s future. Arriving at an appropriate time, the populist call to smaller government has become what has been called the “Southernization” of American politics, and of America in general. As the lyrics go: “Now Watergate does not bother me/ Does your conscience bother you?” So it is that the striking out against the paternalistic north has become the striking out against the paternalistic federal state, where we’re all, with a healthy dose of defiance, going back to Sweet Home Alabama.
It is no wonder then that for some of a later generation in the South the figure of Ronnie Van Zant would loom so ominously over them as an unbearable paternalistic symbol itself. Thus the attempt to steal his ashes begs the Lacanian questions: Was this a vulgar attempt to capture a relic of phallic significance on the part of the Skynyrd generation? Or, was this an attack on the Primordial Signifier (the Name-of-the-Father)? For the sake of psychoanalytic questioning, both questions are important. What is the contemporary political ideology without its phallus, the “southern man”? Maybe even more important, if it is the father’s phallic signification that is being attacked, what must the continued import of such signification be if the ultimate result of an oppositional struggle is not to result in psychosis, lacking the symbolic connection between the imaginary and real orders? The threatening echo that the “southern man don’t need [one] around anyhow” continues to ring true with the surreal comic and horrific qualities of Slim Pickens riding an atom bomb to oblivion.
The mystery of the would-be grave robbers still continues unsolved. Ronnie Van Zant’s remains have since been relocated, allegedly buried in an impenetrable concrete vault. They rest in Jacksonville’s Memorial Park in the newly gentrified, liberal- and art-promoted Riverside neighborhood, the recent site of racist graffiti bearing tea-party sympathies. His final resting place remains unmarked.