From Humble Origins to Global Connections
American summers have long been filled with tunes connected to the South. Elvis Presley’s first single, “That’s All Right,” was released in July 1954. In the late 60’s, the summers of love, sun, urban riots, and war protests inspired the Allman Brothers Band’s legendary “Whipping Post.” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” has been cranked up ever since the dog days of 1974. More than a simple genre, Southern rock came into existence during a trend of political progression. Both the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynrd were involved in Jimmy Carter’s successful 1976 Democratic Presidential campaign. In his essay, “Southern Rock Music as a Cultural Form,” Brandon P. Keith asserts that Southern rock bands “were a cultural formation that displayed racially and politically progressive views in the post-Civil Rights South through the cultural form of Southern rock music,” reconciling “pride for Southern heritage with progressive racial views.” According to Keith, they were intent on celebrating its African American roots.
The combining of Mississippi Delta blues with hip-swiveling rock’n’roll wasn’t the only one way in which Southern rock aided the progressive movement. The website, Southern Rock and Civil Rights, chronicles the bond between the two forces. Jaimoe a.k.a. Jai Johnny Johnson was a founding member of the Allman Brothers, and later, soul musician, Lamar Williams, replaced original bassist, Berry Oakley. After the release of their debut album, Pronounced, Lynryd Skynyrd toured with B.B. King and Muddy Water, and the single, “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” by Black Oak Arkansas, proclaims their respect for the message of hope and resilience from Martin Luther King Jr., furthering the sense of kinship with the Civil Rights Movement and “for all the livin’ underdogs.”
Despite its attempts to reconstruct the Southern identity, today the genre is dominated by white males with receding hairlines and paunches, leaving scant space for it to evolve further from its intended purpose—to serve as a movement to celebrate the diversity of the South. But, the genre’s diminishing diversity and oldies status hasn’t stopped other countries from picking up where the movement has left off. Despite these artists also being predominantly white, they make the purpose for Southern rock come full circle in recognizing the need for humanization and equality.
Born in England as Rory Charles Graham, Rag N’ Bone Man began his musical career with a hip-hop label in 2011, working with High Focus to produce a number of projects. After pursuing his music career full-time and working to produce his first album in 2014, Rag N’ Bone Man’s sound and style changed from the rhythmic rhymes favored by hip-hop to a belting, soulful voice accompanied by heavy beats. His first single, “Human,” dredges up often-forgotten truths about the indiscriminate nature of all humans within its lyrics. He croons: “I’m only human after all/ Don’t put your blame on me.” Moreover, the accompanying music video portrays a parade of shifting faces—man and woman, black and white—morphing into one another to further the message that the propensity of humanity to make mistakes does not confine a person to endure blame forever.
The Icelandic band, Kaleo, duplicated the Southern sound more so, fusing rugged guitar riffs and the sway of blues within their vocals to generate an authentically Southern sound that may trick listeners. The band formed in 2012 with a quick rise to fame. Some of their best work comes from their namesake album; “Broken Bones” is one such track. The lead singer rasps: “For every hard-earned dollar I make/ There stands a white man just to take it away.” This line offers solidarity for people of color, a true throwback to the genre’s original purpose. The following smoky tone declares: “Some say I talk loud/ See if I care!” Here, the soulful anthem challenges its listeners to drop their silence and speak their minds without regret.
Scottish singer, Bishop Briggs, only recently rose to fame in 2015. Getting her start at karaoke bars, she would later combine her vocal talents, piano skills, and inspiration from artists like the Beatles to generate a persona of her own. Her 2016 single, “River,” reached #1 on Spotify’s US 50. With its lumbering, unapologetic beat and flowing vocal croons, “River” captivated Southern listeners as a summer hit. Her consistency in style made Briggs a perfect match for Southern rock, making her one of the few females to etch a spot for herself in the genre. “River” does not ask politely that society take action for social injustice. Instead, it commands that activists: “Shut your mouth, baby/ Stand and deliver!” The lyrics also suggest the close relationship that love and hate possess, asserting its listeners are: “One kiss away from killing.”
With the social atmosphere in rocky waters, it comes as no surprise that Southern rock is trying to reestablish itself on the radio. The request for common empathy in “Human,” the anger at authority in “Broken Bones,” and the command for public action in “River” throwback to the glory days of the 60s and 70s. As the genre branches out to claim radios all over the world, this new rise in glory appears to be motivated by a progressive movement toward equality. The Southern stragglers clinging to former glory and the Confederate flag ought to catch up to their anthems’ mission, never forgetting its birthplace of fellowship among diversity.