Thursday, June 25, 2015

Lynyrd Skynyrd & The Confederate Flag Controversy

The Confederate flag has become a symbol of racism and disparagement after the murders of nine black parishioners at Charleston, S.C.'s, historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17. 

A website full of racist invective, registered in the name of gunman Dylann Roof, surfaced, containing images of the self-declared white supremacist holding the Confederate banner. The fact that it still flew at the state Capitol building in Columbia prompted a nationwide outcry and protest on the statehouse grounds, and on Monday (June 22) South Carolina governor Nikki Haley called for its removal.

On Wednesday, Alabama governor Robert Bentley ordered the flag removed from the Capitol grounds in Montgomery. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced the same day that the time had come to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from Lee Circle in New Orleans. Walmart, Sears, eBay and Amazon decided to stop selling merchandise that used its image, CNN reported, noting "the announcements are the latest indication that the flag, a symbol of the slave-holding South, has become toxic."

A tragic tipping point had spurred an avalanche of great proportions, and even many who had long cringed at the display of the symbol were surprised at its size, that government and big business were so ready to repudiate the image. Maybe they shouldn't have been so startled; after all, even Lynyrd Skynyrd wanted to stop flying the Confederate flag.

Confederate iconography runs through the Southern rock and outlaw-country movement of the 1970s, and no single act, perhaps, was more associated with it than Skynyrd. They used the flag image on multiple album covers; their standard stage set long included a massive Confederate battle flag backdrop.

But it's never been clear what Lynyrd Skynyrd wanted it to mean.

According to the 2006 Southern-rock history "Dixie Lullaby," whose subtitle is "A Story of Race, Music and New Beginnings in a New South," the band's Confederate flag-waving rebel-outlaw brand was a creation of producer Al Kooper, who is from Brooklyn.

Guitarist Gary Rossington, the only remaining original member of the band, made big waves in 2012 when he told CNN that Lynyrd Skynyrd would stop using the flag as its stage backdrop.

"Through the years, people like the KKK and skinheads kinda kidnapped the Dixie or Southern flag from its tradition and the heritage of the soldiers, that's what it was about," he said. "We didn't want that to go to our fans or show the image like we agreed with any of the race stuff or any of the bad things."

After a backlash from fans, the band brought back the flag. In what seemed like a peculiar compromise, though – at least during its performance at the 2014 Gretna Heritage Festival – the backdrop was the band logo, with the American flag patterned into the letters.

A medium-sized Confederate flag hung off to the side at stage left, where not everyone in the crowd could see it. During the closing "Freebird," Johnny Van Zant (Ronnie's brother, and the current lead singer) draped an American flag across the microphone stand.

Lynyrd Skynyrd has all but eviscerated the Confederate flag from its identity at this point. Earlier in the week, on the band’s official online store, there were only two items of clothing, a shirt for a man and one for a woman, which has the controversial flag on it — and while it was faded into the background in the colors of yellow and black, it was hardly noticeable upon first glance.

At press time, both items had been removed.

And when it comes to the music Skynyrd is selling, all of the albums prominently displaying the Confederate flag, including the 1988 release celebrating the tribute tour the year prior and the hits compilation Legend, are missing, despite their popularity.

Finally, a cursory search via YouTube of recent shows finds a complete absence of the offending flag from any shows. Instead, it’s been replaced with the standard American flag — even a shredded one that hangs from singer Johnny Van Zant’s microphone.

And while top rock ’n’ roll apparel sites like Rockabilia and Old Glory feature a smattering of Lynyrd Skynyrd products, from T-shirts to coffee mugs that incorporate the Confederate flag, On the official front, however, it would seem the band has completely distanced itself from the imagery.