Monday, December 19, 2011

American Exceptionalism and Freebird

The idea, the theme, of American exceptionalism is nothing new. It sprung from the earliest settlers from Europe and fueled the Revolutionary War. There was a strong religious undertone in the beggining--and indeed, it still exists for many--that saw the new nation as a "City on the Hill," a phrase sourced in the Sermon on the Mount and used by John Winthrop in a sermon in 1630.

It is a powerful allusion and was repeated oftentimes by many American politicians, most famously by Ronald Reagan on a number of occasions. The idea that America--the United States--can be such a place, a shining example to other peoples and nations, was reinforced by the experiences and writings of Alexis de Toqueville, who provided the intellectual justification for the religious link to liberty in the American experience:
Upon my arrival in the United States, the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more did I perceive the great political consequences resulting from this state of things, to which I was unaccustomed. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other; but in America I found that they were intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country.
Of course, this was in 1835. The religious element in America was very different at the time, as compared to today. And it is proper to remember that it was religion--Christian religion--that spawned the Abolitionist Movement and then--many years later--the Civil Rights Movement. Oftentimes, the American South is seen not  only as the home of slavery and--consequently--racism, but also as the home of the overtly religious. Prior to the Civil War, this was not the case.

The South, as compared to the North, was far more irreligious. And given the need to justify the enslavement of others, this is not surprising. The destruction visited upon the South during the Civil War and during Reconstruction was--as is often the case for periods of misery--a wellspring for an invigorated religiosity, both among the white population and the newly freed--but far from free--black population. The South found God, oddly enough, because it lost.

But we can trace another Southern peculiarity from that same period: the wanderlust theme of American music, particularly prevalent in--but not limited to--country music and southern rock. However, the roots of the theme run much deeper and in fact lead back to England and the growth of a wage-labor economy, something that disrupted traditional communities by creating incentives for people to travel in search of better work. And indeed, these incentives fueled the growth of first the Colonies--and other territories in the British Empire--and then the new nation of the United States.

But the pre-Civil War American South remained less affected, due to its slave-labor agriculturally-based economy. The Civil War changed all of that, thus created a very rapid growth of the theme, thanks to all of the above factors.

And thus, we have decade after decade of the theme emenating from the American South. Traveling, Rambling men, who can't be tied down to one woman and one place expound upon their nature, finding a home no where except for--in later years--the American highway. For the growth of the American highway system fed the theme, as well. Highway songs. In 1956, President Eisenhower signed into law the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, a project that truly began the expansion of roadways that we all currently take for granted, that connect the nation form sea to sea.

Nearly twenty years later--in 1974--highways were a given, they defined much of the interior, as the travel patterns created new communities and left others to wither and sometimes die. And it was in that year that the southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd released the single Freebird, a song that would become one of the most requested rock anthems of all times. And it's worth noting that just a year earlier, the Allman Brothers Band--the mother of all southern rock bands--released Ramblin' Man, their biggest hit.



The lyrics of both are worth considering. Freebird:
If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on, now
'Cause there's too many places I've got to see
But, if I stayed here with you, girl
Things just couldn't be the same
'Cause I'm as free as a bird now
And this bird you can not change
And this bird you can not change
And this bird you can not change
Lord knows, I can't change 
Bye, bye, baby it's been a sweet love
Though this feeling I can't change
But please don't take it so badly
'Cause Lord knows I'm to blame
But, if I stayed here with you girl
Things just couldn't be the same
'Cause I'm as free as a bird now
And this bird you can not change
And the bird you can not change
And this bird you can not change
Lord knows, I can't change
Lord help me, I can't change
Ramblin' Man:
Lord, I was born a ramblin' man
Tryin' to make a livin' and doin' the best I can
And when it's time for leavin' I hope you'll understand
That I was born a ramblin' man 
Well my father was a gambler down in Georgia
And he wound up on the wrong end of a gun
And I was born in the back seat of a...Greyhound bus
Rollin' down Highway 41 
Lord, I was born a ramblin' man
Tryin' to make a livin' and doin' the best I can
And when it's time for leavin' I hope you'll understand
That I was born a ramblin' man 
I'm on my way to New Orleans this mornin'
Leavin' out of Nashville, Tennessee
They're always havin' a good time down on the bayou
Lord, them Delta women think the world of me 
Lord, I was born a ramblin' man
Tryin' to make a livin' and doin' the best I can
And when it's time for leavin' I hope you'll understand
That I was born a ramblin' man 
Lord, I was born a ramblin' man
Lord, I was born a ramblin' man
Lord, I was born a ramblin' man
Lord, I was born a ramblin' man
Ramblin' man specifically references a highway, but both are very much the same song. And both appeal to religion as justification for the singer's nature. Iconic in nature, these songs appealed to a listening audience of both men and women; the "movin' on" spirit of the rural man was taken as given, as a fundamental reality. And in this respect, it was very much a truth, with regard to the often-cited American exceptionalism. Even today, the theme remains.

Politically, it's something that must be considered; it feeds both the outlaw image and streak of individualism characteristic of a very conservative rural society. And to be fair, the gun-toting, rebel flag-flying image of the free-wheeling, wild-eyed southern boy can obscure a racist element, at times, though not as a matter of course. But the critical element is the wanderlust and the corresponding antipathy towards a dictating authority that is engendered.

The latter is what seems to escape many people, particularly outside the United States, but within as well. It's not simply an objection to authority, per se, but the particular extension of authority that limits the individual in the name of the greater good. Right and wrong are inconsequential in such cases; it's about basic fundamental natures and being able to choose one's own path in life.

Because Lord knows, I can't change.

Cheers, all.


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