Ever lose track of time while you’re reminiscing on YouTube? Sometimes the endless videos on there send me traveling down Memory Lane for longer than I care to admit. Let’s just say I could probably be using my time more wisely. The thing is, I have all these music memories from the ’70s and ’80s—amazing performances on Saturday Night Live or videos from MTV—that pop into my mind one after another as I’m exploring YouTube, and I say to myself, I wonder if someone posted that? And nine times out of ten, I can find it. Of course, sometimes the video is poor quality, but the music is still there, often better than I remembered it; occasionally worse.
Anyway, there’s this Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song called “Rebels” from their 1985 Southern Accents album that I really enjoyed listening to back in the day. In fact, the song was the closing number of a great live concert that was aired on MTV. I hadn’t thought about that song in years, until I got swept up in one of my YouTube binges a few weeks ago. You know how the memory of one song leads to the memory of another, right?
So, I ended up searching for and finding that live performance of “Rebels.” The song still rocks, but as I watched the video and listened to the lyrics for the first time in 20 years, I realized the song had a cultural subtext that I naively had missed before—or I just wasn’t as sensitive to it when I was in high school.
In the video, Petty performs in front of a giant Confederate flag and drapes himself in a smaller one at the close of the song. And here’s the third verse and chorus:
Even before my father’s fathers
They called us all rebels
Burned our cornfields
And left our cities level
I can still see the eyes
Of those blue bellied devils
When I’m walking round tonight
Through the concrete and metal.
Hey, hey, hey
I was born a rebel
Down in Dixie on a Sunday morning
Yeah – with one foot in the grave
And one foot on the pedal
I was born a rebel.
Now, I know that Petty was born and raised in the South, but I never thought of him as being some outspoken Dixie rabble-rouser. And I’m guessing the lyrics of this song and the Confederate flag backdrop are being employed in a partly ironic way that recognizes the complexity of our modern society. But as I read the comments for this video on YouTube, I realized that a lot of White Pride-type folks look at “Rebels” as a sort of anthem, and here I am—the clueless black guy who just likes the music. (I guess it was similar to my cheering on Bo and Luke Duke in the late ’70s even as they raced around in a Dodge Charger emblazoned with the insignia of the Confederacy.)
The emotion around the song “Rebels” reminded me of another tune with controversial roots—”The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Back when I was the editor of Today’s Christian magazine, we did a brief article on the origin of that song. I had always thought of it as being this sort of patriotic hymn and theme song of Abraham Lincoln that was made even more legendary in the 20th century by Elvis Presley. I assumed everyone loved it. But then we started receiving letters from angry readers who looked at the song—and our publication of the article—as a swipe against white Southerners. In fact, the article was linked to on a pro-Confederacy website that encouraged its members to send us protest emails. I was suddenly awakened to this radical movement of modern Confederate sympathizers (many of whom are Christians) who are still quite bitter about the outcome of the Civil War.
After the flood of emails, we posted an editor’s note about the unexpected controversy and tried to be gracious to the Southerners who were attacking us. (In retrospect, I wonder if I tried too hard.) Then we posted some of their angry emails, just to give readers a taste of how some people still feel about “The War of Northern Aggression,” as they call it.
Why do I bring all this up? I don’t know, except that I still love that Tom Petty song. Also, I believe it’s good to be reminded that a lot of the feelings and attitudes that helped create the racial divide in this nation are still stirring in ways many of us thought had ceased ages ago.
I always hear that African Americans need to learn to let go of the past when it comes to race relations today, and I agree with that to an extent (though it’s crucial to remember that some things from the past will continue to haunt us unless we deal with them in an honest and straightforward manner). But I think there are also many white Americans with cultural hang-ups, wrapped in things like Southern pride and family heritage, that continue to hinder racial healing in this nation. For this reason, perhaps “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Rebels” are songs we need to hear not just as entertainment or anthems for a particular movement or ideology, but as a way of educating ourselves to the unseen snares that still beset the road to reconciliation.