Commentary

Saunders: Of mullets and misunderstood Skynyrd lyrics

bsaunders@newsobserver.comOctober 21, 2012 

Why were they wearing fish on their heads?

It shouldn’t have been a surprise that someone would ask that question after last week’s column about Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd.

I couldn’t tell if the cat at the Kroger on Roxboro Road in Durham was just being a smart-aleck when he asked what did wearing a fish on your head have to do with appreciating Skynyrd’s music?

The answer, of course, is nothing.

Saturday was the 35th anniversary of the plane crash that killed several members of the band, and I noted how Rolling Stone magazine had low-rated two of Skynyrd’s greatest songs, “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama.” The songs were ranked numbers 193 and 398, respectively, on the magazine’s apparently dartboard-selected list of the 500 greatest songs ever.

“Whoever came up with that list obviously has never worn a mullet, ” I wrote, wrongly assuming that everyone knew what a mullet was – a haircut favored by some Southern men. It goes great with stone-washed denim jeans. And Camaros.

The same linguistic misunderstanding occurs when we Southerners talk about wearing a toboggan: People from other regions ask, incredulously, “Why would you wear a sled on your head?”

A mullet, similarly, is a versatile fish, but mainly it is a haircut that has best been described as “business in the front, party in the back.”

So decadent is the hairstyle considered that Iranian mullahs banned the mullet in 2010. Perhaps they just wanted to keep Billy Ray Cyrus out of the country.

Love the gubna?

More important than the information I conveyed about fish was the information I learned about “Sweet Home Alabama.” Great though the song is, my buddies and I debate whether we should be grooving on it each time it comes on the radio because of its homage to former ’bama Gov. George Wallace. “In Birmingham they love the gubna’ ” sounds like an ode to that little curled-lip bantam rooster.

Many readers insisted that the song was not a tribute. “Hey knucklehead, they wasn’t praisin’ Wallace,” was a particularly eloquent response, and most cited various sources quoting the band’s lead singer Ronnie Van Zant talking about how the song was “misunderstood.”

In a 1975 interview, Van Zant said, “The lyrics about the governor of Alabama were misunderstood. The general public didn’t notice the words ‘Boo! Boo! Boo!’ after that particular line...”

Who knew? Didn’t you always think The Honkettes, Skynyrd’s sensationally named background singers, were simply harmonizing “Ooh, ooh, ooh”? Me, too.

Van Zant also said in that same interview, “Wallace and I have very little in common. I don’t like what he says about colored people.”

Hallelujah! Yo, fellas. It’s safe to turn it up. Now we can enjoy “Sweet Home Alabama” with no guilt. Yee hi!

Stuck in their heads

Cynics might accuse Van Zant of revisionism, of succumbing to political correctness. If you know Skynyrd, you know that’s unlikely. Truth is, embracing the myth that it was praising Wallace would’ve probably enhanced the band’s image among many of its fans more than denying it did.

Most readers didn’t care one way or the other whether it praised or damned Wallace. They just thought it had a kicking bass. Their main complaint about “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird,” though, was that they couldn’t get the tunes out of their heads after reading the column.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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