Outsiders Looking In: The Band, the Counterculture, and the Imagined South

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 11:30 AM
Room 304 (Hilton Atlanta)
Zachary J. Lechner, North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics
The musical act that best embodied countercultural imaginings of a pre-modern white South in the 1960s and early 1970s was The Band. Composed of four Canadians and one Arkansan, its music was an incomparable mixture of American music, from rhythm and blues to country to rock ‘n’ roll. Unlike most rock acts that dabbled in country music at this time, The Band presented a direct portrait of the South’s white inhabitants. It demonstrated its sympathetic and anachronistic portrait of the region and its people, for example, in the Lost Cause mythology of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and in the wistful “Rockin’ Chair” (both 1969), two songs that depicted the white South as a rural sanctuary. The Band’s representations of the region deeply connected with accounts of the South in the countercultural underground press.

An analysis of The Band’s South and its countercultural and mainstream responses deepens our understanding of the counterculture’s fascination with the region. Perhaps more importantly, it suggests that an imagined pre-modern white South held considerable appeal to non-hippie Americans, too, as both a refuge from and as a repository of tools for combating the cultural and political anxieties of the 1960s era. No band better embodied the views of counterculturists who embraced the rural, working-class white South than The Band, a group of mostly nonsouthern outsiders whose songs’ imaginative (and imagined) depictions of the region showcased the continuing allure of a pre-modern South in the 1960s and 1970s that reached across (counter)cultural lines.

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