“The Ballad of Curtis Loew”
Writers: Ronnie Van Zant, Allen Collins
Artist: Lynyrd Skynyrd
When Allen Collins died in 1990, the good folks at Rock and Rap Confidential described this song as one which “accurately condenses the history of rock and roll into four minutes.”
I don’t doubt they were referring to the song’s classic “white boy learning life and the blues from a black man” narrative (never more lovingly or movingly rendered).
But it serves as “the history of rock and roll” in an even deeper and more subtle way. Before rock and roll there was no way to conceive of anyone like Ronnie Van Zant or Allen Collins (or any of the real life figures “Curtis Loew” may have been based on) being allowed to tell their own stories to anyone but each other. That’s why the original of the concept had to be filtered through a white middle-class sensibility like Mark Twain’s–and, even then, take decades of mostly simplistic misinterpretation to be recognized as “art.”
I just re-read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for about the sixth time and great as “the great American novel” is, I think Lynyrd Skynyrd’s version of the tale strikes deeper and truer.
That preference implies choices–the every day grind (“searchin’ for soda bottles”) over the grand escape, the danger and release of the man-made music in southern air suffocated by Jim Crow over the danger and release of nature’s mighty river cutting through the heart of slave country, the preacher failing his common duty over the con men trying to stay one step ahead of the forces his like represent, the woman who repeatedly whips her ten-year old son for consorting with a drunken black man over sweet, forgiving Aunt Polly and long-suffering, ultimately magnanimous Miss Watson. Perhaps most of all a man who is no one’s idea of respectable–black or white–and has nothing whatsoever to recommend him except his dobro-picking over a slave character who is–with far less ready excuse–every bit as romanticized as Uncle Tom.
Granted, by 1974 novelists–even white novelists–had got further down this road than Twain or Mrs. Stowe could have been expected to go (a progression which owed no small part to their efforts, lest we forget).
But not much further.
And in any case, Van Zant and Collins were writing about the pre-civil rights south of their youth–about 1954 more than 1974.
About the world that hadn’t yet undergone the changes of the Civil Rights movement and about the stand you might have been forced to take inside that world–within your own community, even your own family–if the rules you were supposed to live by couldn’t be reconciled with something that struck an impossibly deep chord in what a ten-year-old might just have been beginning to define as his soul (a stand which Huck Finn, incidentally, could only take when he was safe on the river, away from his community–and which, when the community reimposed itself, he slid away from as neatly as a hundred and thirty years of lit-crit has slid away from him).
Ripping something from life–three verses and a chorus say–hardly precludes romantic or even sentimental conclusions. But it does put tighter, narrower boundaries on them. And for a couple of people who are never going to be taught in modern poetry class, Van Zant and Collins did a remarkable job of walking straight up to those boundaries and drawing them so starkly that it was clear from the very beginning not everyone could step across and join them on the far side of the racial briar patch.
That might be why they rarely played this song live to an audience where too many people were bound to yell for “Freebird”–and keep on yelling for it long after the real life Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins had joined Curtis Loew in the grave–just because they thought (however wrongly) that those blistering guitar solos and freedom-of-the-highway lyrics provided easy answers to easy questions.
Nobody could mistake “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” for an easy way out.
“Mama used to whup me, but I’d go see him again,” wasn’t just a perfect evocation of everything that was wrong with the part of the South that Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln and 360,000 Union dead hadn’t been able to change–and Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and the Freedom Riders hadn’t been able to change as much as decency would have hoped. It was also a challenge to everyone who had ever failed to take a stand.
That might at times have included Van Zant and Collins themselves. Despite later protestations that the whole concept of a Confederate flag backdrop for their live shows was entirely the record company’s idea, I’m not convinced the band fought very hard against it in the moment.
Not in the boardroom anyway.
It’s possible they thought they didn’t need to, because the music made its own point.
I can’t say. If African-Americans and others remain suspicious of the original intent, I can’t offer any hard proof to refute the notion (though I will say Lee Ballinger’s excellent oral history of the band convincingly dispels most of the easy accusations). I also can’t say what blame, if any, Van Zant and Collins and the rest of their band should bear for not being able to bring all of their audience into a better place–whether they should have preached what they practiced.
What I can say is nobody who was carrying around even a faint residue of either the racial condescension a fellow southern white man can assure you Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins had been inundated with from birth or any subsequent reactionary tinge of false liberal piety, could ever have conceived or written this song, let alone turned it into a pure blues every bit as haunting and convincing as anything that came from the Mississippi Delta in the thirties. Van Zant’s deceptively round tone–pure one moment, rasping the next–always gave him access to a sly, cutting duality that came through with special resonance on ballads. When he turns in the middle of the last verse to condemn a funeral where “On the day old Curtis died nobody came to pray, old preacher said some words and they chunked him in the clay,” the way he lands on “chunked”–that perfect, damning, bitter word–he could be Cotton Mather’s illegitimate son as easily as Mississippi John Hurt’s.
And when he slides right on past the bitterness into a defiant celebration that shifts the tone back to the elegy that long gone preacher couldn’t bring himself to give, he doubles down on either notion
By the time the song ends, the narrative has gone forward and back–shifted the combination of tones and tenses–a dozen times in four minutes without drawing undue attention to a single one of those shifts. That’s a level of compression and nuance the very best poets or short story writers could not possibly better and it’s the reason the final verse strikes with the force of a memory that has escaped it’s own damning source–manifesting a desire that Curtis Loew join the boy he taught “to stay in time” in a present they could both feel at home in over sentiment’s usual longing for the present to be repealed.
Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins knew better than to try on the usual. They knew far too much about the past they had lived through to think the worst part of it–the part forever defined by those people who “all were fools”–could be entirely redeemed even by a tribute as warm and concise as this one.
Whether they could foresee the coming collapse of the fragile coalition rock and roll still represented when they recorded this song–of the history they had, as the quote I began this with so aptly states, “accurately condensed into four minutes”–is unanswerable. But I don’t think they would have been too surprised.
“Fools” come in endless varieties after all. And few things are more certain or common than our relentless desire to run back to the tribe.
That’s one element of the collective past even “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” couldn’t quite bury.