Tuesday is Gone
When I was twelve, my father took me to an electronic blowout sale in an abandoned department store less than five minutes from our house. The Panasonic single component system held everything a young boy could want: turntable with precision needle technology, radio with AM and FM, equalizer, and stop-my-heart-cold two cassettes players with dual-function recording. If that wasn’t enough for this wannabe rock star, the system came with three-foot high cabinet speakers.
As an only child, I would spend hours in my room listening to music—memorizing all the lyrics to albums or songs on the radio. Top 40 was mostly my game since my parents frowned on the “rock” station. Before I came into possession of that component system, I also came under the influence of my two older cousins, who entered our lives and house as their parents’ marriage deteriorated. Our home became a designated safe zone and the boys moved freely into and just as easily out. Their imprint, however, stayed with me, especially an introduction to Southern rock.
The younger cousin, two years older than me, became a constant companion in the summers. We listened to the radio and copied lyrics on yellow notebook paper. We imagined starting a rock band, even though neither one of us knew how to play a guitar or drums. Singers, we decided, got the most girls, so we would be singers.
But when we were both honest, we wanted to be like my oldest cousin, five years my senior. He was a gifted athlete, good looking, and tall (the only one of us to reach over six feet). In the way that older siblings need to be free of younger ones, he resisted our presence in his life. We, however, created ways to be with him. And by the time he was eighteen, he found ways to include me in some of his activities. I heard Lynyrd Skynyrd for the first time in his car.
The seventeen-minute version—I would learn later it was the final performance at the Fox Theater in Atlanta—of “Freebird” played on his Monte Carlo’s stereo with the wind blowing through the windows. In between the lyrics and the guitar solos, my cousin would wax rhapsodic about the band, lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, and how they disbanded the group shortly after the tragic airplane accident killed Van Zant and two other band members. Between my near intoxication with wanting to be like my cousin and my euphoria over the guitars and piano in the song, I was hooked.
There was one additional piece of information that sealed the deal. They played something called “Southern rock.” Raised on the bluffs above swamp fields that served as the northern defenses of Richmond during the American Civil War, I knew I was Southern before I knew I was anything else. It did not occur to me at the time to ask what made it Southern since to my naive ear they sounded like many other rock bands on the radio. I had also purchased a pair of headphones shortly after my dad bought the stereo system so I could listen to the rock station without adults knowing. Living in Richmond and loving history, I spent most of the elementary school years soaking up the Lost Cause. My school had a biography of Robert E. Lee that I had checked it out more than anyone else. I knew everything (or at least thought I did) about the South (read the Confederacy). The budding historian in me could explain the South’s defeat but also the region’s near supremacy over everything Yankee.
If rock had a “Southern” version, it was my music.
I am not old enough to say I bought the original versions of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s albums. I was six when they released the album “Pronounced’ Leh-‘Nerd ‘Skin-‘Nerd.” The album, however, would contain two important songs, “Simple Man” and “Tuesday’s Gone,” which have stayed with me far beyond my love of the Confederate South. In many ways, I was a Johnny-come-lately to the group. Their “Gold and Platinum” album arrived at the record store when I was in seventh grade. Holed up in my room with that stereo system, I memorized the lyric of every song in a matter of weeks—impressive since it was a double album. Bass lines framed melodies with guitar solos soaring over and around the rhythms with piano solos that appeared from nowhere and ultimately drove the songs. And Ronnie Van Zant sang lead vocal like a determined working-class man. There was an edge to the lyrics that probably drew my attention, focusing on things Southern and defending the South. I thought I heard a tinge of unease about the region in “Sweet Home, Alabama” and I knew for sure they condemned guns in “Saturday Night Special.” A few years later when one of my cousins fell to the lure of drugs, I could not understand how he missed the message of “That Smell.”
I lived their lyrics.
During high school, my loyalty to the band grew stronger. I prized that double album package like I did my King James Bible and that stereo. God, country, and family were my totem, and I trusted that God gave me the other two. In the 1980s, MTV introduced us to music videos and my loyalty to the stereo system found a similar outlet with the television. Every once and awhile, MTV would rotate an early or mid-1970s video recording of bands. I remember beaming with pride the day I saw Skynyrd concert footage with a huge Confederate battle flag as their backdrop. These were my people, and it saddened me to think they were no longer making music or performing.
There were, however, emerging cracks in my Southern self. As a product of desegregated schools, I had made friends with folks who did not look like me. They didn’t force me to confront my racism, but they were reminders that everything I celebrated about my “heritage” had stood in opposition to their lives. While it was no longer safe to spout racist thinking in public, I imbibed it in conversations of family and friends. Affected by my community’s racism, I have spent a lifetime trying to understand it and overcome it in my own life. But I’m getting ahead of the story a bit.
As I moved through college, I encountered a broad range of people who helped me understand how the South was more than my narrow version of it. The confrontations could be mild—in the form of classroom teachers telling the stories in a slightly different key—or they could be in my face. My roommate had teased me early in our relationship about being a racist, and I provided knee-jerk denials, knowing full well everything I liked about the South did not like him. It took almost two years, but his love and dedication to show me my racist tendencies paid off one night when he asked if I would marry a “black” woman? Without letting him finish the question, I answered no. In the minutes after the answer left my mouth, I understood his charge. My family had shaped my thinking about who to marry and it excluded entire groups of people. In some ways, the band subtly reinforced my notions of whiteness.
While others remain loyal to “Sweet Home, Alabama” or “Free Bird,” I was struck dumb by the beauty and poignancy found in “Tuesday’s Gone” and “Simple Man.” The ballads expressed my longing—for what I did not know then. The songs call me to a simpler time in my family but also cause me to wrestle with the racial landscape that they gifted me. As much as I have tried to redeem my love for Lynyrd Skynyrd, I no longer see them as heroes of a way of life. I do, however, think Ronnie Van Zant understood the complexity of a world coming for the region and captured the power of that transformation in the lyrics of these two songs.
Listening to “Simple Man” while writing this post, I was transported to my room in Richmond. My paternal grandmother, and not the “mother” in the song, spoke often to me about how important simple things were. The ninth-grade educated fount of wisdom worried that my schooling would get in the way of common sense. In many ways, I am grounded because of her love and dedication. Without much to her name, I watched her love all of us—flaws and all—unconditionally. She had known hardship but rarely let it dampen her love for life and people.
My grandmother also played a pivotal role in shaping how I understood things like marriage. When I befriended an amazing black female classmate as a study partner, my grandmother wanted to know if I intended to marry her. Since I had spent most of high school trying to pair her another African American friend, I told my grandmother no. The night my college roommate asked that question about marriage drove me to remember my grandmother’s query. I could no longer ignore how racism framed my life, even when it came from people I loved. At heart, “Simple Man” calls the young man to love what is simple and true. It struck me later in life that the song is a plea to a young man not to be deceived by the luster of richness and celebrity, but it also told us not to change. I had changed, something I think my grandmother worried about too.
A little over one month ago, I heard “Tuesday’s Gone” on the radio. Rather than push a button for another station, I remembered fondly the opening piano/guitar solos’ plaintive sound. I smiled as I thought about the love lost in the song. Ronnie Van Zant speaks about the woman left behind as he rides the train far away. He has left, but the chorus suggests that the woman left too. The ambiguity in who is leaving met me at the right spot.
My slow release of a Southern heritage reminded me of the voice on the train riding away. I, however, was also struck by the band’s use of orchestration, breaking the tight dueling guitar sets, and wondered if the band in 1973 could imagined a world beyond Southern rock. Moved by the sound that sustained me more than three decades ago, I reflected on how far I had moved away from “Southern” rock in the form of Lynyrd Skynyrd. I would hope that Ronnie Van Zant could have embraced the changes coming that he seemed to sense in the “Ballad of Curtis Lowe,” but that no longer matters to me.
Tuesday is gone. Slowly over the years, I started ignoring the Skynyrd albums. My friendship won out over my devotion to the band, and I quietly changed the radio station when their songs came on, except for the rarely played “Tuesday’s Gone” and “Simple Man.” I am certain that unlike the voice in the song I am the one who left. The memories of the music and loved ones who shaped me, however, rest easy in my thoughts now. I tried so hard for so long to run away from them, but in recent years I have embraced that though they played a significant role in my life I am not bound to their way of thinking. It is harder to be a simple man when life causes change to come, particularly when the call is to remain the same. But that is how music works for me: captured by a sound or lyric I remember my life in the present to that in the past, then I move forward.
Douglas Thompson is a husband and father of three children. While not helping to take care of his family of six, his father lives with the family too, he works as an associate professor of history at Mercer University. He areas of intellectual interests involve religious life in the American South. Doug also serves as editor of the Journal of Southern Religion. His book, Richmond’s Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era, published by University of Alabama Press is due out later this year. His current writing project examines Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Vietnam war.