Entry 13: Tom Petty was Born a Rebel

<em>Southern Accents</em> (1985)

Southern Accents, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Produced by Tom Petty, Jimmy Iovine, Mike Campbell, David A. Stewart, and Robbie Robertson.

Release Date: March 26, 1985.

In 1985, Tom Petty was one of the most successful Rock artists in the world. However, critics considered him as a second-tier New Wave act–not as complex a lyricist as Elvis Costello, not as catchy a tunesmith as Ric Ocasek, and not as experimental as The Police. Partially in response to these criticisms, Petty started broadening his sound in the mid 1980s, a shift that eventually resulted in a career revival after 1989’s George Harrison- and Jeff Lynne-influenced Full Moon Fever. Along the way, Petty made his most lyrically and musically ambitious album: Southern Accents. It also happens to be about the Lost Cause.

Although the title track is Petty’s best-known statement of his southern identity (he was born and raised in Gainesville, Florida), it’s the opener, “Rebels,” that establishes the album’s central theme of Confederate memory and its impact on the modern South. The last verse is one of the most succinctly effective summations of the Lost Cause in popular culture:

Even before my father’s father

They called us all rebels

While they burned our cornfields

And left our cities leveled

I can still feel the eyes of those blue-bellied devils

Yeah, when I’m walkin’ ’round at night

Through the concrete and metal

And then we get the chorus:

Hey, hey, hey

I was born a rebel

Down in Dixie

On a Sunday mornin’

Yeah with one foot in the grave

And one foot on the pedal

I was born a rebel

This might just be neo-Confederate chest-thumping (and Petty doesn’t help matters by draping himself in the Confederate flag in this live clip of the song) but I think more is going on here. There’s a shift halfway through the chorus, both sonically and lyrically. The speaker–let’s call him “The Rebel”–declares he was already half-dead at birth but is nevertheless racing forward. He lives in the 20th Century but his mind is stuck in the 1860s. His Confederate identity has trapped him into a life of failure in a modern (read: northern) world he doesn’t understand and cannot navigate. In the song’s opening lines, he pleads “Honey don’t walk out / I’m too drunk to follow” and then immediately apologizes for being “a little rough around the edges / Or inside a little hollow” because “I get faced with some things, sometimes / That are so hard to swallow.” In the second verse, a girl (presumably the same one who walked out on him) bails “The Rebel” out of jail and leaves him “out in the thicket,” where he can only wonder why he didn’t realize “her heart was so wicked.” He hates her now, just like he hates the the modern South created by the Yankees–both have spit him out and become scapegoats for his own inadequacies.

“The Rebel” comes off better in “Southern Accents.” He laments that northerners and the younger generation view his manner of speaking (and, by extension, way of life) as inferior. The first verse reads:

There’s a southern accent

Where I come from

The young’uns call it country

The Yankees call it dumb

I got my own way of talkin’

But everything is done

With a southern accent

Where I come from.

While the music in “Rebels” is all blustering guitar and defiant chants, “Southern Accents” is the album’s slowest tune, with minimal accompaniment until strings come in near the end. “The Rebel” is still lost in a world he can’t understand, hoping to make some money picking oranges in Orlando but knowing it probably won’t work out. There are no overt references to the Civil War, but for me the first bridge always conjures up William Faulkner’s famous passage about Gettysburg. “The Rebel” has a vision of something he wants but can’t quite grasp–possibly Confederate victory: “For just a minute there I was dreaming / For just a minute it was all so real.” Then the subject becomes a lost love: “For just a minute she was standing there / With me.” “She” could be the girlfriend from “Rebels,” but the next verse suggests it’s his mother, who appears to him in a dream “and kneels down over by the window / And says a prayer for me.” This religious imagery associates “The Rebel’s” southern and Confederate upbringing with Christianity, echoing his celebration of being born “on a Sunday mornin'” in “Rebels.”

Some songs on Southern Accents fit better into its overall concept than others. The biggest hit, “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” is ostensibly a breakup song (inspired by Stevie Nicks’s dump line to Joe Walsh). Like Nicks, the singer (maybe “The Rebel”) urges his former lover to “please admit it’s over” because “you tangle my emotions.” The chorus’s repeated lines, “don’t come around here no more / Whatever you’re looking for,” fit the breakup theme but also suggest an invasion of private space. In this way, they could reference an ex-girlfriend stalking “The Rebel” or “those blue-bellied devils” exerting their unwanted will over the South.

So, yeah, I kinda like this album. I may be reading too much into it, but I think Southern Accents is one of popular culture’s best examinations of how Civil War memory affects southern white male identity. I barely did it justice by focusing on only three songs. This is a complex piece of work that explores a vein of Petty’s past and worldview that only surfaced this one time. It’s too bad. I like Full Moon Fever and Damn the Torpedoes as much as anybody, but I have to wonder about the lost career of Tom Petty: Southern Poet Laureate.

Additional Dispatches:

  • I have a hunch there’s a copy of W. J. Cash’s The Mind of the South on Petty’s bookshelf.
  • “Rebels” really is an awesome song and I wonder why Petty didn’t release it as a single. It could be because of the lyrics, or maybe it’s because Petty reportedly got so frustrated trying to find the right arrangement (and was so incredibly high) that he broke his hand punching a wall.
  • I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Johnny Cash’s sparse cover of “Southern Accents,” with Petty & The Heartbreakers backing him up. It’s a really beautiful example of his career-reviving “American Recordings” sessions with Rick Rubin. I still prefer Petty’s original, though.
  • Kudos to this album for introducing me to Winslow Homer’s, “The Veteran in a New Field,” which is one of my favorite paintings.
  • Does It Mention Slavery?: No, and that’s my biggest criticism of Petty’s take on Confederate memory and southern identity. “The Rebel” is obviously a white southerner, but Petty doesn’t explore how race influences his perception of the war and the modern South. Here, Petty and “The Rebel” both view the South as a white South, and do so to their detriment.

Next Entry: Battle Lines

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3 comments

    • Christian McWhirter · July 14, 2015

      Thanks for sharing. Petty’s comments about the flag are very telling, especially his discomfort over the neo-Confederate element it introduced into his audience. His comments on the album are interesting too, especially how he abandoned the “concept” pretty quickly when writing it. Petty’s interpretation of “Rebels” differs a little from mine, as I don’t see where the “guilt” shows up in the lyrics, but I’ll keep it in mind when I listen to the song again.

  1. Pingback: The “Dark Day,” Tom Petty & the Lost Cause, pigeon-guided missiles, and Coke. | history&thenews

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