President of the Southern States

by zunguzungu

Out of the depths of the 80’s, Ta-Nehisi Coates unveils Hank Williams, Jr’s “If the South Woulda Won,” an absolutely astonishing hymn to how great it woulda been:

Coates laconically suggests we “Notice the whiteness of the “we,” and generally how black people do not figure in.”

Which is true, but doesn’t even scratch the surface of the crazy. Let’s start with the almost total evacuation of politics into culture: in the world of this song, the idea of Hank Williams, Jr, singing “I’d probably run  for president of the Southern States” comes to seem almost natural since the singer’s father, Hank Williams senior, has his picture on the hundred dollar bill and “the day Elvis passed way would be our national holiday” (reprised with Lynrd Skynrd and Patsy Cline). If the South woulda won, in other words, the nation woulda been defined by a sainted aristocracy of cultural heroes. Which makes some sense; such a polity has to be imagined specifically not in terms of political figures — the Lee’s, the Jackson’s, the Jefferson Davis’ etc — because those people are tainted by actual politics, the actual real world in which black people exist and were enslaved. Instead, you have to invest authenticity (and civic authority) in entertainers, who can give you the fantasy. This might be why, instead of restoring Richmond, the historical capital of the confederacy, he imagines how “we’d put that capitol back in Alabama,” whatever that means.

Some other highlights are the line “We’d put Florida on the right track, cause we’d take Miami back” — not that we’re racist or anything — and the amusing conceit that  “Southern Justice” had anything to do with proof, as in the line “If they were proven guilty, then they would swing quickly, instead of writing books and smiling’ on TV.” It’s also kind of cute that he wants to ban all the “cars made in China.” Oh, the 80’s!

But what really caught my attention was the great blast of NOLA brass from about 1:20-1:38, by far the funkiest part of the entire song. Up until that point, the closest thing we’ve gotten to syncopation is the little riff off “Dixieland” that punctuates the line “…president of the Southern States”; the rest of the song is the ploddingly dead country beat so beloved of boring musicians like him. But for about eighteen seconds in the middle of the song (and then reprised at the very end), we get a whole bunch of what is a distinctly, if not exclusively, black form of music. That’s not to say its  Rebirth or anything, just to echo what Jorgen Harris pointed out in the comments to that post, that in moments like that you see — slipping through — “how huge the influence of black southerners has been on the southern culture that CSA nostalgics are so proud of.” Which is why it’s also worth noting that when he gets to Louisiana (in his state-by-state shout out), he emphasizes “cajun cooking” which is followed by a lick of cajun fiddle music right afterward. When it comes to celebrating Louisiana, you see, it’s important that the blackness of that musical lineage be displaced onto a safely white set of references, the white Acadians/Cajuns.

Which got me thinking. Who are the musicians actually playing that music? Are they white or are they black?

Not that it really matters, of course; but it would be interesting at least, if some of the session people on that track — as a commenter suggested — were not white. And the thing about the internet is that you can find out a lot of information while sitting at your kitchen table drinking coffee on a Saturday morning. So, after clicking around, I determined that — surprise! — all the horn players playing NOLA style brass music are white.

I started with Wikipedia, which tells us that the horn section consisted of Herbert Bruce, Ray Carroll, Quitman Dennis, Jack Hale, Michael Haynes, Jim Horn, Jerry McKinney. Herbert Bruce (trombone) is white. Ray Carroll (trumpet) was a longtime member of the Nashville Brass (whose recordings he now sells on the internet), and if this album cover is any indication, he is white. Quitman Dennis was harder, but via this account of Bobby Darin’s last concert, I determined that Dennis was one of the four backing musicians at that show, and in this clip of that show, you can see his glorious caucasionicity shining forth as he plays bass (he was a bassist as well as a sax player and arranger for Darin). Jack Hale is white. Jerry McKinney (saxophone) is a white guy, as I determined from this video of “Larry Raspberry and the High Steppers.” Jim Horn (baritone saxophone), is a white sax player who played sax on Pet Sounds, it appears. And finally, Michael Haynes… Well, when I found out he played trumpet with Confederate Railroad, I lost interest in searching any further.

So there’s that.