Southern Cultures 4.4 (2003) 73-87
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"Lord, Have Mercy on My Soul"
Sin, Salvation, and Southern Rock
J. Michael Butler
In 1971 the five-member rock-and-roll group Black Oak Arkansas released their debut album. The songs on the record illuminated themes addressed by Black Oak and the larger "southern rock movement." Most southern rock lyrics glorified such stereotypically male values as fighting, gambling, and sexual conquests. Two other songs, "The Hills of Arkansas" and "When Electricity Came to Arkansas," revealed a love of state and region that also permeated southern rock lyrics. Yet the most lyrically intriguing song on Black Oak Arkansas was titled "Lord Have Mercy on My Soul."
Although most Black Oak songs were anything but serious, "Have Mercy" began with the deep, solemn voice of lead singer Jim "Dandy" Mangrum accompanied only by a church organ. The spoken introduction recited the story that Mangrum eventually sang. In a somber tone, Mangrum vividly described how he recently "walked through the halls of Karma" and "shook hands with both the devil and God," whom he "respected" and had "run with" throughout his life. While the devil possessed his body and God possessed his mind, he explained, his soul currently belonged to both. Mangrum recalled that as they considered his eventual fate, the devil became excited while the Lord expressed sympathy. At the thought of facing God on judgment day, Mangrum begged, "Lord, please have mercy on my soul." 1 The constant repetition of this line at the song's end conveyed the sincere concern the band felt for their spiritual salvation.
The preoccupation with damnation and salvation in "Lord Have Mercy on My Soul" is no aberration in the southern rock movement. In fact, bands that belonged to the movement often expressed a seemingly earnest preoccupation with religious matters. The song lyrics and personal lives of southern rockers demonstrate a constant struggle between sin and salvation. At first glance, it appears that southern rock totally rebelled against the evangelical ethos that so heavily influences southern culture. The use of evangelical vocabulary and images stands in stark contrast to the debauchery often promoted by southern rock bands in their songs. Drug use, violent brawling, distance from family members, and sleeping with every female possible are not characteristics usually associated with strong religious values. There is little doubt that southern rock bands were proud of their sinful ways, embodied in their excessive drinking and drug habits, but the musicians [End Page 73] did frequently attempt to reconcile sinful lifestyles with the religious fundamentalism that characterizes much of the South.
Music has always served as an essential form of southern religious expression. Popular fascination with native musical forms like the blues and, more recently, bluegrass confirms the importance of southern music in the nation's cultural heritage. Some historians, most notably Bill Malone, have even recognized the intellectual value of southern music in its multiple forms. Southern rock, however, is one form of the region's music that has received relatively little popular or academic attention. But what really is southern rock, and who are the bands that are affiliated with the movement? The former question is more difficult than the latter, as the "southern rock movement" means a variety of things to fans, record companies, and the bands themselves.
Record producer Phil Walden more or less began the southern rock movement in 1969 by recording and marketing a distinctive style of regional rock-and-roll for his Capricorn Records in Macon, Georgia. Many of the bands Walden signed were made up of native southerners who had been playing a unique blend of rock, blues, and country music on regional circuits for years. Members of different groups often knew each other well and even traded musicians on occasion. Fans and rock critics soon gave the new sound produced by Capricorn (and other [End Page 74] companies) the vague "southern rock" label. Five critically, commercially, and regionally successful bands of the movement also built a significant national following: the Allman Brothers Band, Black Oak Arkansas, Lynyrd Skynyrd...