Over the next few weeks I’ll be taking fairly well known songs and analyzing them politically. Some will be historical time capsules and others modern day statements. Up this week: Charlie Daniels’ “Uneasy Rider.”
“Uneasy Rider” provides a starting point into research about American politics and culture in the 1970s. Daniels, in crafting this fictitious-yet-entertaining tale, provides a glimpse into 1973 that would be hard to get otherwise.
For those of you unfamiliar with Daniels and his music, when “Uneasy Rider” was written in 1973, he and his band released a studio album, “Honey in the Rock”, a prime example of ’70s southern rock. After the sub-genre’s decline in popularity, the Charlie Daniels Band turned to more traditional country music and in 1979 released “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” its most popular song.
Going into the ’80s, however, Daniels’ music takes a notable right turn. He went from singing about “toking on a number” to songs like “In America” — an ode to the working man steeped in patriotism and pride for this nation. This is significant because most ‘70s music was protest oriented centering around opposition to the Vietnam War, while the music of the ‘80s shifted the focus toward nationalism.
Written in response to the 1969 movie “Easy Rider,” a Peter Fonda film in which two hippie protagonists travel from California to the Deep South while facing opposition from the redneck locals, the character in “Uneasy Rider” is headed to L.A. through the Deep South (“just as I crossed the Mississippi Line”), where he — also a hippie-type individual — faces opposition from the locals. He gets a flat tire and has to stop at a “redneck-y looking joint” to use a payphone.
Daniels crafts a story to follow that provides a unique look into the hippie versus “redneck” culture in the ’70s. In his story, he effectively creates the kind of southern man that would fit right in with “the feller with green teeth” and turns his friends against him by exemplifying all of their fears and prejudices.
The protagonist of the song begins his wild day by “tooling around in (his) Chevrolet… toking on a number, and digging on the radio.” Quite obviously, Daniels is referring to smoking marijuana as he drives along on this trip — a classic hippie move.
Interestingly, in his 2007 song, “Simple Man,” Daniels talks about hanging drug dealers (“people selling dope”), but if nothing else his apparent change of heart helps sell his hippie past and his current evangelism. According to a 1973 Gallup poll, 12 percent of respondents said they had tried marijuana, with that number doubling four years later. Compared to a different Gallup poll from 2015, 44 percent of Americans have tried weed, so those numbers seem rather small. However, considering that Daniels openly sang about drug use gives him some hippie cred.
It’s also very important to consider that Daniels wrote this song in the middle of the Cold War, during which many individuals and groups were terrified of communism. The men come into the bar asking about the car with a peace sign on it, a communist symbol or a sign of the occult to some. At one point, the protagonist accuses Green Teeth of having a commie flag tacked up inside of his garage. The fear of communism was very real and legitimate to Americans in the Cold War era. Daniels continues to point this out as he references and the John Birch Society.
In the 18th verse, the protagonist sings: “Would you believe he’s gone as far as ripping Wallace stickers off the bumpers of cars?” Henry Wallace was a somewhat controversial guy — as Secretary of Agriculture in the 1930s, he implemented government regulation of crops to combat overproduction and low prices. That’s not a super conservative thing to do, but it served farmers very well, earning him their approval. He went on to become vice president to President Franklin Roosevelt, and there has been much speculation as to what may have been if he had become president.
“And he voted for George McGovern for president” — the nail in the feller with green teeth’s coffin, a vote for 1972 Democratic presidential candidate who was heavily defeated by incumbent Richard Nixon. McGovern was so far left that now, whenever a candidate has far-left anti establishment leanings, they are referred to as the “New McGovern” (i.e., Bernie Sanders in 2016). His unlikely candidacy had a profound effect on politics.
The guy that Daniels’ character is calling into question tries to counter with the line “I’m a faithful follower of Brother John Birch, I’m a member of the Antioch Baptist Church…” The John Birch Society’s mission, in its own words, “to bring about less government, more responsibility, and- with God’s help- a better world by providing leadership, education, and organized volunteer action in accordance with moral and Constitutional principles.”
However, the group has been accused of propagating right-wing extremism in its intense anti-communist actions. This New Yorker article gives an in-depth history.
There is much to learn by analytically listening to songs, especially those with political leanings. Close listening always yields a more fulfilling song experience, however, it is especially important for politically-oriented songs. Artists create to make a statement, and if that statement is lost in our refusal to look beyond the lines, the protest is in vain.
Correction: I referred to Henry Wallace, FDR’s Vice President as the “Wallace” mentioned in Daniels’ song. That was incorrect, Daniels was referring to George Wallace, four time Alabama governor most well known for his segregationist policies. In 1972, he was vying for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination when he was shot (not fatally).