“Song, song of the south. Sweet potato pie and I shut my mouth.”
Were these lyrics sung by the band Alabama banned? There’s an interesting backstory here.
Let’s dig into it!
Who Originally Wrote Song of the South?
We didn’t realize this, but several versions of Song of the South exist. Bob McDill wrote the lyrics for them all.
You may not be familiar with McDill. But you surely know the artists who sang his songs – Waylon Jennings, Anne Murray, and Joe Cocker, for example.
Bob’s career spanned three decades. He either wrote or co-wrote no fewer than 31 number one songs on Billboard’s Country Music charts. Impressive. We’d gather you can probably sing a chorus or two of Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On or Amanda.
McDill grew up on the Gulf Coast of Texas. While Bob is known for his writing, which he started as a boy, he also sang and played in local bands. Successful record and film producers Jack Clement and Allen Reynolds took McDill under their advisement.
Reynolds encouraged McDill to write and helped get his songs recorded at Clement’s Gulf Coast Recording Studio while McDill was in the Navy.
Bob followed the two men to Nashville, where he wrote lots of sweet music. Get this: The Grateful Dead and Ray Charles also recorded some of his songs.
In 2017, McDill donated his personal collection to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Not the flashy stuff, but the nuts and bolts of his daily writing, including 207 legal pads and other artifacts. All involved hope these everyday pieces of hard work will help educate future songwriters.
What Was the Creative Process for Song of the South?
McDill treated writing country songs like a regular job, working a routine nine-to-five. The difference is that he crafted memorable lyrics.
The inspiration for many of McDill’s compositions is found in southern culture. He also researched southern writers, looking for genuine experiences and how to translate them into songs. Bob wanted to make a literary impression with his lyrics.
The Song of the South is rooted in the impoverished days of the Great Depression. A poor southern cotton farm family loses their home. The lyrics reflect the happy memories of simple yet hard times in the country before they had the good fortune of President Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”
Who First Recorded Song of the South?
The first recording of Song of the South was by Bobby Bare. Like many artists born in the 1930s, Bare served in the U.S. Army. He is known for singing outlaw country, breaking genre norms, and spreading creative freedom outside the Nashville scene.
Bare’s career spans six decades. He released his most recent album, Great American Saturday Night, in 2020. He recorded Song of the South and released it with his 1980 album Drunk & Crazy. During this time, he was experimenting with southern rock. The album reached #47 on the U.S. country charts, but the song didn’t rank.
What Popular Covers Are There of Song of the South?
Even though Song of the South had a poor first showing, the McDill lyrics remained authentic and intriguing. Other artists took up the music.
Country artist Johnny Russell picked up the song in 1981. He sings a true, plodding country melody that matches well with the lyrics. The song made it to #57 on the U.S. Billboard country chart.
Tom T. Hall & Earl Scruggs
Tom T. Hall and Earl Scruggs put a more up-tempo banjo spin on Song of the South. Their version came out in 1982 with their Storyteller and the Banjo Man album. This third rendition only peaked at #72.
The band, Alabama, released their revamped version of Song of the South in 1988. You’ll notice an uptick in tempo and the subtle background presence of a violin in their cover.
The 1980s and 1990s saw a change in technology and a surge in music videos. Alabama paired their four-minute version with classic black and white film. In addition, they used image clips to reflect the historical connections McDill wrote about.
The music video slowly merges into a full-color video of the band in quaint, backwoods locations. Eventually, the band is on stage with a crowd that claps along through a repeating chorus.
Alabama’s version of Song of the South hit #1 on the U.S. and Canadian country charts.
For a real treat, Home Free does a great medley of Wagon Wheel and Song of the South. Formed in 2001, the five-person acapella group originally hails from Minnesota. We just love their excellent harmonies and smooth chord progressions. It’s worth several replays.
So, When Was Song of the South Banned?
The short answer is no. However, a Disney movie by the same name has had its struggles. Was it banned? Again, the answer is no. But the details are a bit more complicated.
Walt Disney’s first live-action/animated musical drama film, Song of the South, premiered in 1946 in Atlanta, Georgia. The movie, unlike the song, follows a 7-year-old boy who visits his grandmother’s plantation.
The story takes place during the reconstruction period following the American Civil War. The child befriends Uncle Remus, an African American plantation worker, and hears the tales of fictitious characters like Br’er Rabbit.
Theatre critics did not like the blended artistic merit of action and animation. The more serious problem reflected the political insight that the film depicted an unrealistically idyllic nature of race relations. Despite the criticism, the movie won several awards.
The infectious “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” won a Best Original Song Academy Award. James Baskett (Uncle Remus) won an honorary Academy Award, the first for a black male performer.
No one ever banned the film. In fact, in 2017, legendary actress Whoopie Goldberg felt they should re-release it so people could start having earnest conversations about the film’s origins.
Song of the South film actors in their day, James Baskett and Hattie McDaniel, didn’t consider their roles degrading or harmful. Yet many today still find the film insulting, reflecting a past that never existed.
Criticism still exists today that the film reinforces inappropriate stereotypes of black people. The film is not available on Disney+ or available on DVD due to its outdated cultural content deemed not appropriate for today.
A New Perspective of Song of the South
Song of the South was never banned in music or film. Both the song and movie depict cultural perceptions of times long gone. However, many view the latter as a misrepresentation of the truth.
Lyrics can be a unique insight into our culture and what people think. We still plan to enjoy listening to Song of the South. But perhaps we’ll hear it with a new meaning.
What does Bob McDill’s Song of the South say to you?