Fight Songs is not so much about sports as it is about the South, using the region’s mania for college sports as its lens. It’s not so much about the South, though, as it is about community: how and where we find it or make it or pretend that we have, what it gives and what it can cost.
It’s about my marriage, how we wedded not only each other but our love for college football and our favorite teams. Mine is the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, avatars of the smallest college in major-college sports, a selective and too-often elitist private school, located in North Carolina, thought to be the “least southern” southern state. Hers is the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide, winners of 18 national championships, the “Capstone” of the “Heart of Dixie.” Other than her family and friends, Tide football is about the only thing from her home state she still loves.
It’s about our marriage, how we’ve wedded—or tried to—our notions of home and of roots. It’s about the work that love requires: love for each other, love for a land that has been so hateful.
I didn’t listen to any of these songs as I was writing, but they all were rattling around somewhere in the back of my head, each of them expressing something that I tried to get onto the page.
“Call Me Deacon Blues,” Steely Dan
The song that started it all: “They’ve got a name for the winners in the world/I want a name when I lose,” goes the chorus. “They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call me Deacon Blues.”
One of these days, I thought, after I’d fallen in love with an Alabama fan, I need to write something about that.
The story I heard on my freshman hall was that one of the guys in Steely Dan once had been a Wake Forest freshman, too. But he’d hated the small, then-Baptist school so much that he dropped out, transferred to Bard College, met the other guy, formed Steely Dan, and in 1977 wrote a song equating Wake Forest’s Demon Deacon mascot with “a name when I lose.” After all, Wake’s football team went 1-10 that year, while the Alabama Crimson Tide went 11-1, first in the SEC and second in the nation.
Like so much I heard on my freshman hall, that story wasn’t true. In 2015 Donald Fagen said they’d never heard of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons when they wrote “Deacon Blues.” They’d heard of the Los Angeles Rams’ All-Pro Deacon Jones, and they liked how the word slant-rhymed with “Crimson.”
He said they’d never even heard of Wake Forest: That’s even more fitting for the smallest school and losingest football program in the Power 5 conferences. A song about affluent suburban ennui fits preppy private-school Wake Forest pretty damn well, too.
“O Here’s to Wake Forest” / “Yea, Alabama”
I only hope that everyone who has thought Fight Songs was about actual fights songs at least bought a book.
I might could write a whole other book comparing and contrasting the differences between the fight songs of my beloved Demon Deacons and my wife Jamie’s Crimson Tide. Wake’s begins by describing the college as “a glass of the finest/Red ruddy Rhenish filled up to the brim.” Aside from being a weirdly high-culture way to start a song meant for sports, it’s ironic, since at the time Wake Forest was an officially teetotaling Southern Baptist school.
Alabama’s, meanwhile, begins with the command, “Drown ‘em Tide!”
Both the first verse and the chorus of Wake’s “fight” song conclude with solemn Puritanical pledges of self-sacrifice: “We will sing our hymn” and “We’ll herald her story/And die for her glory.”
Alabama’s fight song has lines like “Go teach the Bulldogs to behave/Send the Yellow Jackets to a watery grave” and the absolutely on-the-nose “Fight on, fight on, fight on, men!” and my personal favorite, “And if a man starts to weaken/That’s a shame!”
Though the author Melissa Delbridge, a Tuscaloosa native and Bama grad, swears that the line originally was “And if a man starts to weaken/That’s his shame!”
I only doubt her because I doubt they’d have changed it.
“Carolina In My Mind,” James Taylor
I’ll admit to occasional jealousy that my home state’s most well-known song isn’t as foot-stomping as “Sweet Home Alabama” or the Osborne Brothers’ “Rocky Top,” or as soaring as Ray Charles’s recording of “Georgia on my Mind.” No other song captures North Carolina as fully, though, even in ways I doubt Taylor intended.
In my parents’ lifetime North Carolina transformed from a backwoods state of mill towns and tobacco farms, home to half the murder ballads in the American canon, to a suburban state of high-tech and high finance, home to the Research Triangle Park and Bank of America.
Lurking somewhere underneath all the vacation homes and subdivision sprawl, though, is that old Old North State where the Devil has his Tramping Ground, where the trickster Jack of the Jack Tales still roams every peak and valley. The founding myths of the other 13 original states are of colonies triumphant: Jamestown, Plymouth Rock, Roger Williams, Oglethorpe. North Carolina’s founding myth is of the colony said to be “Lost” . . . except that everyone knew those colonists had gone to live, probably quite happily, with the Native people at Croatoan.
Lurking somewhere underneath all the soft, suburban acoustic guitar of this folk-pop standard is a death song, just like the murder ballads and devil tales and hushed-up history (Wilmington 1898, Gastonia 1929, Greensboro 1979) of my home state.
“Dark and silent late last night I think I might have heard the highway calling . . . And signs that might be omens say I’m going, going, gone to Carolina in my mind.”
Whether or not Taylor meant them to be, the words could be those of a man on his deathbed, if he’s lucky enough to be dying in a bed. He might be on a battlefield or in a roadside ditch or out in a field beneath the unforgiving sun. In his mind, though, he’s going home, to the Old North State, the Land of the Longleaf Pine.
“Sweet Home Alabama,” Lynyrd Skynyrd
You want complicated? For nearly 50 years fans have been fighting over this song and its meaning. A Floridian wrote the lyrics as a light-hearted rebuke to Neil Young—of whom he was a fan—and specifically to Young’s singles “Southern Man” and “Alabama.”
Did Ronnie Van Zant mean “In Birmingham they love the governor” (George Wallace) sincerely or sarcastically? Did he intend “Does your conscience bother you?” to invite Northerners to examine their own failings, or to excuse Southerners’? Did he intend any of this to be argued about, contextualized and recontextualized, rationalized and deconstructed, or was he just putting words to one of the most magnetic guitar riffs ever picked?
My wife hates this song, of course, just as my college buddy from New Jersey hated “Born to Run.” I get it, even if I can’t help but love both songs. My first visit to Birmingham after she and I started dating was for a wedding. At the reception the DJ played this song, which I’d expected. What I did not expect was nearly every other person in the room, after Ronnie sang the first “Sweet Home Alabama” of the chorus, shouting in blood-harmony unison, “ROLL TIDE, ROLL!”
I sat goggle-eyed. On the next chorus two of her friends turned to me, asking me with their eyes: Are you going to do it? You going to shout it out with us? You going to be one of us?
I did. I was.
“Oh, Atlanta,” Allison Krauss and Union Station / “ATLiens,” OutKast
I am a damn unicorn: a white Southerner who is neither in nor from Atlanta but loves it, anyway. The music, the Varsity, the Braves: They all go a long way toward making up for the traffic, which is awful, yes, but I’ve seen worse in smaller Sun Belt cities. Somehow I’ve enjoyed every visit I’ve made, especially the one when I met the woman who’d become my wife.
Where else could we have met but in Atlanta? The city that started as Terminus is in fact the South’s great junction, whether by road, rail, or air. More of the many Souths come together in Atlanta than in any other single place, and the term “New South” was coined there.
I remember my shock as a child, finding out about Atlanta, learning that a “real city”—with skyscrapers and Major League Baseball and TBS Superstation—could exist in the South. I also remember how many grown-ups said, “Atlanta’s not really the South anymore.” In my innocence I thought they meant how big it had become, how filled with traffic and bustle and Northern transplants. They might have meant that, but they also meant that Atlanta had a Black mayor.
They were wrong, of course. Atlanta’s never stopped being the South. A teenaged Atlantan named Andre said so in 1995, when OutKast won Best New Group at the Source Awards in New York City, and he declared, “The South’s got something to say.”
Not a bit of that has changed since. The South isn’t one thing and never was. The South isn’t even only two things. They all got something to say.
“Noctifer Birmingham,” The Mountain Goats
Why this, of all the thousands of songs that reference my beloved’s not-so-beloved Birmingham? In part because the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle is based in Durham, NC. In part because Darnielle in recent years has turned to writing novels, which pisses me off since I turned to writing prose only after confirming I lack even a shred of musical talent. In part because when Jamie moved from New York to North Carolina to be with me she “came down from”—or through—”Harrisburg, Pennsylvania,” as the song’s narrator does in the refrain.
But the clencher is that in his liner notes for “Noctifer Birmingham” Darnielle writes, “It was recorded during the Super Bowl in 1994. Underused as a fight song during sporting events . . .”
Not nearly the same, I know, but here you go, John.
“Dixieland Delight,” Alabama
Dr. Hilary Green, then at the University of Alabama, was one of the last people I got to interview in person for Fight Songs, before COVID-19 went pandemic and the nation kinda, sorta locked down. When she and I parted after talking for two hours (outdoors) we touched elbows. We made a joke of it.
Little did we know.
Hilary—now at Davidson College in North Carolina—is a brilliant historian. The only thing I disagreed with her about was the UA tradition of playing this song during a fourth-quarter timeout. The school had suspended its use in 2015 because students had added their own family-unfriendly call-and-response verses to the chorus. They reinstated it in 2018, following intense and sustained fan demand, and an online “‘Dixieland Delight’ Done Right” campaign starring Nick Saban’s wife Terry.
Hilary’s objection, though, is that it seems to her a callback to an idealized “Old South,” and that it was embraced in response to integration. I argued that the song didn’t come out until 1983, twenty years after the Capstone integrated. We disagreed about its use of “Dixieland”: echo of enslavement, or innocuous alliteration?
Does this three-minute fourth-quarter diversion call for deeper scrutiny? Why did the Alabama faithful embrace this particular song with such fervor? Sure, the song is by the band Alabama, who themselves are Alabama natives and Crimson Tide fans. The song is also an absolute jam, one that all but demands you sing along. Starting with a soft-strumming acoustic guitar, punctuated by a wood-block pop that evokes an old-timey jug-band sound, the four-part harmony of the vocals takes its time building to the first chorus and the introduction of an electric guitar. By the second chorus the song is set into a groove that will have even the whitest of white people wanting to move their hips. Try not to sing and/or clap along with the third chorus, the one after the first fiddle solo. I dare you.
And, of course, the song is about sex in a pickup truck, which let me tell you is something everyone ought to try at least once and as often as possible. It’s set, though, not in Alabama but in Tennessee, made clear twice in the opening stanza. Alabama the band has plenty of songs set either in Alabama the state or a more generic “the South.” Is clinging to this song a microaggression not against African-Americans, but against the Tide’s hated rivals across the 35th parallel? Could the Tide faithful replace this song with any of a hundred others: Cowboy Copas’s “Alabam,” Alabama’s “Song of the South” or “My Home’s in Alabama,” the classic “Stars Fell on Alabama,” Leadbelly’s “I’m Alabama Bound,” Hank Williams’ “Alabama Waltz”? Hell, maybe Brecht and Weill’s “Alabama Song”?
I don’t know. All I know is that when I go to an Alabama game I sing along with the song and the call-and-response as lustily as any undergrad. All I know is that I’ll almost certainly do it again, despite my understanding and respect for Hilary’s objections. “Dixieland Delight” in Bryant-Denny is the kind of communal experience we come to sports for: a happy hundred-thousand, come together in song to celebrate something we all love.
Still I have to wonder if we all are celebrating the same things about that something, and hope to God we are.
“A Murder or a Heart Attack,” the Old 97s
This song really has nothing to do with my book Fight Songs, but I feel obliged to include something from the Old 97s album Fight Songs, and this is my favorite track, three minutes of alt-country janglepop that’ll wake you up better than Coke or coke.
“Hope the High Road,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
“Last year was a son of a bitch,” Isbell half-sang, half-primal screamed, “for nearly everyone we know.”
“Hope the High Road” came out in 2017, the lead single off Isbell’s album The Nashville Sound, so listeners assumed the year he meant was 2016. If 2016 was a son-of-a-bitch, though, 2020 was a son of a slavering demon-spawn hellhound, hot on everybody’s trail. I’d really like for this song to become an artefact of a distant era, not more and more relevant by the day.
Like my wife, Isbell is a deep-rooted Alabama native and Crimson Tide fan. Like me, he’s an Atlanta Braves fan. Any number of his songs would have fit on this playlist: “Alabama Pines,” not only for the chorus “Somebody take me home/Through those Alabama pines,” but for “No one gives a damn about the things I give a damn about/The liberties that we can’t do without”; “TVA,” for “Bunch of sharecroppers versus the world/So his mama sat down, wrote a letter to FDR”; “The Life You Chose,” “Something to Love.”
This is his song that seems to have peeked into half the country’s brains and articulated all the chaos, despair, and resolve we couldn’t quite find words for. Isbell then put them to a propulsive melody, building off a compact riff that rises, naturally and without fuss, to a crescendo that’s life-affirming without cornball sentiment, without looking away from the heartbreak.
“I used to want to be a real man/I don’t know what that even means.” Hallelujah.
“We’ll ride the ship down dumping/Buckets overboard.” Preach on.
“There can’t be more of them than us/There can’t be more . . .” A-by-God-men, and Roll Damn Tide.
Just remember that “them,” the Trump true believers who stormed our Capitol on behalf of the Big Lie, believe the same thing.
“Over the Mountain,” The V-Roys
I was a young bookseller, covering a buddy’s lunch break in the music department of the media superstore where I worked in the ‘90s, when a very nice label rep called, asking if she could send a sample CD by a new band called the V-Roys.
“They’re the first band we’ve signed, and this is the first album we’re releasing,” she said. “We’re a new label, started by Steve Earle. Can I send you their CD?”
“Steve Earle?” I said. “Please and thank you.”
“Great,” she said. “Should I send it to anyone in particular?”
“Um . . . yes,” I said. “Send it to Ed Southern.”
Thus I discovered my favorite band of the ‘90s, one that never quite broke through to the fame and sales they deserved. “Over the Mountain” is from their second LP, 1998’s All About Town, and is 1:59 of pure exultation. The first words are “When I come over the mountain/I take my time and gear it low,” but if I hear this song while I’m driving my foot gets heavier and heavier on the gas. (In a just world, NASCAR would’ve adopted this song as its theme music.) Or, at least, I used to: My wife and I go up and over the same mountains as the singer, driving to Birmingham and back, avoiding the Atlanta megalopolitan traffic, but she gets carsick so I have to control myself.
The singer’s driving over the Appalachians to get back to his love. He’s risking his life to do it—“If I run off the mountain/Gather me up and send me home”; “Straight up to the left of me/And nothing on my right/Trying not to look around/My knuckles turning white”—but he’s jubilant—“Hit the road and paid the toll/I’m coming home to you/Only thing between us is/This distance with a view.”
The electric riff has a little tremor that evokes the old-time music we associate with the mountains, made blatant by the tin whistle that comes in after the first verse. In a second less than two minutes, this song presents the quintessence of Cowpunk, as if Chuck Berry had taken over Clarence Ashley’s band.
My life is shaped and haunted by that cowpunk, alt-country moment in the ‘90s—and by a similar one in the late ‘70s—when I thought the South could still be itself, but better. In the ‘70s I had watched Burt Reynolds outrun and outfox one racist white patriarch villain after another, watched Georgia’s Jimmy Carter become president and install solar panels on the White House, watched the woods and fields and Methodist camp-meeting grounds we passed on the way to my grandparents’ house. My school classes were not-quite-half-filled with Black kids; though we didn’t hang out much with one another, we got along well and sometimes were friends.
In the ‘90s I listened to the V-Roys and Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams; I ate in all-night diners and fish camps and barbecue joints; I went to a repurposed warehouse for shows by both Black and white musicians. I hung out in an abandoned mill village where artists and outcasts had opened galleries and studios and bars and shops because they could afford the space for their weirdness there.
I saw how I thought we could be: carrying on the best of our past, working through the worst; recognizing our common needs for community and continuity; embracing that quicksilver, underdog, good ol’ boy outlaw mode of Southernness.
I thought that was how we would be.
I should have known better.
Cowpunk gave way to Bro Country. That old mill village became an “Arts District” that priced out the surrounding Black community and, soon after, the pioneer artists and outcasts. My favorite hangout there is now a bank branch. We have actual fascists in elected office.
“Ever South,” Drive-By Truckers
The arid, bitter pedant deep inside me recoils from this song: The immigration station on Ellis Island didn’t open until 1892, long after British Borderers filled the backcountry South. Those settlers were far more mixed in origin than the “Scots-Irish” trope. “Appalachia” pronounced with a long ‘A’ (“App-uh-lay-shuh”) is like nails on a chalkboard to me.
The better, brighter part of me adores this song: “We held tight to our loved ones and we held on to the promise”; “Where everyone takes notice of the drawl that leaves our mouth/So no matter where we are we’re ever south”; “Take your stand for noble causes till you just can’t stand no more”; “We sure can get it wrong for someone so devout.”
By the time the Truckers get to “Ever southern in my carriage, ever southern in my stance,” if I don’t have a tear in my eye and/or a fist in the air you might ought to call a doctor.
“All Your’n,” Tyler Childers
I’m not too proud to admit I discovered this song and its singer through a commercial for the SEC Network, celebrating not SEC football but the spectacle and culture and community that has grown up around it. I know that sense of community is false in most of the most important ways, but I envy that sense more than I envy the national championships and media money. I also know that those natties and TV deals owe more than a little to that sense of community, the shared and celebratory traditions.
The song itself is lovely, one of the all-time great odes to long-distance relationships, apt for a couple who spent their first year together living six states apart.
“Wagon Wheel,” Old Crow Medicine Show
I know, I know. The Garage, a much-loved and now-missed dive bar/music venue in downtown Winston-Salem, had a handwritten sign taped to the wall beside the stage: “No ‘Wagon Wheel.’”
They weren’t the only ones. The song was called “an acoustic ‘Free Bird,’” or “this generation’s ‘Free Bird,’” and they weren’t meant as compliments. And that was before Darius Rucker’s uninteresting pop-country cover was all over the airwaves.
But the song is overplayed because it’s awesome, as irresistible as “Dixieland Delight.” Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor took a bootlegged Bob Dylan chorus and added verses about leaving the cold Northeast to be with his beloved in North Carolina: Flip the genders, and substitute driving a U-Haul for hitchhiking, and the story is mine and Jamie’s.
Once she started planning our wedding, Jamie decided this would be the song for our first dance. She found a Groupon for dance lessons and a local old-time band to play the reception. When we showed up at the dance studio they assigned us to an instructor who happened to be free that night . . . and who also happened to be a Crimson Tide fan, with family from Alabama. She and Jamie exchanged Roll Tides right there on the dance floor.
This isn’t a small world, after all: It’s a tiny one, webbed with connections, all of us bound to one another whether or not we’ve met.