Listen to this track by legendary back-up vocalist phenomenon and vital solo artist in her own right Merry Clayton. It’s “Southern Man”, a song written by Neil Young and recorded by Clayton on her 1971 solo record Merry Clayton. The sessions were overseen by Lou Adler, and the material was sourced from some of the best writers of the era besides Young; Carole King, James Taylor, Leon Russell, and others.
A few years after this tune was laid down for her self-titled record, Clayton had been called on to sing on the answer song to this tune, that being Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” which chided Young by name on his criticism of southern life. But, the Skynyrd song fails to acknowledge in any distinguishable way that southern life for one is not the same life for another, depending on one’s background. The cultural weight and matters of historical record behind all of that is impossible to ignore. For Clayton, participation on that song rankled. But, as she said about the Skynyrd session in the excellent documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom, part of her calling when it came to civil rights was singing. So, she sang on the Skynyrd tune anyway, and “sang the shit out of it” with the boo-boo-boo backing vocal lines when governer George Wallace is alluded to in the song being among the stand out elements.
But, that session would be after she covered this Neil Young tune. In retrospect now that we’ve got both songs to listen to, Clayton twisted that dialogue back in on itself by doing a full on interpretation of “Southern Man” and transformed it while she was at it.
The interpretation of songs is dependent on many factors. But, one important one is the personal stake that the singer has in the material, and their ability to put that across through voice and phrasing. Sometimes, this is replicated so well that you can’t really tell the difference. But, at other times, that authenticity comes through and is undeniable. In this song, Merry Clayton gives it her all; a black woman singing about a time and a place that is hostile to her very presence in it, that would deny her an education and full citizenship in a system that favours white culture over black culture, and white people over black people. It would be difficult to read this in any other way.
When the song’s writer Neil Young visited the south and wrote this song in response to what he was seeing, his outrage was genuine, and it certainly comes through in his own original recording. But, Neil Young had the privilege of making his observations unencumbered by his racial background, his gender, or his cultural background as a Canadian in the United States. He could stay or leave anytime he wanted to after making his statement. Not so for the many people who lived in places and times such as these particularly during a time when a form of Apartheid was in place in the American South. Leaving it all behind and going somewhere else for many people who look like Merry Clayton and not Neil Young just isn’t an option or solution even today.
That’s why this song is so transformative in Merry Clayton’s hands. She takes it and makes it into a song for all of those who call the south home, but are denied the rights and privileges that having a home entails. Here, the Southern Man really is The Man; a personification of everything that keeps people of colour down. Through her interpretation, she takes it and makes it into a true protest song, full of wrath and frustration that carries with it a personal investment, but also outlining the idea that she’s singing for others like her, too who have no voice. This lesson is still pertinent today, with the inequalities in the world certainly not limited to the southern United States, and in an age where the simple sentiment of “black lives matter” is a political statement instead of a point of fact.
For more about Merry Clayton, read this interview that outlines her incredible career as a back-up vocalist for acts as diverse as Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, and The Rolling Stones (particularly her work on “Gimme Shelter” on which she sang while pregnant, in her pajamas, and with curlers in her hair …), among others .
And for more on her interpretation of this song, check out this piece that delves deep into an already politically-charged song, made even more potent by Merry Clayton.