Rednecks, Longnecks and Leftnecks

My dad was a redneck. Well, truly, he was a brown arm. He drove from place to place for his job fixing machines. His skin always tanned real good on the driver’s side of his body. With his overwhite legs, deeply tanned face and even deeper tanned left arm, blue-black hair as well as one blue eye and one brown eye, he was perhaps a more colorful version of a redneck than you might normally think.

On a muggy summer day when his head was in the engine of our car, he drank anything iced out of a mayonnaise jar. (Though, of course, you know it was actually a Miracle Whip jar, don’t you?) The Miracle Whip vs mayonnaise class distinction reminds me of how it was with butter and margarine as well. If you had your own cow (which his dad’s generation did) then you had butter. For the next generation who were city folk all the way, it was the more affordable margarine. (Or, as my aunt called it, oleo) The first time I had butter at someone’s house (the same with mayonnaise) I politely let them know it had gone bad. As this was obviously not the way the stuff was supposed to taste.

As a good redneck father, he cut apart his old beer cans and made tiny toy furniture out of them. He also used his tools (before he pawned ’em) to make stiffly dancing wooden puppets with the face drawn on in Marks-a-lot. Also, a nice old fashion toy called a Jacob’s Ladder. It’s a magical, never-ending cycle of tumbling wooden blocks held together with string. A very simple, but complicated toy.

I was probably the only child on my block with such things. I think I fared better, at least in that respect, than the kids with all the bright, plastic gew gaws that seemed to always break after one use. At the time, our neighborhood was fast being gentrified. It would go from being literally the county poor farm to a working class neighborhood built with kit houses (our era) to the 13th wealthiest neighborhood in Texas in less than a hundred years.

Everytime I babysat for the neighbor’s children, I broke their modern appliances. From central air to your basic garbage disposal, I had no idea what it was– and no idea that I  had no idea. Not a good combination. I was much loved as a babysitter but also notorious for when that child leaves we’ll need to call the repairman again.

There are somethings I want to keep from my dad’s generation. An undying love of cast iron skillets. Drinking out of glass jars. Keeping a coffee can of bacon grease on the stove (or in the fridge to meet today’s ideas) Most importantly, perhaps, the bone deep knowledge of how to make decent cornbread. The cast iron skillet must be heated up first in the oven with grease or oil, then batter poured into it so that it sizzles to form a nice crust. Any recipe, or cook who does not understand that may be tolerated, but not necessarily trusted. Better to (shudder) add sugar to your cornbread than bake it without the nice crust. What would people think?

At the same time, there are a lot of things I have left behind from that generation. Boy Scout camps funded by the KKK among them. I was the kid with the unbrushed hair at school who if you ever came over to my house, my drunken dad would try to get you liquored up and tell you how great Hitler was.

His own dad had dropped out of gradeschool to help take care of the family. I think my mom’s dad, up in Appalachia, made it all the way to junior high. The grandfathers were both raised by fathers who had abandoned their families in one way or another. To their credit, they both stuck around. To their discredit, perhaps they shouldn’t have. Life is often quite complicated, isn’t it?

They learned from the mistakes of their forefathers, improving on the lineage, but still made mistakes of their own. Which brings us to the modern day and Mr. Joe Bageant, redneck extraordinaire. Bageant has this crazy idea to keep the good stuff and toss out the bad of downhome culture. Along the way, he’s done what he can to take the racism out of redneck.

His books like Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir and Deer Hunting With Jesus were intent on proving to the world (and maybe reminding his brethren) that you could be intellectual and redneck at once. Someone once called him a leftneck.

It’s a term that can include a variety of folks, but I think my favorite definition was “gun owning progressives who can change their own motor oil.” If none of those three characteristics include you, don’t despair.

Because, no matter which side you like your bread buttered on, the right or the left, this is some modern day thinking worth considering. It’s time somebody did something to unequivocably state that the dichotomy between city and country or intellect and redneck are not all time opposites.

For those of us who’ve been taught not to go above our raising, it can seem hard to say that folks before you were wrong. It’s also just as hard to face down a roomful of hip, urban types who belittle trailer folks in the country living a hand to mouth existence as the stupidest people on earth. That is where the leftneck, in my mind, comes in.

Leftnecks admit the huge parts of our heritage that should have changed eons ago, but retain and honor those that fit us and that we’d like to pass down to the next generation.

In the best sense of the word, a leftneck has kept her grandma’s skillet and recipe for gravy, but not her opinions on the Civil War. Leftnecks love their people, but also can be comfortable discussing their flaws. On the other hand, a leftneck (even one incognito with a full set of teeth and business attire) would not stand by while somebody made fun of country people or trailer folk who were doing their best with all that is stacked against them.

Leftnecks are modern in the best sense of the world. They have the sense to keep themselves firmly grounded in downhome culture so they’re not putting on airs, but they’re not afraid to fly a little higher in the tree than their kinfolk if that’s what the world takes these days. They’re not afraid to question the tried and true in case it plumb just needs to be thrown out (somethings just can not be recycled, no matter what your mama told you.) At the same time, they stand with their feet firmly planted in their raising and can’t be made to feel ashamed of where they (or theirs) came from.

At times being a leftneck is lonely, caught in the perceived divide between homegrown culture and intellect. But Joe Bageant and me, we don’t think it has to be. It would be nice to see the growth of folks who admire the fortitude of our forebears without thinking you’ve lost your raising just because you’ve learned to think for yourself. Me and Joe Bageant, we invite you along for the ride. The pick up we’re driving is old and rusty but the tires are new. You may have to pile in the back, but it’s a hot day and riding along together is so much better than tramping along by ourselves, doncha think? We even brought some ice tea along for the ride. It’s in that cooler, next to the oranges. And take your hands off those cookies, we’re saving those for lunch.

If all this talk about rednecks has you wondering about music, let’s talk redneck songs! Who doesn’t grin at least a bit at Redneck Woman by Gretchen Wilson? Or, if you wanna hear the guy’s version, how about Redneck Girl? And, there’s always Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother by Ray Wylie Hubbard.

If you’ve ever lived in a home with wheels, you might like Neal McCoy’s Rednecktified. In more of a vacation mood? How about Redneck Yacht Club? Wanna put a little high step in your two step? What about Redneck Rhythm And Blues? And finally, if you need a giggle about what used to be considered high tech, give a listen to High Tech Redneck.

Note: If you’d like to see some crotchety old leftneck sitting on his porch in Virginia picking and singing Hemingway’s Whiskey, check out this video of Joe Bageant made before his death this spring. It’s not fancy, he wasn’t either, but it’s the nicest way I can think of to say rest in peace to a lovable old redneck. (Hemingway’s Whiskey was written by national treasure, Guy Clark aka Bob Dylan’s favorite songwriter.)


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