JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) – Michael Ray FitzGerald, a chronicler of North Florida’s music legacy, has been getting some good reactions to his new book, “Jacksonville and the Roots of Southern Rock,” which he says is looking as if it’s heading toward a second printing from the University Press of Florida.
But he’s also ruffled some Southern pride recently in suggesting that Southern rock (“a slippery, nebulous term”) could also encompass bands from far beyond the Mason-Dixon Line, groups such as Creedence Clearwater Revival (Northern California) and the Band (from Canada!).
“There’s a nutsy little contingent that really hates my guts,” FitzGerald said. “I’m a historian, I’m not a fan. I’m writing an objective analysis of Southern rock, which is the good, the bad and the ugly, and they expect it to be a Disney movie.”
His claims get some heated discussion on a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan page, in which FitzGerald is called a “Yankee intruder” and the like (for the record, he came to Jacksonville in 1968, a Navy brat like so many of its residents, and played guitar for local bands for decades).
FitzGerald figures that comes with the territory when the subject is something that inspires such passion. And he said if he’s not making someone mad, he’s probably not doing his job.
His book includes deep-dive chapters on Gram Parsons, the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Cowboy, Blackfoot, 38 Special, Molly Hatchet and Derek Trucks – all of whom have significant ties to Jacksonville.
FitzGerald writes: “Jacksonville was neither the home nor the birthplace of Southern rock, but it surely was a motherlode.”
FitzGerald said his aim in the book was to show the influence the city has in the music industry, which goes way beyond Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band that put Jacksonville on the world’s music map.
“It celebrates Jacksonville, those people grew up here,” he said. “It‘s one of the few things this city is famous for. Jacksonville’s music has always been a huge topic to all the musicians I grew up with, it’s something people are really proud of, and they discuss it a lot. I knew I had a built-in audience.”
He sees this book as an extension of an earlier one he wrote, “Swamp Rock,” which explores the wide variety of music that’s come from Northeast Florida during many decades.
The Jacksonville Historical Society is even planning a local music museum that would seem to have a lot going for it, considering the city’s long musical legacy.
FitzGerald has some theories about why Jacksonville and environs have made so much noteworthy music.
One comes from the city’s Southern roots. “It’s the Southern tradition to make your own entertainment,” he said. “Playing guitar and banjos on the porch is a lot cheaper than going to the movies.”
Then there was the wide-ranging radio station WAPE that used to give local bands valuable radio play – and credibility. FitzGerald is working with documentarian Matt Mayes on a film about the history and influence of the station.
The influence of the Navy can’t be underestimated either, he said: It brought in “a cosmopolitan group” of teenagers from across the country, who then mixed their musical talents and influences with the locals.
Another factor: Music was also a way for young people without a lot of economic opportunity to dream big, as Skynyrd did. Jacksonville wasn’t a hip town, but it had a strong underdog presence and a common thread among musicians – toughness.
Jacksonville’s bands, FitzGerald writes in his book, “had to be especially tough and determined. Those who weren’t got weeded out soon enough.”
That was exemplified by Ronnie Van Zant – whom FitzGerald says epitomized the masculinity and machismo that went with much of Southern rock – and Lynyrd Skynyrd, a hard-working band from the Westside.
He writes: “Skynyrd was the virtual embodiment of the Protestant work ethic and the American dream rolled into one. If one works hard enough and long enough, there’s a chance you will achieve your dream. Van Zant truly believed that.”
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