Pabst Redeux

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By Hardy Jackson              

       It must be true, ‘cause I read it in the New York Times.

       Yessir.

        According to the Times, Pabst Blue Ribbon had become the beer of choice in – get ready – Portland, Oregon.

       And with whom is Blue Ribbon popular?

        P.B.R. is popular with the alienated, the marginal, the underdog, the tattooed and pierced who wouldn’t be caught dead in one of those microbreweries for which Portland is famous, according to the Times.

        The Times called ‘em “alternative people,” folks who are sick of all the commercialization of products, and of all the image-makers; Folks who live on the fringes of society and are happy there.

Well whoop-de-do. Down here in Dixie we’ve always had our share of “alternative people.” And for years P.B.R. was their drink. The late Johnny Russell of Sunflower County, Mississippi, even memorialized them and their beer in song:

     The bar maid is mad ‘cause some guy made a pass,

             The juke box is playing “There stands the glass.”

             And the cigarette smoke kind of hangs in the air

             Red necks, white socks and Blue Ribbon beer.

‘Course P.B.R. wasn’t just the beer of choice. For some, like my buddy Jim, it was the beer of necessity. Living in an east Georgia dry county hard against South Carolina’s wetness as a young man, Jim could cross the line and get a 6-pack for $1.81 – a figure firmly fixed in his memory. You just don’t forget things like that.

       Because of the price, P.B.R became part of a Southern ‘70s sub-culture that included dopers, ropers, long-haired country boys, good old girls and all those to whom the first chords of “Free-Bird” was a signal to raise a lighter with one hand and a beer with the other.

             No we don’t fit in with that white-collar crowd

             We’re a little too rowdy and a little too loud.

             But there’s no place that I’d rather be than right here

             With my redneck, white socks and Blue Ribbon beer.

       Yessir, back then Blue Ribbon was on a roll. But it never took off. Why? One reason, I suspect, was Burt Reynolds, who smuggled Coors from across the Mississippi River in “Smokey and the Bandit.” He made Coors the fad-beer for hero-worshiping upwardly mobile suburban country boys with a love for fast cars and the hots for Sally Fields.

       I also blame Jimmy Carter for getting elected as a redneck, then turning out not to be one. Roy Blount Jr. caught the spirit of the Carter presidency – or the lack thereof:

             I got the redneck White House blues.

             The man just makes me more and more confused.

             He’s in all the right churches,

             And all the wrong pews.

             I got the redneck White House blues.

       You see, Carter, being a Baptist, didn’t drink – P.B.R. or anything else. OK, I know that being a Baptist does not necessarily make you a teetotaler, and I have heard all those jokes about how a Baptist won’t recognize you at the liquor store, but Carter was a serious, consistent, play-by-the-old-rules Baptist, so even when he invited Willie Nelson to sing at the White House there wasn’t a Lone Star, or Pabst, in the place – that you could see.

       A lack of leadership, some folks would call it.

       On top of that, the ‘70s took their toll on folks who could have taken Blue Ribbon right up there to compete with Budweiser and Miller. Think what might have happened if the Allman Brothers Band had recorded Russell’s song and Pabst had sponsored their tours. But Duane died in ‘71, so the heart was out of the group before the song was written. Lynard Skynnard would have been an even better choice, but their plane went down in ‘77 and Southern rock crashed with them, leaving the field to Burt and Jimmy – Coors or nothing.

       So redneckery faded into the ‘80s and the ‘90s. Beer prices rose with everything else, country boys and girls began falling for slick advertising, and got above their raising. And Pabst slipped into the background.

             The semi’s are passin’ on the highway outside

             The 4:30 crowd is about to arrive

             The sun’s going down and we’ll all soon be here

             With our red necks, white socks & Blue Ribbon Beer.

And down South, in the background, is where P.B.R. has stayed. A few 6-packs stuck in behind the more popular brands. Now, social commentators would say this is evidence that our “alternative people” have been sucked into the great national mainstream. That Dixie’s rednecks have been Americanized.  Meanwhile Dixie defenders would say that our “alternative people” took one look at folks who drink Pabst out in Portland and chose another alternative.

       But me, I’d say it’s because Natural Light is cheaper. That’s all.

Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at hhjackson43@gmail.com.   

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