Hotty Toddy, Gosh Almighty
Who in the Hell are we?
Flim Flam, Bim Bam
Ole Miss, By Damn.
Just writing the words gives me a queasy feeling. They echo in my childhood memory from the many football games my father took me to between the Ole Miss Rebels and the Memphis State Tigers. We hated everything about them; how they came to town with their Confederate flags and pep band playing "Dixie" and took over the Peabody Hotel and turned it into a scene from the Old South with annual drunken arrogance. But we hated that damned southern aristocratic cheer most of all. Even before the Coliseum, back when the games were played in Crump Stadium, when the Ole Miss side started up the "Hotty Toddy" cheer, the stadium thundered with boos and the Memphis crowd shouted back, "Go to Hell Ole Miss, Go to Hell," which was considered somewhat scandalous for the time. Mississippi, and it's University, were the last bastions of white supremacy and the plantation mentality. I grew up hating Ole Miss.
In my sophomore year at Christian Brothers High School, I was sitting in a history class, staring out the window at South Parkway in awe as an endless convoy of military vehicles, heavy trucks and tanks, and Federal troops with U.S. Marshals caravaned South in front of the school on the avenue that became old Highway 51 into Mississippi. It was October of 1962, and the resistance of Gov. Ross Barnett to the integration of Ole Miss by James Meredith had touched off deadly riots on campus. President Kennedy had assembled a massive number of troops, which were passing before my eyes on the way to Oxford, when I felt a hard blow to my forehead. The Brother had hit me with a fast-thrown eraser and admonished me to pay attention to my history lesson.
That was an ugly time at Ole Miss. People died and numerous U.S. Marshals were injured by gunfire coming from the angry mob of segregationists. I had some knowledge of the state, travelling with my father on his sales trips when I was a child and performing throughout the Delta when I was a teenager. Although the high school kids seemed more interested in music, sports, and fashion than segregation, the older generation, and by only a few years, seemed to seethe with racial hatred and the potential for violence. At one Delta dance in 1965, a group of greasers at a diner yelled at us, "Where you Beatle boys from?" Thinking I could disarm anyone, I shouted cheerfully, "Memphis," to which the greasers responded, "Well, get your goddam asses back up there then," and we retreated in a hail of rocks and full cans of beer. They were just rednecks who wanted to fight. The same kind that nearly burned down Ole Miss in 1962.
I had no intention of playing at Ole Miss again until I met Holmes Pettey in 1972. Holmes was the scion of an old Mississippi plantation family and booked entertainment as a student at Ole Miss. He heard me play acoustic solo at the old Looking Glass in Overton Square and insisted that I play for his fraternity, SAE. I couldn't imagine that an Ole Miss fraternity, famous for their drunken Bacchanalias, could possibly want to hear me sing protest songs, but Holmes convinced me to come. I drove a VW Minivan full of hippies for moral support to Oxford and set up in the living room of the frat house.
Randy and friends at Ole Miss, 1972 (Melody above Randy holding beer mug w/ head back)
My friends and I could not have been treated better, and found a new generation of Mississippians who were eager to put Ole Miss' racial history behind them and join the rest of the nation in the Twentieth Century. I sang Dylan's "Oxford Town" in a frat house in Oxford, something I might have been beaten up for only a few years before. In short order, my friend Holmes had me opening for the Allman Brothers in the Oxford Coliseum, and pretty much fed me for a couple of years by continuing to book me throughout the state.
It's taken a long time for the stars and bars to disappear and the band to stop playing "Dixie" at athletic events, but under Chancellor Robert Khayat's leadership, even the die-hards came to realize that the Old South symbols were counter-productive for the University and needed to go. The success of that campaign was on full display as Ole Miss applied its finest spit and polish to the campus in preparation as host for the opening Presidential Debate. Just seeing the diversity of the student body that gathered in the Grove for spirited political rallies proves that the University has come a very long way. And it was not lost on some that the school that erupted in violence over the admission of a black student 46 years ago, would now host the first debate that included an African-American candidate for President of the United States.
Ole Miss may always be The Rebels, but the national attention focused on the campus last week was entirely positive. I realize that the significance of football is dwarfed by the pressing issues of our time, but for the unranked Rebels to travel to Gainesville the day after the debate and upset the Florida Gators by one point must have seemed like a sign from the Lord to Ole Miss fans. I will own up to rooting for the Rebels for the first time in my life, just because I know folks like Holmes Pettey and the other alumni, along with the students, faculty and debate organizers, will be walking on air all this week, if not all year. So, before we return our attention to the looming economic abyss, it's worth mentioning that during the vicious 60s, Ole Miss saw a bloody weekend that this nation will never forget. Now, 46 years later, Ole Miss had a weekend that school supporters, students, and officials, can always remember with deserved pride. I never thought I'd say it, but "Well done, Ole Miss." Now, if you could only change that goddamned cheer.