Having returned from a recent trip to the Deep South, it seems appropriate to recognize the death of Leonard Skinner, the phys ed teacher from Jacksonville, FL who inspired Ronnie Van Zant to call his band Lynyrd Skynyrd.
While not directly related to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s music — in an interview last year with a Florida newspaper, Skinner said, “I don’t like rock ‘n’ roll music” — the parody of Skinner’s name shows us something about the power of music. A lot of times when thinking about and discussing music, we tend to focus on the big personalities, the front man, the legend and forget that music can come from simple things. Apparently, the decision to name the band after the stickler gym teacher at Robert E. Lee High School came years after an incident where Skinner sent Van Zant to the principal’s office for violating a school policy against long hair: a seemingly minor incident over an issue of self-identity and style with which many youth can sympathize.
The example of Leonard Skinner reminds us that musicians’ art reflects their experience and the people around them. Ultimately, music is an expression of the humanity that we all share, regardless of how tenuous those bonds appear. Indeed, the fact that there was little personal acrimony between Skinner and Van Zant during the band’s popularity is telling: Skinner was not some draconian demon to be demeaned in front of the music-listening public for disliking long hair. Rather, he was a part of the bigger story that Van Zant and his band mates were trying to relate.
Skinner was 77 and suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Van Zant perished in a plane crash near McComb, MS in 1977.