Sweet Home Alabama Song Analysis Essay

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Thanks to Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd was inspired to write the song "Sweet Home Alabama".

Without Young's songs that were so critical of the South's segregationist and racist attitudes for inspiration, it is doubtful that the band would have produced a song with such a long lasting duration that continues to sell well 30 years after its release.

But the ultimate irony of "Sweet Home Alabama" is that for so many, the song's implied put down of Neil Young was NOT meant as criticism but as support of Young's anti-racism. Thus, for those who think it's so clever to put down Neil Young using the phrase"Hope Neil Young will remember, a southern man don't need him around anyhow" little do they realize that they have the meaning backwards. Every day, someone blogs or tweets the "Neil Young putdown" without comprehending that they've actually praised him. (Or even make implied death threats (note caption).) Similarly, with the State of Alabama using the phrase "Sweet Home Alabama" as an official slogan on license plates, one truly has to wonder what they were thinking the song was about.

Somewhere, Ronnie is still having a good laugh at Alabama officials and Neil Young bashers. Such is the duality of the southern thing.

Is "Sweet Home Alabama" Really Sweet?

The history of Lynyrd Skynyrd's 1974 song "Sweet Home Alabama" has a long and tortured history. The enormously popular song has an extraordinarily complex backstory involving a wide swath of groups which have laid claim to the song's message and symbols. As this article demonstrates, the complicated saga of "Sweet Home Alabama" is anything but sweet.

Rarely has such a widely popular hit song been so vastly misunderstood by so many for so long.

This article came about because I've long been fascinated with Neil Young's influence on other bands ever since I heard Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" which was written in response to two of Young's anti-southern slavery songs, "Southern Man", from the album After the Gold Rush, and "Alabama", from the album Harvest. From "Sweet Home Alabama" lyrics:

    Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her
    Well, I heard ole Neil put her down.
    Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
    a southern man don't need him around anyhow.

(Play and listen to a MP3 sample clip of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama")
(Play and listen to a MP3 sample clip of Neil Young's "Southern Man")
(Play and listen to a MP3 sample clip of Neil Young's "Alabama")

Known as a response record, such songs "refer directly to a previous hit and usually do it in a catty, mischievous way". The lines in "Sweet Home Alabama" are a direct response to Young's anti-racist, anti-cross burning "Southern Man" and "Alabama" songs. Lynyrd Skynyrd's comeback was intended to mean, at first glance, "Thank you for your opinion Neil, now leave us alone."

It is this perceived "attitude" which has led to Lynyrd Skynyrd earning a reputation as a "racist" band. Inasmuch as the fact that the band often performed with a Confederate flag as a backdrop, the label and perception has been hard to shake.

"Sweet Home Alabama": Conservative or Liberal?

"Sweet Home Alabama"'s enduring popularity with conservatives (comprised primarily of the wealthy elite and poor whites in the rural south [source]) is quite perplexing given the song's lyrics and meaning. The National Review Online's John J. Miller -- inexplicably and cluelessly -- recently listed it among "The 50 greatest conservative rock songs" and wrote that the song is "a tribute to the region of America that liberals love to loathe, taking a shot at Neil Young�s Canadian arrogance along the way: �A Southern man don�t need him around anyhow.�

So how could a song championing such liberal causes as civil rights, justice and equality become such an anthem for the policies of segregationist and ultra-radical conservative George Wallace*? Much as conservatives on the right fundamentally misunderstood Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" and Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World", again there is a wholesale mis-appropriation of Skynyrd's message. (See the 2004 Election in this unbelievably distorted comparison of Lynyrd Skynyrd, George Bush, John Kerry, & Neil Young).

Just to start with one example of the ignorance surrounding this song, is the fact that the song "Sweet Home Alabama" has been appropriated by extremist hate groups, such as the neo-Nazi white supremacist band Skrewdriver as a theme song which carries their message of racism.

The following article traces the long arc and full circle of the song's history, where -- in the end -- you can be the judge and vote along with several thousand others on the song's true intent and meaning.

Lyrics and Analysis

Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" meaning is often interpreted as being "racist" because of the the lyrics reference "In Birmingham [where a black church was bombed killing 4 young girls] they love the governor [George Wallace ]" who was a segregationist. This interpretation and analysis has been intelligently reasoned, hotly debated, passionately argued, bickered over, volleyed about, and scrupulously dissected . After singing this line, Skynyrd sing "Boo, boo, boo!" as if to disapprove of Wallace and his policies of racism.

As for the "Boo, boo, boo!" chorus, some have dismissed it as Skynyrd 's wink at racism. Joshua Marshall writes in Talking Points Memo: "It always seemed to me more likely that that shadow lyric is a mocking allusion to anti-Wallace protestors." Nonetheless, many still regard the song to be a paean to the South's disregard for the civil rights movement.

The last line in the song is an ad-lib by Van Zant that is rarely understood. He says, "Montgomery got the answer". Some of the original band members revealed this in a radio interview a few years back and possibly references the infamous march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, led by civil rights leader Martin Luther King. George Wallace was the governor of Alabama when this was released and -- apparently -- loved the song, especially the line, "In Birmingham they love the governor." At best, this is ambiguous. At it's worst, this can be seen as an endorsement of the racist policies of the Alabama state capitol. Wallace, in the end, made the band honorary Lieutenant Colonels in the state militia. So is the song "Sweet Home Alabama" racist?

Immediately after the band sings the verse "Well, I heard Mr. Young sing about her," one can hear in the background what sounds like the phrase "Southern Man." Many believe it was Young's original recording being played. However, others claim it to be the album's producer, Al Kooper, impersonating Young.

Furthermore, Lynyrd Skynyrd sang "Now Watergate does not bother me". Sadly, it would seem not only were Lynard Skynard untroubled by racism but were not terribly concerned by corruption at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd: Friends or Foes?

The response song "Sweet Home Alabama" was inspired by the two Neil Young songs "Southern Man" and "Alabama". Specifically, lyrics to "Southern Man":

    Better keep your head
    Don't forget
    what your good book said
    Southern change
    gonna come at last
    Now your crosses
    are burning fast
    Southern man

    I saw cotton
    and I saw black
    Tall white mansions
    and little shacks.
    Southern man
    when will you
    pay them back?
    I heard screamin'
    and bullwhips cracking
    How long? How long?

And "Alabama"'s lyrics:

    Oh Alabama
    Banjos playing
    through the broken glass
    Windows down in Alabama.
    See the old folks
    tied in white ropes
    Hear the banjo.
    Don't it take you down home?

(Play and listen to a MP3 sample clip of Neil Young's "Alabama" and "Southern Man")

In Young's anthology album "Decade" liner notes, he wrote about "Southern Man" in his usual obliquely ironic fashion:

    "This song could have been written on a civil rights march after stopping off to watch "Gone With The Wind" at a local theater. But I wasn't there so I don't know for sure."

Others have made different interpretations of the contretemps. In Glide Magazine by Ross Warner, this opinion is ventured on Skynyrd's song:

    "Although the song is perceived as an anthem of southern pride, �Sweet Home Alabama,� was actually intended not only as the band�s fond recollection of their first time in a recording studio but as a reminder to the rest of America that not all southerners were rednecks. When Skynyrd criticized Neil Young�s �Southern Man,� it was for the sweeping generalization of all southerners as rednecks. Don�t condemn southerners now for what their ancestors did. �We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two,� Van Zant said. �We�re southern rebels, but more than that, we know the difference between right and wrong.� In fact, the band was quite outspoken about their disdain for Wallace�s policies."

The "feud myth" was further fueled with the Drive-By Truckers 2002 album "Southern Rock Opera" (one of the few genuine masterpiece albums released in the early 21st century) song "Ronnie and Neil":

    And out in California, a rock star from Canada writes a couple of great songs
    about the bad shit that went down
    "Southern Man" and "Alabama" certainly told some truth
    But there were a lot of good folks down here and Neil Young wasn't around

    Now Ronnie and Neil became good friends
    their feud was just in song
    Skynyrd was a bunch of Neil Young fans and Neil he loved that song
    So He wrote "Powderfinger" for Skynyrd to record
    But Ronnie ended up singing "Sweet Home Alabama" to the lord

(Play and listen to a MP3 sample clip of Drive By Truckers' "Ronnie and Neil")

Drive By Truckers guitarist Patterson Hood explains:

    "I wrote this song to tell of the misunderstood friendship between Ronnie VanZant and Neil Young, who were widely believed to be bitter adversaries, but were in truth very good friends and mutual admirers..."

Street Survivors (original album cover)
Ronnie Van Zant wearing a Neil Young "Tonight's the Night" album cover t-shirt

As for Neil Young's reaction to all of this? One widely circulated theory during the 1970's was found in Neil's stunning response to Lynyrd Skynyrd with On The Beach's "Walk On."

    I hear some people been talkin' me down,
    Bring up my name, pass it 'round.
    They don't mention happy times
    They do their thing, I'll do mine.

Little did I realize at the time the symbolism in "Walk On", but years later as On The Beach surfaces and makes its place with other classics, did some of Neil's meanings sink in. (The lyrics in "Walk On" have also been interpreted to refer to bandmates Crosby, Stills, & Nash.)

So were Neil and Skynyrd really friends or foes? If you look closely at the cover photo of the last Lynyrd Skynyrd album "Street Survivors", you can see Ronnie Van Zant wearing a Neil Young "Tonight's the Night" album cover t-shirt. (More t-shirts at bottom of page)

Ronnie Van Zant wearing a Neil Young "Tonight's the Night" album cover t-shirt
(front row with hat)

Or, as Fred Mills puts it in his book review of Lynyrd Skynyrd: Remembering The Free Birds Of Southern Rock by Gene Odom, "[Ronnie Van Zant would] just as soon go onstage wearing one of several Neil Young T-shirts that he owned in order to fuck with any yahoos in the crowd who missed the humor and irony of the �Sweet Home Alabama� lyrics."

And Kenny C. posted on the comments another interesting t-shirt observation: In the concert film "Rust Never Sleeps", Billy Talbot, the Crazy Horse bass player, is wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt! (More t-shirts at bottom of page) It's the Skynyrd shirt that looks like a Jack Daniels whiskey label. Just something else to ponder...

Ronnie Van Zant sporting Neil Young "Tonight's The Night" T-shirt
Oakland Coliseum Stadium, July 2, 1977
Photographer: Michael Zagaris on Wolfgang's Vault
Neil Young wearing Lynyrd Skynyrd/Jack Daniels Whiskey T-Shirt - Verona, Italy 7.9.1982
Photo by Paolo Brillo on Flickr

It seems that whatever grudges Lynyrd Skynyrd had for Neil's music may have been resolved - if there ever was any feud to begin with. From an interview with Ronnie Van Zant:

    "We wrote Alabama as a joke. We didn't even think about it - the words just came out that way. We just laughed like hell, and said 'Ain't that funny'... We love Neil Young, we love his music..."

As for the rumor that Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded the Neil Young song "Powderfinger" (see for lyrics analysis), here's an interview in MOJO Magazine , where Young said:

    "Lynyrd Skynyrd almost ended up recording Powderfinger before my version came out. We sent them an early demo of it because they wanted to do one of my songs.

    Interviewer Q. Surprising, that. After all, Lynyrd Skynyrd put you down by name on Sweet Home Alabama, their first hit single....

    Young: Oh, they didn't really put me down! But then again, maybe they did! (laughs) But not in a way that matters. Shit, I think Sweet Home Alabama is a great song. I've actually performed it live a couple of times myself. "

In addition to the song "Powderfinger", Young allegedly also gave the band the song �Sedan Delivery� and "Captain Kennedy" to record.

Brothers in Arms or Rebels With A Cause?
Neil on "Journey Through The Past" album cover and Ronnie on "Street Survivors" album cover

It should also be noted that shortly after the band was involved in a fatal plane accident, Neil Young performed a rare live version of "Alabama" at Bicentennial Park, Miami, Florida on 11-12-1977 for Children's Hospital Charity with The Gone With The Wind Orchestra and he changed the lyric chorus from "Alabama" to "Sweet Home Alabama".

Recalling the concert tribute in an interview with the Boston Globe, Young said: "I just sang 'I hope you all will remember. I thought it was a cool thing."

In a interview on the Rockline radio program (November 23, 1981), when asked about "Swee Home Alabama" and Lynyrd Skynyrd, Neil Young said: "Great band, great. I understand Ronnie once said that I'll be mellow about it [SHA], not care one way or other. He was right."

Back to the Driveby Truckers (a great band that's a cross between William Faulkner and Neil Young) song "Ronnie and Neil" and the implication that Neil Young was a pallbearer at Van Zant's funeral:

    "And Neil helped carry Ronnie in his casket to the ground
    And to my way of thinking, us southern men need both of them around"

This is another Neil Young/Lynyrd Skynyrd "urban legend" which is debunked in an interesting essay in Tone and Groove. As for the rumor that Ronnie Van Zant was buried wearing a Neil Young t-shirt, again this seems to be another example of a myth to propogate the tragic legend. Even more bizarre, are the rumors that some Skynyrd fans dug up Ronnie's grave to prove whether Van Zant was buried in a Neil Young T-shirt. Some of the fans/grave diggers report seeing VanZant's body in a black Neil Young "Tonight's the Night" t-shirt, however police reports indicate the coffin was never opened. Regardless of their motive for desecration of a grave, Van Zant and Gaines remains were relocated to an undisclosed location. The relocation was prompted by a June 29, 2000 break-in at the crypts for Van Zant and Gaines at Jacksonville Memory Gardens in Orange Park, Florida where fans had gathered to pay tribute to the band.

And the myths and legends surrounding Skynyrd & Young and racism are again addressed on the Drive By Truckers epic "Southern Rock Opera" song "Three Great Alabama Icons". From the song's lyrics:

    "Speaking of course of the Three Great Alabama Icons
    George Wallace, Bear Bryant and Ronnie Van Zant
    Now Ronnie Van Zant wasn't from Alabama, he was from Florida
    He was a huge Neil Young fan.

    But in the tradition of Merle Haggard writin' Okie from Muskogee
    to tell his dad's point of view about the hippies in Vietnam,
    Ronnie felt that the other side of the story should be told.
    And Neil Young always claimed that Sweet Home Alabama was one of his favorite songs.
    And legend has it that he was an honorary pall bearer at Ronnie's funeral -
    such is the Duality of the Southern Thing.

    One that certainly exists, but few saw beyond the rebel flag�
    And this applies not only to their critics and detractors, but also from their fans and followers.
    So for a while, when Neil Young would come to town, he�d get death-threats down in Alabama�

As for the dangers Neil faced in the south alluded to by the Drive-by Truckers, Young has made statements about never wanting to play in the south. There are only 2 dates from 1973 where Neil was scheduled to play in the state of Alabama. Neither show has a known setlist and it is unclear whether Neil has actually ever performed in the state of Alabama. And while his tours through the south have been limited, this is most likely an economic decision rather than a deliberate avoidance.

From the book Freebirds: The Lynyrd Skynyrd Story by Marley Brant:

    "The presentation of the song "Sweet Home Alabama" in concert was accompanied by the unfurling of Skynyrd's traditional backdrop, a huge Confederate battle flag. The reaction of the audience was always the same: vigorous, fervent, and instantaneous. Neil Young's song "Southern Man" had offended many Southerners by seeming to accuse all people born in the south of being intolerant racists. Young's observations were obviously generalized and not accurate and Southerners were ecstatic when Skynyrd defended their honor by releasing "Sweet Home Alabama" with its direct references to Young's faux pas. The idea that the Southern man, or woman, didn't need Neil Young around to point out the problems of their society was overwhelmingly supported by Skynyrd fans.

    "We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two," Ronnie told Rolling Stone magazine regarding the creation of the answer song. The band felt that Young's lyrical content was representative of the shortsighted "Yankee" belief that all Southern men should be held accountable for the verbalizations and actions of a racist minority.

    While the rebuttal was heartfelt, Skynyrd held Neil Young in high regard for his musical achievementts and they weren't intending to start a feud of any kind. "Neil is amazing, wonderful... a superstar," said Van Zant. "I showed the verse to Ed King and asked him what Neil might think. Ed said he'd dig it; he'd be laughing at it." Ed King says that the tune was not so much a direct attack on Young but just a good regional song.

    The song was well received but immediately put a stigma on the band as rednecks. Producer Al Kooper added. "Hey, you have to be more careful when you write a song now. But I'll tell you something -- Neil Young loved it. That's true, he told me so to my face." "

From Glide Magazine by Ross Warner:

    "However, the band had serious reservations about the label they were tagged with. Particularly troubling was the Confederate flag that often hung behind the stage. In 1975, Van Zant mused, �That was strictly an MCA gimmick to start us off with some label. It was useful at first, but by now it�s embarrassing except in Europe, where they really like all that stuff because they think it�s macho American.� The �stars and bars� that eventually began popping up in the band�s crowds became more than embarrassing. It was bad enough to be portrayed as ignorant hayseeds. It was entirely another to be categorized as racist."

From the Second Helping Re-Master booklet:

    "The singer's mock attack on Neil Young and his apparent defense of Wallace branded Skynyrd with controversy which would continue for years. Young got the joke, however, responding by telegram and by letter to say he was proud to be the subject of Skynyrd's Southern anthem.'

    Perhaps Van Zant sums it up best. 'We're not into politics, we don't have no education and Wallace don't know anything about rock n roll.'

(Read more excepts from the book Freebirds: The Lynyrd Skynyrd Story by Marley Brant )

Some fans vindicate the band as anti-racist by pointing to the lyrics of the song "The Ballad of Curtis Loew", a tune Van Zant wrote professing his love for a black man's blues playing.

Old Curt was a black man with white curly hair
When he had a fifth of wine he did not have a care
He used to own an old dobro, used to play it across his knee
I'd give old Curt my money, he'd play all day for me

Play me a song Curtis Loew, Curtis Loew

(Complete lyrics for "The Ballad of Curtis Loew"here. Lynyrd Skynyrd's "The Ballad Of Curtis Lowe".

The song "Southern Man" was at the center of an unfortunate event on the 1973 tour and has been recounted by Neil in concert. The incident ocurred on March 31, 1973 in Oakland, CA. During the performance of "Southern Man", an excited fan approached the stage dancing and having a good time. A security guard approached the fan and proceeded to "beat the crap out of him" and have him removed. Young stopped playing the song, left the stage, and abruptly canceled the rest of the performance. Young believed that the assault flew directly in the face of the song's message of tolerance and diversity and was sickened by the attack. A final irony of the Oakland "Southern Man" performance was that the officer was black and the beaten fan was white.

The "urban legends" surrounding the tragedy of Lynyrd Skynyrd are seemingly endless and no doubt fueled by the survivors themselves. On VH1's show "Lynyrd Skynyrd's Uncivil War", keyboardist Billy Powell comments on the lies he told in an interview on VH1's Behind the Music in 1997, about the plane crash.

Surprisingly (not really), in 2003, VH-1 has the Lynyrd Skynyrd versus Neil Young controversy as one of the Top 40 Celebrity Feuds of all time. What a joke, please. Pretty ridiculous, but nothing compared to some of the other feuds featured. Sadly, the folks at VH1 do very little solid research which they pass off as facts. I guess facts don't make for good ratings. And facts are the enemy of truth, as many have observed of the famous quote by Don Quixote.

Warren Zevon mentioned the controversy in his song "Play it all Night Long" with the lyrics: "Sweet home Alabama/play that dead band's song..."

Much as John Lennon's murder put an end to the 1960's love and peace spirit (albeit some twenty years later) or Kurt Cobain's death marked the end of the grunge era, Ronnie Van Zant's death ended a chapter in Southern Rock history.

The "faux feud" contretemps seem to provide endless fascination for Ronnie and Neil fans.

Lastly, there's a connection between Young's "Needle and The Damage Done" and Skynyrd's "The Needle and The Spoon". But we'll save that analysis for another day. ;)


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