EntertainmentMusicSweet Home Alabama: The Story of the South's Anthem

Sweet Home Alabama: The Story of the South’s Anthem


The truth is that Neil Young is not an easy person. He admits it himself, he has a tough and sometimes unpleasant personality. It is difficult to work with him, he is very serious and independent. In addition, his social, environmental and political concerns lead him to write lyrics that motivate much criticism from different sectors (sometimes even from within his own followers).

He has written against the big multinationals, against governments, against inequality and injustice… he is never afraid to say what he thinks.

And why did we start an article entitled ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, a famous song by the group Lynyrd Skynyrd, talking about Neil Young? Because it was precisely this one who led the Lynyrd Skynyrds to compose his masterpiece. You can’t talk about ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ or try to understand it without first knowing the work of Neil Young.

It was the year 1972 and the best-selling album in the United States was being ‘Harvest’ , by the Canadian singer-songwriter. Young had been on the crest of the wave for several years, thanks to his role in Buffalo Springfield, his collaboration with CSN and his first solo works, and had already starred in episodes of national fame with protest themes such as ‘Ohio’ (1970). , a song to which we dedicate an article on this web page and which happens to be one of the best protest songs in history. Thus, Neil Young was already a consecrated musician, who had played before thousands of people in packed stadiums and who had just placed his hit ‘Heart of Gold’ at number one. 1972 was turning out to be a great year for Young. ‘Heart of Gold’ and ‘Old Man’ were playing on the radio all the time, the two hits by ‘Harvest’ . However, this mythical album included another song that, although it was not destined to be a success on the radio stations, would undoubtedly be decisive when it came to pushing some young southerners who were beginning their journey through the world of rock to write one of the most famous songs in history. ‘Alabama’ was a song that went unnoticed in the set of a record like ‘Harvest’ , but it sounded strongly in the Southern States, stirring consciences and, above all, angering many.

Southern Man (Neil Young, 1970)

‘Alabama’ was something like the second installment of the series of songs that Neil Young was dedicating those years to the South. Two years earlier, on the album ‘After the Gold Rush’ , the Canadian had sung against the slave tradition through the song ‘Southern Man’. In this not-so-discreet piece, Young talks about a southern man who mistreats his slaves.

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?

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

Lily Belle, your hair is golden brown I’ve seen your black man comin’ round Swear by God I’m gonna cut him down! I heard screamin’ and bullwhips cracking How long? How long?

The song is very harsh against the society of the South and its storied past. «I have seen the cotton and I have seen the blacks. Tall white mansions and small shacks. Southerner, when will you pay them for it?” Neil Young reminds those of the South that if they have wealth it is thanks to the work of slaves. “I have heard screams and whips cracking. For how long?”

In addition to wondering throughout the song how much longer this insanity that is racism and slavery is going to last, Neil Young uses his genius to remind conservative white males, staunch followers of the Bible, what their “says. ” good book . ” Following the guidelines of the Bible, they should not be allowed to have slaves and beat them with whips. “Eventually there will come a change for the South,” says Neil Young.

Anecdotally, the verse “Now your crosses burn fast, southerner” is a reference to the Ku Klux Klan, which used to burn crosses to intimidate its victims.

Alabama (Neil Young, 1972)

After the harsh song against the slave tradition of the men of the South, Neil Young continued to anger millions of people with ‘Alabama’. On this occasion, it was not generalized to the southern region, and the criticism was focused on a very specific territory. A serious mistake on the part of Young, since in this way the criticisms were assured (and well founded). Why prey on the Alabamaians? what had they done? Neil Young was very clear that something was not working in that State, and he dared to sing against an entire society.

Oh Alabama The devil fools with the best laid plan. Swing low Alabama You got spare change You got to feel strange And now the moment is all that it meant.

Alabama, you got the weight on your shoulders That’s breaking your back. Your Cadillac has got a wheel in the ditch And a wheel on the track

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?

Alabama, you got the weight on your shoulders That’s breaking your back. Your Cadillac has got a wheel in the ditch And a wheel on the track

Oh Alabama. Can I see you and shake your hand. Make friends down in Alabama. I’m from a new land I come to you and see all this ruin What are you doing Alabama? You got the rest of the union to help you along What’s going wrong?

It seemed as if the general criticism that had already appeared in ‘Southern Man’ (1970) discovered its target in ‘Alabama’ (1972). Neil Young’s accusing finger had found someone to point at. After verses describing the sad and gray destiny to which Alabama seemed to be heading, Young went so far as to offer help to this land: «I come to you and see all this ruin. What are you doing Alabama? You have the rest of the Union to help you. What is going wrong? . A few words that placed the Canadian musician on a kind of altar, speaking from a moral superiority that outraged many southerners.

“Alabama, you have a weight on your shoulders that is breaking your back . ” Perhaps Young considered the segregationist and slave-owning tradition too heavy a burden for a state like Alabama to advance. Indeed, racism is not a good ingredient to build progress. “Your Cadillac has one wheel in the ditch and the other on the road . ” According to Neil Young, in this land of the South there were those who were trying to progress (the wheel on the road represents all of them) and those who were still stuck in the past (the wheel in the ditch).

With this second attack on the status quo in the South, Neil Young led the young southern band Lynyrd Skynyrd to write one of the greatest songs in rock history.

Sweet Home Alabama (Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1974)

Perhaps by chance, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ begins by remembering the wheels of a car. But this time the wheels aren’t stuck in any ditch, like the ones on the Cadillac Neil Young talked about in ‘Alabama’, but move determinedly forward. Perhaps following the metaphor used by Young in their 1972 song, the Lynyrd Skynyrds want to make it clear that if the road evokes progress, Alabama is definitely on the right track and rolling fast.

Ronnie Van Zant, leader of the group, and his people soon remember Neil Young, and already in the second verse they hit him hard. They even dare to mention him directly! Something that is not often seen in the world of music… «Well, I have heard Mr. Young sing about it. I heard him put her down. I hope Neil Young remembers that the southerners don’t need him around here.” Harsh statements, although to be fair it should be remembered that Neil Young’s words for the South were equally harsh.

Big wheels keep on turning  Carry me home to see my kin  Singing songs about the Southland  I miss Alabamy once again  And I think its a sin, yes

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 anyway

Sweet home Alabama  Where the skies are so blue  Sweet Home Alabama  Lord, I’m coming home to you

In Birmingham they love the gov’ nor (boo, boo, boo) Now we all did what we could do  Now Watergate does not bother me  Does your conscience bother you?  Tell the truth

Sweet home Alabama  Where the skies are so blue  Sweet Home Alabama  Lord, I’m coming home to you  Here I come Alabama

Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers  And they’ve been known to pick a song or two  Lord they get me off so much  They pick me up when I’m feeling blue  Now how about you?

Sweet home Alabama  Where the skies are so blue  Sweet Home Alabama  Lord, I’m coming home to you

Sweet home Alabama  Oh sweet home baby  Where the skies are so blue  And the guv’nor’s true  Sweet Home Alabama  Lord, I’m coming home to you  Yea, yea Montgomery’s got the answer…

The high-profile mention of the Watergate scandal has been interpreted by some as a way of saying to North Americans something like: “We in the South don’t care about Watergate or the problems your politicians have, we don’t judge them.” . So you do not judge the social and traditional system of the South ». Actually the whole song is based on “don’t mess where they don’t call you” and “what will you know”. In a way, being a Canadian detracts from Neil Young’s opinion in his critique of the American South. What would a Canadian know about what we do here in Alabama? We in the South don’t need Neil Young to tell us how to live!

As a curiosity, if your ear is very tuned, you can hear at 0:55 a weak voice in the background singing “Southern Man!” . It is about one of the producers, who at the time of the recording was joking in the studio trying to imitate Neil Young. In the following video, from a concert in 1996, you can see how the Lynyrd Skynyrd continue to use verses from the song ‘Southern Man’ in the choruses. There is also a special intensity in the audience when it comes to singing «A southern man don’t need him around anyhow!!». Undoubtedly the southerners took Neil Young’s criticism much more seriously and hold more resentment against him than the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd themselves.

There is actually a lot of debate surrounding whether the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd were and are racist. In the response to Neil Young’s criticism we can have a clue, but it is not the definitive one. Van Zant repeatedly repeated that this was not the case, that they were defending Alabama because of Young’s widespread attack, not because they were defending the segregationist system or anything like that. His criticism of Neil Young was because he had “shot all the ducks to kill one or two,” in Van Zant’s own words. “Not all of us in the South are racists,” added the singer. Neil Young reportedly apologized personally to the Lynyrd Skynyrds.

In fact, and trying to clarify the debate on the ideology of the Lynyrd Skynyrd a bit, we can hear how the governor of Alabama is booed in the verse: “In Birmingham they love the governor… Booo booo booo”  (Birmingham is the most large state). Back then the governor was George Wallace, an advocate of segregationism. Clearer impossible: they were booing segregationism. Actually, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s aesthetic only indicates one thing: they are nationalists from the South, defenders of that land so different from the North. They are southern patriots. But that doesn’t mean they’re racist.

The key is found in the hidden verse « Yea, yea Montgomery’s got the answer…» , possibly little or nothing known by the millions of listeners who heard ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ in their day. “Yes, Montgomery has the answer . ” What does Ronnie Van Zant want to tell us with this? According to analysts, it is a direct reference to the violent demonstrations that took place in 1963 in the capital of Alabama, Montgomery, where police and protesters clashed for civil rights. If indeed Van Zant wanted to tell us that the solution, the answer, lies in the fight for civil rights… then any debate is resolved: the Lynyrd Skynyrd were committed to the end of segregation and they are definitely not a racist music group.

Different ideologies, mutual respect

So we find two types of artists: on the one hand the patriotic Lynyrd Skynyrd and on the other the citizen of the world Neil Young, little friend of flags and borders. It is clear that some represent more conservative positions and the other a more progressive ideology, but both coincide in defending their ideals through great musical compositions. That is why they had mutual respect.

On the cover of his album ‘Street Survivors’ (1977) Ronnie Van Zant (third from left) wore a T-shirt featuring Neil Young himself. Provocation for the Canadian who sings against the South? No, quite the opposite: burial of the hatchet and end of the controversy. Van Zant downplayed the response to ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, assuring in an interview that it had been a joke, a diversion. There was no rancor against Young, it had simply occurred to them to respond to him.

At the end of 1977, a tragic plane crash took the lives of several members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, including 29-year-old Ronnie Van Zant. Weeks later, at a concert, Neil Young appeared singing his song ‘Alabama’ with modifications and nods to ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. The result can be heard on this recording. Later, in an interview in 1995, Neil Young admitted that there was no problem with Lynyrd Skynyrd or anger regarding the song that had been dedicated to him, and that, in fact, he himself had sung it several times and felt proud to be mentioned in it.

This historic controversy, which was rather a simple crossover of songs (without bad vibes or anything), would go down in rock history as a great anecdote, starring two myths of the genre. Both Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young are respected and admired around the world, and their lyrics are heard and savored by all music lovers. Ideologies aside, the truth is that thanks to artists like them, culture in general and rock in particular are enriched. Letters like those are no longer written, loaded with so much meaning.

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