Historicizing “Sweet Home Alabama”

Most of us know Lynyrd Skynryd’s southern anthem “Sweet Home Alabama.”  I used to teach the song in my Civil War America course using Jim Cullen’s book The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past.

But what is this song actually about?  I thought it was obvious.  I still think it’s pretty obvious. But Felix Contreras’s piece at NPR made me think in a more nuanced way about the song.  Here is a taste:

In a way, the song began as a contradiction: It was written by two guys from Florida and one from California, none of whom ever lived in Alabama. So where did members of Lynyrd Skynyrd get the gumption to write about a state they had only driven through? In part, it was because a Canadian got there first. Neil Young’s song “Southern Man,” released in 1971, took the entire South to task for the bloody history of slavery and its aftermath.

In the Showtime documentary If I Leave Here Tomorrow, one of the song’s composers, lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, explained that the musicians wanted to counter what they saw as Young’s one-dimensional stereotype.

“We knew that by doing that song, just writing those lyrics, we knew from the beginning that we’d get a lot of heat for it. And I did attack Neil Young in that song,” Van Zant said, referring to a verse that called Young out by name:

Well I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow

“What are you talking about, you know?” Van Zant said. ” From what I’m told you were born in Canada.”

Even as the song was positioned to dispel some stereotypes of the South, the band was embracing others. Back then, Lynyrd Skynyrd performed in front of a large Confederate flag — at the suggestion of its record label. And in the documentary, Van Zant offered this: “Everybody thinks we’re a bunch of drunken rednecks … and that’s correct.” So which is it?

Read the entire piece here.

3 thoughts on “Historicizing “Sweet Home Alabama”

  1. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a million times: No person, white or black, born in the South has anything but a complicated relationship with the region and its history.

    We love it. We hate it. We can’t quit it. And all too often we find ourselves in some Northern, foreign clime and culture screaming at the tops of our lungs, like Quinton “I don’t hate it. I don’t. I don’t.”

    This is connected, to me, in so many ways to your recent posts about the report on Slavery and Racism at Southern Seminary.

    Each of us Southerners, and white Southerners especially, have the heavy task of wrestling with what, exactly, the South is and isn’t.

    In my own college days, I found myself not out of the South geographically but culturally. The majority of the students at the small liberal arts college that I attended in the mountains outside of Asheville weren’t from the South but rather the Northeast or Northwest. In the midst of this, I stayed on campus one summer to work. I spent much of the summer working nights stripping, cleaning, and rewaxing the floors of the campus. I had just purchased my first iPod and the soundtrack to that summer was The Drive-by Truckers, an oldfashioned Rock n Roll band based in Athens, GA, although most of the members at the time grew up in the Muscle Shoals area of North Alabama.

    One of their more recent albums at the time was a double concept album *Southern Rock Opera* that tells the story of a fictional version of a Lynard Skynard like band while at the same time wrestling, deeply, with “the duality of the Southern Thing.”

    If you haven’t ever listened to it, I would highly recommend it. And if you have, or if you go to listen to it, read this commentary by front-man Patterson Hood (son of Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section bassist David Hood): https://www.drivebytruckers.com/records-southernrockopera.html#commentary

    The commentary of the music on “Sweet Home Alabama,” the “Ronnie and Neil” relationship, and what it means to be a young man in the South struggling with identity is poignant and deeply meaningful. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this music saved my heart, my soul, and my very life that lonely summer in the mountains almost a decade and a half ago.

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  2. I had never read Neil Young’s autobiography; accordingly, it was refreshing to read the excerpt in which he expressed a degree of contrition for penning the lyrics to Southern Man. My estimation of Neil went up a few notches. We have all done things we would undo if we could. I always thought it rather presumptuous for a popular musician from Canada to editorialize so harshly on a region of the USA not even contiguous with his own country.

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  3. Very timely, as one of the finalists on The Voice sang Sweet Home Alabama last night, as the final four singers made their last bid to win the competition, with the winner being announced tonight.

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