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.