Civil Rights in Song (3): Sweet Home Alabama – Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd, George Wallace and all that

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In 1970, Neil Young released his classic album, After the Goldrush. One of its standout tracks was Southern Man.

The following year, Young recorded the follow up, Harvest. This featured the song Alabama. The South more generally, and Alabama in particular was in his sights.

In 1973, Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded their classic song in reply, Sweet Home Alabama.

Well, I hope Neil Young will remember

A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow

Over the years, it was often assumed that the band hated Young, or even that they were the voice of the white racist south. Neither ‘fact’ was true.

Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant would later claim that:

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…

And Young came to regret the second song, Alabama. In his memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, written in 2012, he wrote:

Alabama richly deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record. I don’t like my words when I listen to it today. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, too easy to misconstrue.

In 1977, Young wrote another of his classic songs, Powderfinger, for Skynyrd. Tragically, fate intervened: Ronnie van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister and backing vocalist Cassie, were killed in a plane crash. In tribute, Young played a medley of Alabama and Sweet Home Alabama. He wouldn’t perform Alabama again for another forty years.

What gave both Southern Man and Alabama much of their power was the political context in which they appeared. The leading figure in Alabama politics from 1962 through to his retirement in 1987, was George Wallace. Wallace also ran for president four times. For much of that time, Wallace positioned himself as the voice of the conservative, racist South. Wallace lost his first campaign, in 1958, when he had been, in his words, ‘outniggered’ by his opponent (yes, he did actually say that). That was never going to happen again: he now positioned himself as an outright segregationist. In his 1963 inauguration speech as governor, he uttered what would come to be his most notorious words. He stood where Jefferson Davis, the leader of the Confederate South in the civil war had once stood, in defence of slavery:

Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history. Let us rise to the call of freedom loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny and I say segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.

In 1963, Wallace’s infamous ‘stand at the schoolhouse door’ saw Wallace stand in the way of two black students, who were enrolling in the University of Alabama. He was forced to back down, but it won him a national reputation.

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In 1968, he ran for president as a third party candidate, and carried five southern states. His 1970 campaign for the governorship was especially venal, and racist (as seen below). Neil Young surely had Wallace in his sights when he wrote both songs.

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hood2David Hood is a bass player. He was one of the co-founders of Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, based in Sheffield, Alabama. He was a member of what was in effect, their house band. As such, he played bass on scores of classics. Most notably, they included many of the great black soul artists of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, including the likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and the Staples Singers. The band’s nickname, The Swampers, came from their distinctly southern, soulful and funky style.

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Or, in the words of Sweet Home Alabama:

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

Lynyrd Skynyrd used Muscle Shoals Studios in their time.

PattersonHood-1519335846David Hood’s son, Patterson, is one of the leaders of one of the great contemporary American rock bands, the Drive-By Truckers. Over many years their music has returned again and again to their native South, and Alabama in particular. This was never more true than on their masterpiece, Southern Rock Opera. The album uses the story of Skynyrd, and that plane crash, as a hook on which to hang songs about Hood’s native state, and the South in general.

The album begins with a story of the oh-so typical American tragedy, the fatal high school car crash. Ronnie and Neil then tells the story of Neil Young, Skynyrd and that song:

The story of Wallace dominates The Three Great Alabama Icons:

In the late ‘seventies, as the song tells us, Wallace changed course again. He became a born again Christian and repented of his former racism. In his last term as governor he appointed a number of African-Americans to key positions, including two in his cabinet.

It’s what Hood calls the ‘duality of The Southern Thing‘. It’s celebrated here, with a three guitar homage to Skynyrd’s own similar style:

The story of the South emerges as something more nuanced and interesting.

And here is Sweet Home Alabama, live on our very own BBC:

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