Sweet Home Alabama - Lynyrd Skynyrd
So, talking of southern rock, I presume you all know the story behind "Sweet Home Alabama" .......you haven't? Well you middle-aged whippersnappers, once upon a time, long ago, in a fairy land called California, there lived a rock star called Neil Young, a former member of a band called Buffalo Springfield and later one of the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Fresh from his success with the latter, Young's third album "After the Gold Rush" was a smash hit, and contained the song " Southern Man", a condemnation of the the practice of slavery in the American south and the racism that ensued after its abolition. The song was an angry tirade against the injustices perpetuated by the south against black people and it didn't pull its punches:
"I saw cotton and I saw black tall white mansions and little shacks southern man when will you pay them back I heard screaming and bullwhips cracking....."
This and the track "Alabama" from Young's next album, "Harvest" prompted a reply from Lynyrd Skynyrd, a rock band from Florida. It's kind of weird, British people like me don't really think of Florida as part of the "deep south" but it is indeed, and was one of the seven original states that made up the "Confederacy" that fought the American Civil War against the Union. They are if you like, the "Austria" of the U.S.
But, like Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd were making a point. They were annoyed at the assumption that all southerners were racist bigots and wanted to show that there was an alternative narrative going on. But what we have here is, perhaps surprisingly, a jolly song, as upbeat and fun as the first half hour of a southern summer barbecue. And that's the point: the words are answers to Neil Young, but it's a friendly riposte (after all, they liked and admired Young's music in general) and the delivery reflects the easy good-time culture that they themselves experienced when in Alabama. Also the melodic opening and driving jump guitar riff, is as catchy and homely as apple pie.
The words, at first, need no explanation:
"Well I heard Mister Young sing about her well I heard old Neil put her down well I hope Neil Young will remember a southern man don't need him around anyhow...."
but the next verse is more enigmatic:
"In Birmingham they love the governor (boo hoo hoo) now we all did what we could do now Watergate does not bother me does your conscience bother you tell the truth?"
Are they supporting the "governor", George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, who ran for the Presidency four times on a pro-segregation ticket? The following "boo hoo hoo" and "we all did what we could do" suggests that they fought against him but there are those who claim that they deliberately wrote it so that it could be read both ways, thereby not offending half of their potential buying market, suggesting they shouldn't feel guilty any more than the average American feels guilty for Watergate. For me, the next verse is telling, as they praise the legendary Muscle Shoals "Swampers", the white session musicians who backed Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Etta James, the Staples Singers and Johnny Taylor, not to mention the late, great Aretha Franklin on many of their greatest tracks:
"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 about you?"
This is Ronnie Van Zant saying "see, we aren't racists" and that's great, and we can all get on and enjoy this great song. But it sometimes worries me that they weren't a bit more like Neil Young and made their beliefs more abundantly clear. After all, anyone likely to object to the morals expressed in the song, probably wouldn't get as far as listening to the words properly anyway. Perhaps the continuing problems around prejudice in the U.S. (and the world) are better reflected in the appalling slew of jokes on the subject of southern inbreeding that are on the Youtube comments that accompany this track.
And if you listen very carefully on a dark, dark, southern night, whippersnappers, you can hear the big, bad, naughty Neil Young (is it?) softly singing "Southern Man"............. shortly after he's name checked.