Behind The Song: Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sweet Home Alabama”

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Lynyrd-Skynyrd-in-Jonesboro-Ga-1973
In the summer of 1973, Ed King, Skynyrd’s guitarist at the time, came up with a riff (it came to him in a dream, of course), Van Zant hashed out a few verses, and a couple of days later, Lynyrd Skynyrd had written its most enduring song.

As the story goes, “Sweet Home Alabama” was originally intended as a response to Neil Young. Ronnie Van Zant, the lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd, was a big fan of Young’s music, but he was taken aback by Young’s early 70’s songs “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” which attacked the south for its backwards, racist past.

Van Zant viewed Young’s songs as inflammatory, unfair indictments of an entire region. “We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two,” Ronnie said shortly after the song’s release.

But the roots of “Sweet Home Alabama” can be traced much further than Neil Young. It’s impossible to hear Van Zant’s ode to the south without also hearing the previous century and a half of American popular music, where pop songwriters (usually northern city-dwellers) filled the airwaves, records, and sheet music collections of millions of Americans with their dreamy (usually racially loaded) fantasies of southern domesticity. From Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home,” released in 1851, to Al Robert Hoffman’s 1909 composition titled “I’m Alabama Bound,” which would go on to be covered by Leadbelly, Van Morrison, Jelly Roll Morton, and Pete Seeger, “Sweet Home Alabama” is part of a long line of American pop tunes about imaginary, peaceful southern homes.

But unlike the songs that came before it, “Sweet Home Alabama” is acutely aware of its ancestors. In the first verse, we find the narrator of the song self-consciously “singing songs about the Southland” as he sings journeys home to his fantastical Alabama home.

Ronnie Van Zant takes the racial turmoil of Governor Wallace’s Jim Crow Alabama of the 1960’s, and turns it into a twisted mythical promised land, “where the skies are blue.” Again, for Van Zant, the only pure retreat is music itself: The only straightforward, unambiguous piece of lyric writing in the entire song can be found in the final verse, which champions the Swampers, a famous group of studio musicians from Muscle Shoals, Alabama who recorded hundreds of hit soul and r&b records throughout the 60’s and 70’s.

But Van Zant can’t escape his region’s history – the shame, the violence, the guilt – and he treats the South’s dirty baggage as something worth celebrating in its own right. “Now Watergate does not bother me,” he sings with a snarl, “does your conscience bother you?” Like the famous last verse of Randy Newman’s “Rednecks,” Van Zant deals with his own grave ambivalence by taking the assumptions of violent racism in the South and throwing them back in the faces of the rest of the country. Is it a worthwhile rebuttal of Neil Young’s attack, or merely an anxious defense mechanism? “Sweet Home Alabama” is a song that negotiates what it’s like to feel bad about feeling proud.

Are you a songwriter? Enter the American Songwriter Lyric Contest.

Jonathan Bernstein is the author of “Sweet Home Everywhere,” an alternative history of “Sweet Home Alabama.” You can find “Sweet Home Everywhere” at Amazon and The Creativist.

40 COMMENTS

      • Honors[edit]

        In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked the group No. 95 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.[24][25]

        On November 28, 2005, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced that Lynyrd Skynyrd would be inducted alongside Black Sabbath, Blondie, Miles Davis, and the Sex Pistols. They were inducted in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan on March 13, 2006.

        On March 13, 2006, Lynyrd Skynyrd was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the 21st annual induction ceremony. The inductees included Ronnie Van Zant, Allen Collins, Gary Rossington, Ed King, Steve Gaines, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson, Bob Burns, and Artimus Pyle (no post-crash members of the band were inducted, nor were any of the Honkettes). The current version of Skynyrd, augmented by King, Pyle, Burns and former Honkettes JoJo Billingsley, and Leslie Hawkins, performed “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird” at the ceremony, which was also attended by Judy Van Zant Jenness and Ronnie’s two daughters, Teresa Gaines Rapp and her daughter Corinna, Allen Collins’ daughters, and Leon Wilkeson’s mother and son.

        In October 2008, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s song “Free Bird”‘s solo was named the 3rd greatest guitar solo by Guitar World. In September 2010, Lynyrd Skynyrd was named No. 77 VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

          • Reread my original post. I made a statement, not a complaint. If I was complaining I’d be talking to someone who could do something about it. I wouldn’t waste my breath because whoever has control over programing couldn’t care less what I do or don’t want to hear. As you said I have a choice not to listen and I exercised it.

  1. The author of this article hasn’t a clue as to what “Sweet Home Alabama” is really about! Alabama is a LOT more than ” Governor Wallace’s Jim Crow Alabama of the 1960′s”, it is a beautiful state, with mostly friendly people, where “southern hospitality” is a way of life. The first verse is about returning to Alabama, presumably after an absence of a while, “I miss ole Bamy once again, and I think it’s a sin”, is about home sickness, nothing more, no racial overtones there. The second verse is a put down of Neil Young’s “Southern Man”, a song which is highly unflattering to people in the south. The third verse is indeed about Governor Wallace, but the rest of the verse is sort of an apology and a comparison to dirty politics elsewhere in the country. The whole song is about pride in Alabama, and the good things that come of it, admitting there is some bad everywhere, but the good outweighs the bad.

    • this song has very little to do with alabama, its about the south and how it was seen to the rest of the states, and the pride that ronnie felt for the south. this is what he said at the live recordings in atlanta, Gene Odom was ronnies body guard and a friend of my sister. We went to all 3 nights of the show and a brief moment of explanation on the 2nd night.

      funny stories here, gene wrote a book 2 years after the crash and its called “ode to ronnie”. if you don’t believe me, buy the book. BTW kick ass party in atlanta hilton 14th floor.

  2. The Watergate reference and “does your conscience bother you” is towards America at large. Gary Rossington in a 1980’s radio interview stated that they (Skynyrd) all voted for Wallace for President in 1972. So their (Skynyrd’s) conscience was cleared over the Watergate scandal. But for all those who voted for Nixon, RVZ was asking those people how their conscience was feeling. As for the “BOO. BOO BOO”, GR went on to say that the Boos were supposed to be, “and America says Boo, Boo, Boo.” But since they left out the words about America saying it, everyone thinks Skynyrd was saying the Boo, Boo Boo towards Wallace. GR also said that the Boo, Boo, Boo, misinterpretation, is the only reason Alabama did not select this as the official state song when the state legislature voted on it. Go find the interview, I’m sure it is probably still in cyberspace somewhere. Very enlightening about this & other Skynyrd issues.

  3. Young’s Southern Man was an indictment of the Ku Klux Klan, so there is no way around the fact that this song is a defense of the Klan. Also, as someone who helped run George Wallace out of town (Hanover, NH) after another of his racist speeches, I have no sympathy for their support of him. It’s one thing to love your home state and its positive aspects. It’s quite another to defend violent racism.

    • The song is NOT a defense of the Ku Klux Klan!!! There are no racial overtones to the song, and only a bigot would think there were. “Southern Man” is not about the KKK anyway, it’s about those who were two-faced in their racism, avowing segregation and prejudice while secretly keeping a black mistress on the side. You know less about “Sweet Home Alabama” than the author of this article does!

      • The lyrics are booing those who stood up against Wallace. You can ignore the real meaning of this song if you want to, but don’t expect those of us who were involved in the civil rights movement to overlook its championing of the old South, and all that entailed.

        • No, the lyrics are actually booing those who “loved the governor”.
          “Sweet Home Alabama” had NOTHING to do with the civil rights movement. The old South was about a lot more than racism. It was about southern hospitality too, and that extended to all folks. People like you, who seem to look for reasons to make everything southern into racism, don’t have a clue as to what it was like to grow up in the south in those days. Yes there was racism in the south, there was racism in the north as well, but neither were defined by racism. It was just something that was there, an unfortunate part of life at the time. “Sweet Home Alabama” was an ode to the good things about the south and southern life, there was nothing racist about it!

          • Southern hospitality such as lynchings? I know there have always been good people in the South, and there certainly was — and still is — racism in the North. But Jim Crow, murders with impunity, and a governor standing in the gates of the state university, declaring “segregation forever,” that’s on the South.

          • All of which had absolutely NOTHING to do with “Sweet Home Alabama”!!! And none of that is “on the South”, it’s on the miscreants who committed those atrocities, and those miscreants were never more than a tiny fraction of people who lived in the South. By trying to blame millions of people for the actions of a few, you’re showing yourself to be as much of a bigot as any of those people were!

          • You are conveniently overlooking the fact that the state and local governments all across the South countenanced those atrocities, and often encouraged and were involved in them. To state that a system that prevented a segment of the population from voting, that prevented them from attending schools, that prevented them from using public facilities such as swimming pools and rest rooms, that left them open to rape and murder with impunity for those committing those acts, was implemented by “a tiny fraction” of the population, is disingenuous at best. I’d suggest you study history, to find out exactly how things really were in the South, because your comment reflects a rose colored ignorance,

          • You’re overlooking the fact that segregation was a national policy, and local governments all across the nation countenanced those policies! The “system” of which you speak was a national system, it wasn’t just the South. I know exactly “how things were in the South”, because I was born and raised in the South during those days. I would suggest that you are bigoted and prejudiced against the whole South because of the actions of a minority, many of which were scattered across the entire nation, and weren’t a part of the South to begin with. The ignorance is yours, not mine!

          • There is a difference between “de facto” and “de jure;” Jim Crow was official policy only in the South. Lynchings were carried out in the South. In fact, I have spent enjoyable time in the South, and encountered many fine, generous people there. My grandfather came from Selma, Alabama. But to pretend that things were all sunshine and roses there, that African Americans were not oppressed, denied all rights, including the right to life, is ridiculous. I actually grew up in a racist Northern town, where I was routinely called names, such as n….. lover, for my support of civil rights, so I am quite aware of Northern racism and separatism. But things were always much worse in the South, and all the fine things about Southern states cannot erase that fact.

          • “Jim Crowe laws were enacted all over the US, they just weren’t called Jim Crowe laws in the north, even though in many cases their wording was exactly the same. There was racism in the South, nobody is denying that, however, there was just as much racism in the North. On the whole, no section of the country had a monopoly on racism, it existed everywhere. To blame a whole segment of our country for the actions of a few is beyond idiocy, it’s just as much bigotry as racism is! Every state in the union has had its share of racial hate crimes, and people with common sense don’t blame it all on the South!

  4. I never realized until I read the post below that they were saying boo, boo, boo. I thought they were just doing background vocals sound, ooh, ooh, ooh. Still one of my favorite songs of all time.

  5. It is a shame that Mr. Bernstien and the editors of American Songwriter put printed
    such hatred in this article. For an unbiased review, Wikipedia is a
    better source. Mr. Bernstien claims Van Zant is celebrating the South’s dirty
    baggage, when the opposite is true. Van Zant is saying you can’t judge individual
    in the South for things Gov. Wallace did anymore than you can judge individuals
    in the North for what Nixon did. Van Zant was quoted as saying
    “”Wallace and I have very little in common; I don’t like what he
    says about colored people.” “The lyrics about the governor of Alabama were misunderstood. The general public didn’t notice the words ‘Boo! Boo! Boo!’ after that particular line, and the media picked up only on the reference to the people loving the governor.” Van Zant added, “We’re not into politics, we don’t have no education, and Wallace don’t know anything about rock and roll.”
    However, the truth is apparantly inconvienent for those who want to continue to slam all Southerner’s as racist.

  6. At the time this song came out, it was cleaver piece of Southern pop/rock music, and staked Lynyrd Skynyrd a permanent piece of ground in rock and roll history. It was a good song with hard working chops from it’s musicians, and sounded real good when eating speed, smokin’ a bowl, and chugging 16 oz. Budweisers. But even then, as well as now, I don’t understand why everyone went ape over, and immortalized a song about Alabama, especially since the church bombings, and resulting murders of 4 little girls in a black church in Birmingham had just happened 3-4 years earlier. So why is the rest of America so all-fired high on listening to this song, given the fact that it’s still a place where black people are given a hard time in a lot of places down there? Even though it’s a brilliant piece of music, I for one think the shelf life of this song has run it’s course a long time ago, and would tend to think Alabama would prefer a new piece of music be written about it’s more positive features.

    • You obviously don’t live in Alabama. There isn’t a place here where “black people” are given a hard time. In many places, African Americans are thriving down here and have become a large part of the states population. Go look it up in census data. And it isn’t your choice to make when it comes to what people choose to listen to. In my opinion, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s music along with the music of many other artists from this era is leaps and bounds better than the music being produced today. Why are classic rock songs being covered by today’s artists so often? I for one am a huge classic rock fan. I was born in 1986 and I still find classic rock to be the absolute best music on the radio today. But am I putting down the music that you choose to listen to?

      And let me speak as an Alabamian and tell you right now that I’d have preferred that Sweet Home Alabama be the state’s song over any other song out there. Why you ask? Because what Lynyrd Skynyrd was saying in that song is this: Alabama is a place filled with a lot of southern hospitality. It is a place where many people would be more than willing to give you the shirt off of their back even if you were a complete stranger. Sure, our state has its issues. We’ve been in the history books for some crazy things and yes, we do have some people here who are bad apples. But I challenge you to name a place that doesn’t have a few bad apples mixed in with the rest. Lynyrd Skynyrd was saying judge not lest ye be judged to all of the negative public opinion of Alabama and I think that is a message that all Alabamians would be proud to have their state song deliver.

      • You’re right, I don’t live in Alabama – I’m from East Tennessee, another state with it’s share of backward thinking, still to this day. And no, you’re not putting down my favorite kind of music. I’ve made my living singing classic rock for the last 25 years, so “I know a little about it” (as RVZ said in his song). I even sing a couple of Skynyrd songs in my sets. My favorites are “Curtis Lowe”, and “That Smell”.

        • Then you know as well as I that RVZ and the rest of Lynyrd Skynyrd did not hold ill intent with this song. They were responding to the bad publicity that the state of Alabama, and all of the south for that matter, had received over past transgressions. It isn’t just Alabamians who have immortalized this song. It is southern people in general and the message that Skynyrd sent with this song was one that leveled the playing field.

          While Neil Young put down southern people for mistakes and poor taste that had been shown RVZ and Lynyrd Skynyrd sent a message back showing that everyone makes mistakes and can have poor taste and poor judgement. And rather than judging one another for their failures, we should each look inward and evaluate our own. This song dealt a jab in response to one that was dealt. It wasn’t an attack, simply a response.

          And this song, for me, serves as a reminder that we can make choices whether or not we let actions in the past define our present and future. While you may see areas where there are those who have, as you say, backward thinking that doesn’t mean that everyone has that same mentality. Obviously, you are an example of such. That is the message RVZ delivered in this song.

          • Well spoken my man…. but I still don’t care for the song. Sorry….. everybody’s got an opinion, right? I think probably an incident I witnessed at their live concert just a month or so before their plane went down, is at the root of why I don’t care for RVZ that much. Said concert was in Johnson City, TN at Freedom Hall, and RVZ came out drunk, and swiggin’ and swingin’ on a bottle of Jack Daniels. The crowd loved it, but when he finished it, he threw it out into the crowd like a baseball, and then spit on the people in the front rows, and flipped them the bird, along with the usual language that accompanies that sign. I couldn’t believe what I just saw…. He continued on with that attitude, and thought he was God on stage that night. I was so repulsed by that, that I swore I’d never go see them, or buy their product again – which I didn’t. I figure if he hadn’t died in the plane crash, he would’ve either over-dosed, or ran his Harley into somebody, or into a tree somewhere. Actually, I wish he had lived so everyone could see what a has-been he would have turned out to be, just like Black Oak Arkansas did. LOVED the band members though — they were all great musicians, and proved their mettle thru the long yeas after that. OK, I’m done.

  7. I’d say the author has over analyzed the song somewhat. When you hear this on the radio, or dance to it at a party, or even play it live, do you really stand there and think about the underlying racial meaning and political connotations? Ahhhhh probably not…..as Mick said “it’s only rock ‘n roll but I like it”

  8. well NEIL was right…the racisim is rampant….I’ve lived down there for almost 20 years and the ‘STENCH” is putrid….Ole Neil Young had it right with southern man…don’t care how much you like this band…

  9. As a Yankee, what I always got out of the song was – don’t go thinking anyone gets off scott free on racism, extremism, or condoning awful politics. Anyone, whether in Alabama or Connecticut knows that corruption of spirit knows no geography.

    • As a Connecticut Yankee transplanted to Los Angeles (and I’m way happier here), I’m hardly a Southerner. I was a hippie who joined sympathy marches for Selma, marched on Washington against the Vietnam War, and carried petitions protesting Kent State and expansion of the war into Cambodia. At the time the song was released, I failed to analyze the lyrics of Sweet Home Alabama. I always liked Neil Young post-Woodstock. But I LOVED this song because it is musically compelling and lyrically honest. Still love it for these reasons. Folks can evolve, embrace change, and decide maybe their ancestors had some growing up to do, without rejecting their roots. “Sweet Home” may have been a wee bit defensive in its lyrics. But it’s an awesome song, for all time. As a “Liberal,” I still give it a 10.

  10. I saw a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert in 75 or 76 (Miami Baseball stadium) and Neil Young was on the ticket, but was a no show (had the flu is what they reported) then of course when they sung the line “I hope Neil Young will remember…” the crowd roared

  11. This song is not terribly complicated, but it is indeed epic. I and all of my people are from Alabama and the moral of the story is, if you think the Deep South has in any way cornered the market on racism–or any other kind of abhorrent behavior born of ignorance–you have another think coming. It surely is not confined to our lovely little corner of the union.

  12. I read RVZ explain that their 1st trip anywhere was to Muscle Shoals and were overwhelmed by kindness. He simply wrote it in response to the songs that seemed so contrary to what he observed. Watch the Muscle Shoals documentary to understand. This song is the most overanalyzed in history.

  13. Here’s one for those wishing to argue. “Ya’ can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit. Those terds of corn get in your teeth and leave them full of grit. The after taste will gag you, on this you must agree. If ya’ wanna make damn good chicken salad, gotta use a chicken or three.” Lynyrd Skynyrd & the VanZandt family were not & are not racist. Grow up & get a freaking life.

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