It began in 1972 with Canadian Neil Young’s disgust at the images on his television screen over the past several years: Bull Connor, fire hoses turned on civilians, dogs. And they all seemingly arose in the streets of one town — Birmingham. In those iconic clips, Young would find the inspiration for his his anti-segregationist track Alabama and the far angrier Southern Man several years earlier. Though his ire was directed at more than Alabama, when one of the gold standards on Billboard’s No. 1 album (Harvest) was added to those scenes on nightly television, decades-long history of bad acts, Wallace’s schtick at Foster auditorium and his equally infamous segregation now... inaugural speech, the aftermath of the Birmingham church bombings, and a world leaving segregation behind it, it painted Alabamians as rubes hellbent on maintaining Klan, Country, and Jim Crow.
Needless to say, the song seemed a baffling attack to many in the State. Most of what Neil had documented took place in the early 60s. The Civil Rights Act had been passed almost a decade earlier, and was amended again four years later. Desegregation and busing orders were coming down from courts almost daily. Many institutions were under protection of the courts or the Federal government. The Voting Rights Act had been passed. Wallace’s stalwartly-white University of Alabama had been integrated and was permitted to offer scholarships to black student-athletes. Even that self-same George Wallace had minimized much of his racist vitriol while parleying his fame into third-party presidential campaign runs, focusing nationally on federal government overreach and economic populism.
The Alabama of 1972 wasn’t a multicultural utopia by any stretch; but nor was it 1963, seemed to be the thinking.
In 1974, Lynyrd Skynyrd thought that Ole’ Neil had put ‘er down perhaps a bit too much. In what would become an inside joke and then a pop culture clapback, Skynyrd released perhaps the most misunderstood song in our history: Sweet Home Alabama.
Taken at face value, the song seems a full-throated defense of Alabama and its segregationist firebrand.
Sweet home Alabama, oh sweet home
Where the skies are so blue and the Governor’s true
Sweet home Alabama
Lord, I’m coming home to you, yeah yeh
But that’s not the story complete.
“We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two,” Van Zant later said. “We’re Southern rebels but, more than that, we know the difference between right and wrong.” In fact, those “boos” are thought to imply that the band disagreed with Wallace’s politics—and that bit about Watergate seems to be a pointed remark about the hypocrisy of the North, which had its own problems, too.
Sure it outlined some of the state’s natural beauty and the Shoals musical scene, and above all it spoke of missing home. And, it alluded to the untold protests at Wallace in the state, while taking shots at an also-troubled North.
“In Birmingham they love the governor...Boo boo boo”
To this day, the song is still misunderstood.
“A lot of people believed in segregation and all that. We didn’t. We put the ‘boo, boo, boo’ there saying, ‘We don’t like Wallace,’ “ Rossington said.
Or is it?
With its clear-yet-opaque lyrics, and its sly dissenting references, it has been claimed as both a conservative anthem, and a backdoor show of support of Young’s integrationist stance.
But, something funny happened with the passage of time. First, integration became a way of life, with Wallace and his archaic segregationist policies relegated to the dustbin of history. Second, Neil Young publicly and repeatedly repudiated the song that began this faux feud:
Young came to regret the song that started it all. “‘Alabama’ richly deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record,” he wrote in his memoir, Waging Heavy Peace. “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.”
Finally, Sweet Home Alabama’s merits were taken at face value, without digging for a deeper meaning in its very simple lyrics. It was simply a good, catchy song. And, with the political controversy drawing to a close, SHA became a staple of rock radio well beyond the South’s cloistered borders — earning a Top 10 spot both in the US and in Young’s Canada.
The passage of yet more time has done something wonderful, too. No matter the song’s original intention, its focus now been much more on homecoming and homesickness, on longing and belonging. It has become America’s homecoming song.
Ronnie painted a picture everyone liked. Because no matter where you’re from, sweet home Alabama or sweet home Florida or sweet home Arkansas, you can relate.”
The skies are always little bluer at home; the trees a little friendlier; the sights and sounds and people a little more welcoming...and our attitudes about home a lot more forgiving. And what Sweet Home painted was both the good and bad, a nuanced nod to both the greatness and the foibles of “home,” no matter where we lay our heads.
With that understanding in mind, it is no surprise then —that from Rihanna to Green Day, Nirvana to Neil Young — Sweet Home Alabama has become much less about Alabama and much more about sweet home.
But, the song will forever be associated with Alabama’s people and institutions. And for a state that served as both America’s epicenter of segregation and its epicenter of civil rights, that modern re-imagining is about as fitting a coda as possible
There is a post-script to this story too. In a nod to that tumultuous past Neil Young has released a new live album from 1973 recorded in Tuscaloosa...entitled simply Tuscaloosa.
For me, it’s edgy. It’s like those mellow songs with an edge. It’s really trippy to be down in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and singing those songs from Harvest...
There are now just five days until football season.