The year is 1973, and in Studio One, Dooraville, in Atlanta, Georgia, Ronnie Van Zant, the lead singer and guiding light of Lynyrd Skynyrd mutters ‘Turn it up’ into a microphone. An electric moment in a song that will become legendary, and which will propel the Florida band up the charts on its release in 1974.
There is something unquestionably immediate about the song, its simplicity, and its energy. From Van Zant’s intro – a fortunate recording accident, he was actually telling producer Al Kooper to turn up the microphone in his headphone mix, while the tape was rolling – onwards it sounds like you’re there in the studio with the band, live in that moment. Indeed, the band would later talk about how quickly the song came together.
If Sweet Home Alabama captures a moment, then it’s interesting to examine what kind of moment that might be, given that it has become the musical equivalent of the confederate flag; for fans it’s a song taking pride in southern culture, for many others it’s racist overture, an anthem from and for a group of rednecks.
To answer whether Sweet Home Alabama is a racist song, we’ll have to try to step into that moment, or in fact various moments. To set the stage, let’s take a step back, just a year, to 1972. It’s an election year – Richard Nixon will go on to a landslide victory against the Democratic Party candidate George McGovern, despite the developing Watergate story. Internationally it’s the year of the Munich terrorist attacks, the second Cod War between Great Britain and Iceland, and Bloody Sunday in Ireland. Atari launches its first video game, Pong.
At the Oscars the best film goes to The French Connection (other nominations include A Clockwork Orange and Fiddler on the Roof), while the best soundtrack award goes to Isaac Hayes for the theme to Shaft. Then, just as so often happens now, there are no African-American actors nominated for the main prizes. The biggest selling album of the year, in North America, is Neil Young‘s Harvest. It’s Young’s fourth solo album, and will top the charts around the world. It has the massive hit single Heart of Gold, and critcally acclaimed tracks like The Needle and the Damage Done, and Old Man. It also has the track Alabama.
In 1972 Lynyrd Skynyrd are a long way from legendary. They’ve spent years being rejected by virtually every record-label in the land, despite having been taken on by the legendary Alan Walden, who, with his brother Phil, has worked with Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Sam and Dave, and a variety of other Soul acts. In ’71 the band spent time in Muscle Shoals Alabama, recording with the legendary Jimmy Johnson (who worked with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Staple Singers, and the Rolling Stones).
In ’72, very much at the end of the road, the band accept a desperate record deal organised by Al Kooper (multi-instrumentalist who played with Dylan, Hendrix, and was a founding member of Blood, Sweat and Tears), who takes them under his wing to produce their first album in Dooraville. After years of rejection, years when their livelihood and reason for being is provided almost exclusively by touring across the southern states, playing on every stage – big and small – that they can manage, 1973 is set to be the make-or-break year for Skynyrd. It’s in this context that Ronnie Van Zant hears Neil Young’s Alabama.
Alabama. What could it mean to a Canadian, like Neil Young, at the start of the ’70s. Just 17 years before, in a brave moment Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man, on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Alabama throughout the ’60s was a central stage in the civil rights protests that rocked America. It was also the state perhaps most associated with the violent backlash of white supremacists against this movement. In 1963 the Ku Klux Klan bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church; a crime which killed four young girls and injured 22 others; a crime which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity”. It was just one of many bomb attacks by the Klan in Birmingham, to the extent that the city became nicknamed ‘Bombingham’.
Alabama at this time is also home to one of the most infamous political characters of the civil rights era, Governor George Wallace. In his innaugural speech, in 1963, he famously declared “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 now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. It was Wallace who, as state governor of Alabama, ordered Alabama Highway Patrol Chief Col. Al Lingo to “use whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march”, when civil rights protestors organised to march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Whatever measures are necessary meant state troopers viciously attacking peaceful protestors in an event that would be labelled Bloody Sunday.
Wallace was hugely influential on the national stage as well. He ran for Presdient a number of times, most notably in 1968 when, as an independent he carried 5 states and won 46 votes in the electoral college. Wallace never seriously presumed he could win the election, but that wasn’t his intention. His intention was to show the power of the southern (white) vote, mobilised on a ticket of segregation and appeals to racism,and he was ahead of the curve here. Wallace in many ways was the architect of the ‘Southern Strategy‘ which would dominate American politics from the ’80s onwards. As Professor Dan Carter of Emory University, Atlanta, has written: “George Wallace laid the foundation for the dominance of the Republican Party in American society through the manipulation of racial and social issues in the 1960s and 1970s. He was the master teacher, and Richard Nixon and the Republican leadership that followed were his students.”
In ’72 Wallace has had a bad year. He runs for the Democratic primaries, and is polling well when, on the 15th of May while campaigning in Maryland he is shot, by an attention-seeking would-be-assasin; the attack has nothing to do with Wallace’s political positions, but it effectively ends his campaign, and leaves him wheelchair bound and in pain for the rest of his life. He is, though, still a powerful politician – by 1974, in a profile by the Australian journalist John Pilger, he’s described as the most powerful man in America, because he still largely controls the Southern vote for the Democrats. Indeed in 1974, while Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama is racing up the charts, as the first single off their second album, there’s still speculation about a possible Edward Kennedy / Wallace ticket for the presidential elections of ’76 (Kennedy certainly courted Wallace, appearing with him at the Spirit of America event in july 1973).
And so, the stage is set.
Let us return, to 1973. It’s june, a month after the recording of the first album,(Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) has finished, and Van Zant has re-convened Skynyrd, with Kooper, back to Dooraville ‘s studio one, to record a song that he’s adamant will be a hit.
Big Wheels keep on turning
Carrying me home to see my kin
Singing songs about the south land
Alabama I’m missin you again, and I think it’s a sin
Of course, one of the ironies of the song is that, while Skynyrd took umbrage about a Canadian lecturing them in Alabama, the band itself was from Jackonsville, Florida (with Californian Ed King providing the signature riff). It’s interesting then to consider why the band would choose to highlight Alabama. Was it a considered message, responding to the slight by Young? Or did it evolve into that?
One thing is for certain with the song, and that is that it evolved out of Ed King’s guitar riff which he claimed came to him in a dream, following a jamming session and counterpointing a riff by Gary Rossington. Van Zant’s writing, according to King, “all based on the groove. If you ever showed up at rehearsal the next day and couldn’t recapture the groove – you might have the chords right, but if you’d lost the groove – the lyrics were gone forever”1
So, it’s unlikely that Van Zant had been waiting, since the previous year, with lyrics penned specifically to Neil Young. The Skynyrd way of writing was more off the cuff and spontaneous. Gordon Fletcher, for example, reviewing their first album and comparing the style of the Allman Brothers Band to Skynyrd wrote “If a song doesn’t feel right to the Brothers, they work on it until it does; if it doesn’t to Lynyrd Skynyrd, they are more likely to crank up their amps and blast their way through the bottleneck”. The riff to Sweet Home Alabama felt right to the band, and Van Zant in particular, though the guitar felt all wrong to Ed King. He was playing a Fender Stratocaster, whose tinny sound he hated (he preferred, by far, the meatier sound of a Gibson Les Paul), but that tinny sound may have been the key to Sweet Home Alabama. Speaking to Gibson.com King remarked “I do think it was the banjo-like tone that prompted Ronnie to write about Alabama, like ‘I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee.'”
So, instead of Neil Young, we have O Susana, as a starting point, a song written by Stephen Foster for minstrel shows across the south, where African-Americans would be jeered and lampooned, though, to be fair, by the 1970s the song had lost much of that flavour, and had been covered jokingly by liberals like the Byrds and James Taylor.
Well I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well I heard ole Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A southern man don’t need him around any how
Of course, once chosen as a hook, in ’73 it’s hard to imagine Alabama, if you’re a musician, without Neil Young coming into mind. The funny thing about the Neil Young verse is that it’s the most commented on, but now least controversial of the song. It may have seemed gutsy, for an unheard of band to call out the #1 singer-songwriter in the world at the time, but in real terms it was a shrewd move which gave the song a powerful publicity punch to join with its rolling riff. And, as is well documented, Young took the song well, ultimately writing in 2012 that 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, and too easy to misconstrued”2 (another irony here is that Young’s description could just as easily fit Skynyrd’sSweet Home Alabama).