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A Misconceived “Sweet Home Alabama”

Emilee Lord

Emilee Lord is an intended Hispanic Studies major from Asheville, North Carolina. This past year she volunteered at Davidson’s animal research facility and local veterinary clinic. She is a Terry Scholar and a member of Warner Hall. This summer she worked towards completing her pre-med requirements and did research with the National Park Service on the calf-dropping locations of Western North Carolina’s elk population. She enjoys hiking, swimming, and anything else that can be done outside. Her essay was written for Dr. Ford’s first-year writing course called “Xenia and Xenophobia”.

Southerners brave many stereotypes. From Driving Miss Daisy all the way to the KKK, outsiders have long attributed all southern people with the awful behaviors of the few. Particularly relevant in the mid-twentieth century, with the racist actions like the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and city bus segregation, the South bore more hate than ever. Northerners and foreigners alike, though some Southerners would consider them one in the same, developed xenophobia towards the South. No where was this better exemplified than music, as artists like Neil Young, who wrote songs such as “Alabama” and “Southern Man,” lumped all proud Southerners under the category of racist bigots. In rebuttal, Lynyrd Skynyrd came out with the classic “Sweet Home Alabama,” which many people assume to be a racist anthem. I argue that this enduring tune works to break down outsiders’ xenophobic stereotype of Southerners, and that my modern opposition skews the meaning of the lines they argue to be in support of racism to accommodate their preconceived notion of what it means to be Southern, without careful regard to the lines’ deeper historical context.

Some modern listeners still argue that “Sweet Home Alabama” promotes racism. Journalist David Kiley is one of them. His argument against the song largely surrounds his initial misconception of racism’s ubiquity in the South. In his article with Bloomberg Business Week, he proposes that KFC, who uses “Sweet Home Alabama” for commercial background music, “ignores the racist backdrop of the song” in its marketing strategy to sell more chicken. He possesses a preconceived stereotype of how Southerners behave and think, which he demonstrates with the painfully clichéd comment, “Go to any road house in Alabama, and on many a night you can still hear this song being belted out by folks clutching their long-neck bottles and throwing a salute to a Confederate flag.” By referencing the Confederate flag, he generalizes anyone in a roadhouse to be in support of the Confederacy and by the transitive property, its values too. He justifies this claim by interpreting the song’s references to Neil Young’s music and George Wallace to be against progressive equality and favoring the governor’s abhorrent, pro-segregation brutality; however, he strategically takes his supporting lyrics out of context, forgetting their accompanying lines which gear them towards an entirely different sentiment—that Southerners can be both progressive and proud of their region.

Many lines in Sweet Home Alabama elicit criticism, but there is one in particular. Perhaps the most frequently misinterpreted line is, “In Birmingham they love the Gov’nor, boo, boo, boo.” Governor Wallace of Alabama supported segregation. Some would say he led the campaign. He’s quoted with, “segregation forever.” He persisted with his racist sentiments even after the church Lord 2bombing by white supremacists killed four little African American girls, and similar acts of terror resulted in countless other cold-blooded murders (“George Wallace”). Given the political climate of the historic city and the less emphasized “boo, boo, boo,” tacked on the end, it’s easy to see how this could be misconstrued. However, this does not negate the line’s presence. Followed by the rather ambiguous, “We all did what we could do,” affirms that they tried to help end racist tensions the best they could. Though my opposition could misinterpret this to mean that they did what they could to support segregation, analysis changes once we consider the band’s explicitly stated opinions. In defending the controversial line, Van Zant said, “We’re not into politics, we don’t have no education and Wallace don’t know anything about rock n roll” (“Ronnie and Neil”). He says this to separate themselves from any of Wallace’s political leanings, reaffirming their simple pride in having a southern identity.

The southern stereotype of regional bigotry developed in response to a minority’s actions, despite an under-recognized progressive majority. The cultural climate of the South fostered polarized views as a severely racist minority committed acts of terror in support of white supremacy. This forced many southern whites to align themselves with conservative views for fear of being alienated from their own kind and rejected from others. Originally, it was incomprehensible to them to be both progressive and a proud Southerner. They couldn’t abandon their home’s traditions and still identify with the region that shaped their lives—or so they believed. Then things changed. Some reconciled the two, and, leading others to do the same, the few became a majority. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan of Kentucky (1833-1911), United Automobile Workers Walter Reuther of West Virginia (1907-1970), and sisters Meg and Katy Kelly of the District of Columbia all contributed in their own way. Each of these people stood for equality. Each broke from the seemingly ubiquitous mindset of racial hate, setting an example for others, who, though they may have believed the same, were scared to act. Marshall preceded the full fledged Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s by a number of years; nonetheless he opposed rulings like “Plessy Vs. Fergusson” which supported segregation (Biography.com Editors). Walter Reuther joined with the “Big Six”, turned “Big Ten”, who planned the March on Washington in the midst of the most violent acts of racial based terror (Cox). Even average citizens such as Meg and Katy Kelly, who were mere girls at the time of the March, contributed to the cause by giving out free lemonade to the marchers from their porch (Hansen). With people like this, the tides changed. According to a poll conducted, measuring racial attitudes in America, by 1972, ninety-seven percent of the white population believed in equal job opportunity for blacks. By 1976, eighty-eight percent of the white population believed the black population should have their own choice or residency too (Shuman). A majority of whites had in fact turned against racism, but they were overshadowed in the face of extremist bigots and the subsequent pervading stereotype about what it meant to be a proud Southerner. Outsiders rejected those divergent, lumping them with their backwards counterparts and using the entire Southern identity as a scapegoat for racist tensions.

This misunderstanding showed up in the era’s art, specifically the music. Artists like Neil Young incorporate this anti-south sentiment into his songs “Southern Man” and “Alabama.” With lyrics like, “Southern change’s gonna come at last / Now your crosses are burning fast,” he dumps all Southerners into this bigot stereotype. He blames the whole population for the transgressions of the few, terrible though those sins may be.  Similarly, with “Alabama,” he correctly calls for a much needed revolution. He sings, “Banjos playing through the broken glass / Windows down in Alabama.” However, he incorrectly insinuates that oppressed African Americans’ only resource for hope in revolution is with the Union as he writes, “You got the rest of the union to help you along.” By ignoring the work of white southern activists, Neil Young’s offensive stereotype, rather than any sort of racist ideology, led Lynyrd Skynyrd to publish “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Originally, it was incomprehensible to them to be both progressive and a proud Southerner. They couldn’t abandon their home’s traditions and still identify with the region that shaped their lives—or so they believed.

They couldn’t abandon their home’s traditions and still identify with the region that shaped their lives—or so they believed. Its condemners are correct in the regard that “Sweet Home Alabama” rebukes Neil Young.  It blatantly calls him out in the second stanza, but not in the way that they think. Rather than supporting racism as they would argue, “Sweet Home Alabama” denies Neil Young’s generalization that all Southerners identify this way. It breaks stereotypes. Immediately, it disassociates itself from the assumed race based enmity by concluding nostalgia based lyrics with, “I miss ‘ole’ bamy once again and I think it’s a sin.” This demonstrates the writer’s inner crisis about identifying as a proud Lord 1Southerner without conforming to the racist stereotype projected on the group by outsiders. Realizing “it’s a sin” immediately separates him from any racist counterparts because it not only shows his confliction in missing his home, but also his hesitancy in doing so given its bad rap as a racist place. He acknowledges the South’s wrong doings. This sets the tone for the remainder of the song and transforms the argument. It’s no longer about race, but southern identity, and works to break down outsiders’ assumptions surrounding what it means to have southern pride.

The dialogue between “Sweet Home Alabama” and Neil Young’s music best exemplifies Southerners’ demand to be freed from negative stereotypes. The line, “Well I heard Mister Young sing about her,” works to contextualize his argument within the framework of rebuttal, prepping him for the assertion, “A southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” Frequently misinterpreted as shunning progressivism, the line simply implies that Southerners don’t need Young’s opinion as its stereotypical nature offends more progressive Southerners by using their entire cultural identity as a scapegoat, than it does undermine the terrible few. Southerners know they’ve got problems so Young can butt out.  As band member Ronnie Van Zant put it in an interview with a British radio, “We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two” (“Ronnie and Neil”). Thus contextualizing the song helps us uncover a different meaning behind the lyrics. If not a pledge against racism, “Sweet Home Alabama” is certainly not in support of it as progressives of the era suggested.

Not unlike how Southerners have a strong allegiance to where the come from, northerners too develop a strong since of identity. “Sweet Home Alabama” uses this to draw parallels. Similar to how it argues that the entire South can’t be blamed for all racist evils, it claims the same benefit for the North with the verse, “Now Watergate doesn’t bother me.” This references the major political scandal in which President Nixon participated in illegal espionage and a subsequent cover-up that resulted in his resigning from office (History.com Staff). This insinuates that the Lynyrd Skynyrd band doesn’t hold the entire Northern population accountable for the misdeeds of the few, even though they primarily voted him into office. Republican voters, who predominantly lived in the North East region of the United States, voted overwhelmingly in support of Nixon with ninety-five percent of their vote (“Election Polls—Voted by Groups, 1960-1964”). This indirectly asks the Northern population to offer the same grace to the Southerners who, though they are ashamed of the terrors committed by their counterparts, still take pride in their regional identity.

No one in the Lynyrd Skynyrd band was a politician. They were all normal, southern folks who struck a bit of luck in their music career. Because of this, they were able to write and sing about what was on the mind of the layman. They told it how it was. They carried this sentiment into “Sweet Home Alabama,” making it an all time classic. People like to hear the truth and that’s exactly what this song provides. It never pretends to ignore the horrors committed by some southern peoples, but redirects the hate focused at the South because of those ungodly actions. It speaks to the masses, appeals to the uneducated and educated alike. It intends to make sense of the confusion surrounding southern identity, showing outsiders like Neil Young how the majority of Southerners really think—that it’s okay to be a proud, progressive, Southern-born soul. Analyzed properly and understood within its historical context, it becomes an anthem of truth.

 

Bibliography

“John Marshall Harlan Biography.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television. Web.

Cox, John. “In March on Washington, White Activists Were Largely Overlooked but Strategically Essential.” The Washington Post. October 22, 2015. 22 October 2015. Web.

“Election Polls — Vote by Groups, 1960-1964.” Gallup.com. 22 October 2015. Web.

“George Wallace.” PBS. 22 October 2015. Web.

Hansen, Nina. “13 People Who Marched on Washington in 1963 and Returned Today.” Mashable World.  28 August 2013. 22 October 2015. Web.

History.com Staff. “Watergate Scandal.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. 22 October 2015. Web.

Kiley, David. Bloomberg Business Week. Bloomberg, 25 Feb. 2005. 22 October 2015. Web.

Lynard, Skynard. Sweet Home Alabama. RCA, 1974. CD.

Shuman, Bobo, et al. “Trends in Whites’ Racial Attitudes. Survey. 1997, 1998.

“Ronnie and Neil: Laying to Rest the “Feud Myth” Once and for All.” Neil Young News. March 9, 2010. 22 October 2015. Web.

Young, Neil. “Alabama.” RCA, 1972. CD.

Young, Neil. “Southern Man.” RCA, 1970. CD.

 

 

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