The Reason Why “Sweet Home Alabama” Was Such A Big Hit
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Apart from the timeless guitar-frenzy of a track, “Free Bird”, Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd have another ace up their sleeves. “Sweet Home Alabama” is another Top 10 chart-breaker that is part of their sophomore album, Second Helping. But what exactly made it appealing to its listeners?
To start it off, none of the song’s three writers weren’t from Alabama. Ronnie Van Zant and Gary Rossington were from Jacksonville, Florida, while Ed King hailed from Glendale, California. However, that wasn’t enough to generate the kind of controversy that would boost the song to the charts. It was due to the song name-checking another prominent figure in the scene: Neil Young.
Folk rocker Neil Young expressed his distaste of racism in the South in his song “Southern Man” and “Alabama”. The chorus of the former went: “Southern man better keep your head/ Don’t forget what your good book said/ Southern change gonna come at last/ Now your crosses are burning fast.” “Sweet Home Alabama” responds to this with: “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”.
This verse references Gov. George Wallace who was all for segregation, leading to some people believing that Lynyrd Skynyrd stood for the movement as well. Others made of it as a call-out to Young that not all Southerners weren’t the same. Van Zant even said: We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two. We’re Southern rebels but, more than that, we know the difference between right and wrong.”
Rossington backed this up by saying: “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.'” Young looked back into this happening and wrote in his 2012 autobiography: “I didn’t like my words when I wrote them. They are accusatory and condescending.”
He added: “‘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, too easy to misconstrue.”
But far from what most people thought that the two big rock acts were clashing with each other, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young mutually admired each other. Van Zant clarified later that the song was written as a joke, saying: “We didn’t even think about it. The words just came out that way. We just laughed like hell and said, ‘Ain’t that funny.’ We love Neil Young. We love his music.” Young said himself: “I’d rather play ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ than ‘Southern Man’ anytime.”
After the tragic plane crash that ended the classic lineup of Skynyrd, Young played a medley of “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Alabama” as a tribute.