By Jonathan Bernstein
On December 19, 2007, Kid Rock took the stage during a USO concert for American military personnel stationed in Iraq. Appearing alone, he sat down, greeted the audience, and introduced his first song.
“They said, ‘You know it’s Christmastime, and you’re going up to sing for our troops. I’m sure they’d like to hear some Christmas songs,’” Rock said with a sneer. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go right out there and sing them jingle fucking bells, right?’
“It kind of reminded me of growing up you know, my mom would be cooking turkey, things would be real nice at the house,” he continued. “Pop would come in and crack open a case of Budweiser, and he’d put on some Christmas music that sounded like this…”
Then, on his acoustic guitar, Rock plucked the first few notes of “Sweet Home Alabama.” The crowd erupted.
Kid Rock was just a toddler the year Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded “Sweet Home Alabama.” Home was not Alabama or even the South, but a small rural town in southeastern Michigan. As a teenager, Rock didn’t care much for straight-ahead Southern rock. He was more interested in hip-hop and rap-rock, and he spent the first 10 or so years of his career as an underground Detroit rapper.
But after Rock broke through commercially in the late ‘90s, his music slowly began to incorporate elements of rock, blues, and country. He began associating himself with Skynyrd, a rowdy group of old ’70s rockers whom he considered fellow outlaws. Inducting the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, he described “Sweet Home Alabama” as “probably the greatest song ever written.”
A few years later, with his career plateauing, Rock became the latest in a long line of musicians to adopt “Sweet Home Alabama” as his own, mashing its famous opening riff with a sample of “Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon. The result was an instant summertime hit, a four-minute mid-tempo rocker called “All Summer Long.” It quickly became the most successful single Rock had ever recorded, topping charts all over Europe and in Australia and giving him his first top 10 crossover country hit in the U.S.
Asked about “All Summer Long” in 2010, Rock was unapologetic about cashing in on a classic song by one of his musical heroes.
“Yeah I get it,” he said. “It’s fuckin’ ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’ How you gonna lose with that?”
Turn It Up
It done well all over the country, and we were very surprised about that.Ronnie Van Zant, 1977
It might be said that when a song is released into the world, it ceases to belong to its creator. And on the rare occasions when a song becomes a hit, a pervasive piece of music widely heard and discussed by mass audiences, it takes on a life entirely separate from, and sometimes in spite of, its original meaning.
Since its release in 1974, “Sweet Home Alabama” has lived such a life. It is best known for Skynyrd’s mocking rebuke of Neil Young and praise for segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace. But over the last 40 years, as the song has cemented its place as a canonical American rock tune, that bitter history has mostly been forgotten among mainstream fans, like the young servicemen and women Kid Rock was serenading in Iraq. Meanwhile, the song has been adapted and reinterpreted more than perhaps any pop hit of the last half-century, finding innumerable new meanings and mutations in the hands of amateurs and pop stars alike (not to mention everyday fans, pandering politicians, and Hollywood producers), who have repeatedly replaced the object of the song’s affection with other “sweet homes.”
The song opens with guitarist Ed King’s instantly recognizable two-bar intro, a riff King claims came to him one night in a dream. Then, the muffled bark from Ronnie Van Zant, Skynyrd’s lead singer —“Turn it up” — a command, a threat, an invitation to keep listening, and an indication that whatever is about to transpire should be heard as loudly as possible. The song that follows is country rock and blues boogie and catchy pop and Southern gospel. The laid-back groove is familiar and comforting. Van Zant’s slurred country-fried vocals are puzzling, sometimes incoherent, at times indifferent. By the end of the song, when he sings “where the skies are so blue and the governor’s true,” the point of the song is almost indecipherable, and it’s nearly impossible to discern his tone of voice. Sarcastic? Bitter? Genuine? Defensive? Comical?
King’s singular riff made “Sweet Home Alabama” an eternal hit single. Van Zant’s inscrutable lyrics — a response to “Alabama” and “Southern Man,” two Young tracks that attacked the South for its backward ways and sinful, racist past — made the song worth fighting over. But Van Zant never thought much about the song that would come to define him, or at least he pretended not to. In the years that followed the release of “Sweet Home Alabama,” the band’s lead singer routinely dismissed the song’s importance in interviews and remained confounded by its success, dismissing the lyric as a joke or a gag.
“That song was not meant to be a single,” Van Zant once said. “It was just a party tune. It was a Wednesday afternoon and we were all out at the place, rehearsin’, got into that thing, started laughing about it.”
“The place” Van Zant was referring to was a tiny tin-roofed cabin in Green Cove Springs, Florida, where the band rehearsed and wrote material for most of its first two records. It would become known as “Hell House” for its insufferable temperatures. “That was one of the quickest songs they ever wrote,” says Kevin Elson, a friend of the band’s who later served as the group’s producer and studio engineer, in “Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History.” “The idea of it started being played in the morning and I came back later in the afternoon to Hell House, and by the end of the day it was done.”
Ed King remembers the song’s creation similarly. “I started off with that riff and Ronnie was sitting on the edge of the couch, making this signal to me to just keep rolling it over and over,” King has said. “Finally, after maybe 10 to 15 minutes, he got up and sang a verse and a chorus.”
In the four decades since, “Sweet Home Alabama” has refused to go away. Last year, it became the first song recorded before 1975 to break 3 million digital downloads. If you’re judging a classic song’s “timelessness” by its ongoing commercial success, Skynyrd’s biggest hit has aged more gracefully than any single from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, or any other iconic artist from rock’s heyday of the ’60s and ’70s.
Why? Why is a song written as a tossed-off, semi-sarcastic joke, a song whose author insisted was meaningless, still so thriving, in karaoke bars, cover-band set lists, classic rock radio stations, and iTunes playlists of 15- and 55-year-olds alike? How is it that the song’s title has spawned a reality TV show, a middling rom-com, and countless newspaper headlines, all the while becoming a state motto and an international catchphrase? How would Ronnie Van Zant, who was thoroughly shocked by the nationwide success of “Sweet Home Alabama,” have reacted to the dozens of adaptations and parodies of the song from all corners of the world, from “Sweet Home Buenos Aires” and “Miña Terra Galega (My Galician Homeland)” to “Sweet Home Jerusalem,” “Sweet Home Australia,” and “Sweet Home South Korea.” (“Well I hope Kim Jung will remember, South Korea don’t need him around, anyhow.”)
What would he have thought of the ever-growing list of performers who have covered “Sweet Home Alabama,” which includes Green Day, Bret Michaels, Rihanna, Less Than Jake, Jewel, Hank Williams Jr., Mumford & Sons, Jimmy Buffett, Nirvana, Garth Brooks, Counting Crows, Dave Matthews Band, Kenny Chesney, Killdozer, Tori Amos, and, naturally, Alabama? How would he have reacted to Eminem freestyling to the song’s melody in “8 Mile,” or to the polka bands and Mariachi groups that have reimagined the Southern rock tune, the Christian Rock bands that have adapted the song for their own purposes (“Sweet Home Up In Heaven”), and the neo-Nazis ’80s skinhead group Skrewdriver, whose version of the song includes an ode to the KKK? (“The Carpetbaggers tried to swamp us, but to the Klan we all stand true.”)
To its advantage, “Sweet Home Alabama” has remained persistently contentious as a symbol, a pawn in the ongoing cultural, social, and political conflicts pitting the South against the rest of America. Writer Diane Roberts puts it well: “The chords chime, then somebody (Ronnie?) says ‘turn it up,’ and you do turn it up, unless you turn it off. You have one of two reactions: fight or flight.”
But for many, the song has become apolitical, ahistorical, and ageographical, a generalized devotion to one’s home that finds as many fans in Eugene, Oregon, and Sydney, Australia, as it does in Birmingham, Alabama. As with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in The U.S.A,” key lyrics of the song are commonly misheard, which is to say they’re ignored (an entire third verse is devoted to the studio musicians of Muscle Shoals, Alabama). The strange, brave, reactionary, hateful, peaceful, proud, sexy, solemn, new lives that “Sweet Home Alabama” has led in the last 40 years have come to mean so much more than a clumsy feud or a half-baked sarcastic jab at a fellow rock star. They’ve become the very essence of “Sweet Home Alabama” as it exists today, as a breathing, growing, dynamic downloadable pop-object that is at once intensely American and surprisingly global.
Sweet Home West Jacksonville
The founding members of Lynyrd Skynyrd were not from Alabama. Their hometown was a couple hundred miles east, across the border in Jacksonville, Florida. On a sunny afternoon in early April, I paid $150 for a private, Skynyrd-themed tour of the city from Gene Odom, a friend of Van Zant’s and one-time security manager for the band.
“This is Shanty Town, right here,” he says as we begin to drive through the west side of Jacksonville, where Odom grew up in the ’60s alongside future band members Ronnie Van Zant, Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, Larry Jungstrom, Leon Wilkeson, and Bob Burns. Over the course of a long afternoon, we visit, among other things, the sites of their childhood homes, their first rehearsal spaces, the high school they briefly attended, and the gravesites of the ones who are now dead.
Odom was one of Van Zant’s oldest childhood friends and a close confidante, and he has written several books about the band and his friend over the years. On the night of October 20, 1977, he was sitting alongside the singer on a short plane ride from Greenville, South Carolina, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. While flying over Mississippi, the plane ran out of fuel and crashed into a remote, wooded swamp. Six of the flight’s 26 passengers were killed, including Van Zant. At one point, Odom tells me that he was playing a boombox on the plane, but turned it off right before it started to go down. The last song he played for Ronnie: “Ramblin’ Fever” by Merle Haggard.
Today, the only visible effect of the plane crash on Odom is his missing left eye, which was removed in 1985 due to complications related to one of the many chronic injuries he sustained during the accident. In his mid-’60s, Odom is an opinionated, bitter man with a generous heart and a sly sense of humor. During our afternoon together, I learn from him how to avoid traffic tickets in the state of Florida, (“If any of your axles are across that solid white line when the light changes, you’re clear”), why the toothbrush is called the toothbrush and not the teethbrush (“the guy who invented it only had one tooth”), and what it was like to work, briefly, as a security guard for the Rolling Stones in the mid-’70s (“They were a more professional act. Skynyrd partied harder”).
Odom can come across as tough, in some ways the living embodiment of the hard-nosed, rebel image Lynyrd Skynyrd cultivated in the ’70s. (During our time together, he named a half-dozen different men whose asses he has almost whupped.) But in the years since the fateful accident, he has been unafraid to talk about the trauma and heartbreak that followed the plane crash, which took away his best friend, and according to Odom, a future of unforeseen prosperity. His first book, published six years after the crash, is titled “Lynyrd Skynyrd: I’ll Never Forget You.”
“That’s what freaks me out,” he says when I tell him about my bumpy plane ride down to Jacksonville. “If the flight’s smooth I’m OK, but if it’s bumpy, that’s when that damn plane crash wants to come out in me.”
The long-haired trouble-makers who would go on to make up Lynyrd Skynyrd all lived within a few blocks of each other in the working-class white area of west Jacksonville. Although their homes were small and close together, and some had no electricity, with many families just barely scraping together a living, Odom recalls his youth as an idyllic, postwar American childhood, with Gene, Ronnie, and Co. spending their days biking around Shanty Town, shooting squirrels, watching stock-car races at the local track, and playing baseball.
In their early teens, they started a band called the Noble Five. At one point, Odom takes me to a field, points at third base, and explains how the band found its drummer. “Bob was playing third one day, and Ronnie hit a line drive that hit Bob in the shoulder. Gary and Ronnie went out to third and went ‘Oh hey, you’re Bob Burns, you play drums.’ That’s how Bob joined the band.” They held their first practice in the new drummer’s family garage. The boys were quickly kicked out of several neighborhood rehearsal spots for excessive noise, but eventually got good enough that they started earning gigs at local dance halls.
In high school, Van Zant and the group began to get regular work as a local bar band around town. Like many young groups, they cycled through a series of names, eventually settling on One Percent. But Van Zant had a gym teacher named Leonard Skinner, who had a particular distaste for Ronnie’s long hair. “He was a prick, a real bad redneck,” Odom says. “I was probably the only person that ever liked him.” Before long, Van Zant dropped out and decided to change his band’s name once again. This time, with the mix of confusing irony and irreverent sarcasm that would later define his songwriting, he chose to name the group after his least favorite teacher at Robert E. Lee High. Now known as Lynyrd Skynyrd, they soon were travelling north to Georgia to play fraternity parties and college gigs and beginning to make a small, if meager, earning.
In 1969, the band befriended the members of The Allman Brothers Band, which had recently taken the South by storm with its blend of blues-based rock and roll. One year later, the west Jacksonville high school dropouts received their big break when they auditioned for Pat Armstrong, a young manager who had just begun working for the Allmans’ label, Capricon Records. Skynyrd was shipped off to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record its first set of demos. A small town in northwestern Alabama, Muscle Shoals was known as the hit capital of the world for its legendary recording studios, producers, and homegrown session players. During their early recording sessions in Alabama, the band cut rough versions of “Freebird” and “Simple Man,” songs that are among its most recognizable and beloved tunes to this day.
Before long, the band was on the road constantly, driving up and down the Southeastern coast earning extra money when it wasn’t traveling back and forth from recording sessions in Alabama. Throughout ’71 and ’72, Skynyrd made several trips to Muscle Shoals, demoing the early compositions that would eventually make their way onto the band’s debut record, “(Pronounced ‘lĕh-‘nérd ‘skin-‘nérd)” in 1973. That same year, Skynyrd earned another huge break: opening for the Who on their massive “Quadrophenia” tour. It would be the band members’ introduction to the realities of rock and roll superstardom, a grueling, nonstop grind from arena to arena with little time off and incessant travel. They came to refer to it as “the torture tour.”
While The Band Is Playing Dixie (I’m Humming Home, Sweet Home)
Although the rest of the world had not yet heard it, by the time Skynyrd hit the road with the Who, the song that would become its biggest musical legacy had already been recorded. In writing their first big hit, Van Zant, King, and Rossington would borrow many of key musical, lyrical, and thematic elements from the long tradition of American “home songs.” The genre’s characteristic homesickness and domesticized nostalgia, which first found prominence in American popular song in the early 19th century, have had an immense impact on popular music ever since, and their more recent 20th century descendants range from Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” and John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads ” to Bon Jovi’s “Who Says You Can’t Go Home.” “Sweet Home Alabama” would eventually become arguably the most prominent and ubiquitous home song composed since World War II. Even its title is an allusion, intentional or not, to the most famous American home song of all.
“Home, Sweet Home,” written by an expatriate American actor and songwriter named John Howard Payne, was the crystallization of a type of popular music that had been emerging in the first few decades of the 1800s. These nostalgic odes to peaceful homes had their roots in the antebellum parlor ballads popular at the time. Although “Home, Sweet Home” was originally intended as the centerpiece of a failed 1823 opera titled “Clari, or the Maid of Milan,” the tune would soon go on to become perhaps the most popular song of the 19th century in the United States.
Home songs grew out of social changes that began to occur in America during the 1830s, explains E. Lawrence Abel in his book “Singing The New Nation.” The young country was, as Abel notes, a rootless nation of immigrants yearning for past simplicity. “Europeans came to America; native-born Americans left their farms and their extended families and moved to the city,” he writes. “Industrialization had transformed large sections of the country and rural stability had yielded to urban dislocation and a deeply rooted feeling of alienation.”
Indeed, the grand experiment of the United States, a nation comprising homesick immigrants far away from their ancestral home, was still vastly unproven. With their depictions of pastoral peace and rural antiquity, home songs became a shared national music for a country whose brief, fleeting past was changing all too rapidly. In the home song, “humble cottages were eulogized; lazy, meandering rivers were iconized; bygone days of childhood were idolized. Songs like ‘Home, Sweet Home’ struck such a responsive chord because remembering home countered the pervasive sense of separation and alienation.”
With its potent mix of nostalgia and musical repetition, Payne’s composition would become what influential rock critic Robert Christgau describes as its “century’s signature song.” But the traditional parlor tune didn’t find its true audience until the early 1860s, when the nation began to drift violently away from itself. “Home, Sweet Home” was uniquely beloved by Union and the Confederate troops. Abel writes, “By all accounts, this was the most popular song among soldiers in both the North and South. Every nighttime band concert or songfest usually ended with its immortal sentiment, ‘There’s no place like home.’”
One chilly evening in December 1862, with Union and Confederate soldiers camped on either side of the Rappahannock River in Virginia, the song took on an even greater meaning. Although Civil War historians cannot agree on the chronology of this otherwise well-documented night on account of conflicting reports, this much is clear: Sometime before, during, or shortly after the bloody Battle of Fredericksburg, each army took a brief respite from fighting and turned to their own regional music for collective expression. After several hours of proxy-dueling across the river, the two armies stopped their symbolic gesturing and instead started to sing together. Leander Cogswell, a soldier from New Hampshire, recalled the remarkable event in his memoir:
“Suddenly all music ceased, and silence reigned; when all at once a musician on our side played splendidly on a key bugle ‘Home, Sweet Home.’” As the sweet sounds rose and fell on the evening air, and were wafted down the Falmouth Heights and over the Rappahannock, all listened intently, and I don’t believe there was a dry eye in all those assembled thousands. For a moment or two after the bugle ceased a dead silence reigned, broken then by a wild, exultant cheer from both armies.
Ronnie and Neil
A few months before Skynyrd hit the road with the Who, Ronnie Van Zant and company were back in Jacksonville, playing local shows, enjoying some time at home, and rehearsing at Hell House. One morning, guitarist Ed King, the band’s lone non-Southerner, brought the group a riff that had come to him in a dream the previous night. The rest of the band thought it sounded like a hit, and they made quick work of it, writing and recording a song around it in a matter of days. Released as a single in June of 1974, “Sweet Home Alabama” quickly rose to No. 8 on the Billboard charts.
With its follow-up album, “Second Helping,” Skynyrd was already being hyped as the progenitors of a new subgenre, Southern rock. A newly successful single name-checking Gov. Wallace — a hero to racists and reactionaries in the South for his relentless opposition to desegregation — encouraged the band to begin aggressively promoting its Dixie roots.
But the Confederate flag-waving Lynyrd Skynyrd was in large part a marketing creation of producer Al Kooper and MCA Records, according to Mark Kemp, author of “Dixie Lullaby.” Kooper, the veteran session player and studio producer who took Skynyrd under his wing during the recording of “Second Helping,” thought the band should be promoted as a raucous group of bad boys. “I decided to paint a rough-house image for them,” Kooper, who personally designed the band’s initial skull and bones logo, writes in his memoir. Skynyrd didn’t exactly mind projecting this aura of rebelliousness for increasingly large crowds. Opening for Black Sabbath one night in 1974, the band encountered a hostile audience openly booing, eager for the headliner to take the stage. Bass player Leon Wilkeson, who had recently taken to wearing a holster on stage, pulled out a pistol and fired a blank, swiftly silencing the crowd.
By taking aim at a peace-loving Canadian hippie in its new hit single, Skynyrd had given Kooper and MCA plenty to work with. “I hope Neil Young will remember,” Van Zant sings in his laid-back drawl, “that a Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” With that line, the Skynyrd brand — separatist outsiders, rebel outlaws, Dixie defenders — was set in stone.
Much has been made, ever since, of the alleged feud between Van Zant and Young. In what is perhaps his most famous statement regarding the song, Van Zant explained the genesis of his Dixie-defending hit to Rolling Stone by saying, “We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two.”
But as Young and Skynyrd diehards alike are quick to point out, the two singers were great fans of each other’s work. Young had even tried, in vain, to get Skynyrd to record a few of his songs. In 1977, three years after the release of “Sweet Home Alabama,” Van Zant would be photographed wearing a Neil Young T-shirt for the cover of “Street Survivors,” Skynyrd’s final album. Three weeks after the tragedy that took Van Zant’s life in October of ’77, Young was playing “Alabama” during a concert in Skynyrd’s home state of Florida. Toward the end of the song, Young’s band began playing an approximation of Ed King’s famous opening. Young then sang the refrain of “Sweet Home Alabama” a half-dozen times, paying tribute to a lost friend. “Shit, I think ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ is a great song,” he once said.
There’s even a popular legend that Neil Young served as an honorary pallbearer at Van Zant’s funeral. “Neil Young always claimed that ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ was one of his favorite songs,” says Patterson Hood, the lead singer of the Georgia-based band Drive By Truckers, in the song, “The Three Great Alabama Icons.” “Such is the duality of the Southern Thing.”
What for many was a direct, piercing political statement — be it regional pride or racism or blind resentment — was for Van Zant a clever mystery that he refused to help unravel. Many thought the case had been solved when, shortly after “Sweet Home Alabama” was released, Wallace invited the band to be honored by the State of Alabama. (After Skynyrd’s plane crash, says Gene Odom, Wallace sent each and every survivor a personal letter.)
But a 1975 Village Voice profile of Van Zant that addresses Wallace head-on does little to answer the riddle. Questioned about his invitation to meet the governor, Van Zant reacted defensively. “Of course I don’t agree with everything the man says, I don’t like what he says about colored people,” he said. “Chances are he won’t even want us, he doesn’t have much use for long-hairs, y’know. Course the real reason I’m doin’ it is my Daddy would whup me if I didn’t.” When pushed further by the reporter, Van Zant came to a typical noncommittal conclusion: “Aw shit, I don’t know anything about politics anyway.”
“Ronnie Van Zant was every bit as complex, and as contradictory, as the region he lived in and sang about,” writes Mark Kemp. “Van Zant was at once honest and wily, good-hearted and mean as a rattlesnake, sometimes innately progressive, other times as reactionary as George Wallace.”
Songs About The Southland
The vast majority of home songs that followed in the wake of “Home, Sweet Home” located “home” in the American South. The white, male, Northern professional songwriters who dictated the business of popular sheet music in the mid-19th century saw in the South a rural tranquility untarnished by industrialization. In their antebellum Dixie fantasy, they projected a racialized myth of utopian stability and harmonious complacency in the Southern plantation.
At the same time, the minstrel show was rising in prominence as a form of American entertainment in the decades leading up to the Civil War. As its popularity increased dramatically among working-class whites in the urbanized North, minstrelsy became inextricably linked with the home song. The wildly popular plantation odes penned by Pennsylvania native Stephen Foster, such as “Old Folks at Home” and “My Kentucky Home,” depicted rural, imaginary, deeply alluring bygone Southern utopias. “I Hab Leff Alabama,” a minstrel number written and arranged by Massachusetts-bred Marshal S. Pike and J.P. Ordway, was sung in the voice of a runaway slave who has left her Alabama plantation after being frustrated with a love interest named Ben.
I hab leff Alabama a long way behind me
I hab leff my ole massa, and wooly-head Ben;
And dey boff is gone crazy becase dey can’t find me.
So I’s gwine to go back to Alabama agen
The song’s final verse portrays the happy, long-last reunion between the slave — who has been free to come and go at her fancy — and has decided to return home to her benevolent master, and her plantation home: “Massa will smile and be glad to receibe me/When I’se home safe back in Alabama agen.”
“I Hab Leff Alabama,” composed in 1849, was one of the first in a long, ripe lineage of songs yearning for an Alabama home. In 1867, three Northern abolitionists published “Slave Songs of the United States,” a collection of Southern spirituals that the authors of the book promised were “all inspired by slavery,” including one titled “I’m G’wine to Alabamy.” In 1909, Robert Hoffman published a ragtime composition called “I’m Alabama Bound,” which was popularized by Lead Belly and later became a standard performed by folkies, blues singers, and jazz pianists alike throughout the 20th century. Distinct from “I’m Alabama Bound” was “Alabamy Bound,” a dialect-infused Tin Pan Alley hit song from the mid-’20s popularized by Al Jolson. “I’m Alabamy bound/there’ll be no heebie-geebies hanging around,” Jolson sang as he bid goodbye to the blues in the song’s refrain, riding a Southbound train headed home to see his Alabamy “mammy.”
In 1929, years before Gene Autry found fame as a Hollywood actor, he recorded a song, written by his musical partner Jimmy Long, titled “My Alabama Home.” “My Alabama Home” was a classic minstrel home song — complete with Autry’s “longing for the old plantation” and “mammy” — dressed up as country music. Several years later, another country singer turned Hollywood cowboy named Ray Whitley recorded an ode to the state titled “My Alabamy Home.” Whitley’s 1936 song was an update of Autry’s tune, the hillbilly country star yodeling his way through, eventually singing the moving final verse in his deep croon. By ending his song by quoting Hoffman’s number, Whitley brought the Alabama home song tradition full circle:
I’ve roamed all over this country
I’ve travelled east and west
I’ve been out in the Rocky Mountain, where the eagle makes his nest
I’ve seen California’s Redwood
I’ve rode on the L&N
When my roaming days are over
I’m Alabama bound again
Singing Through My Teeth
The Jacksonville of Skynyrd’s childhood was, like the rest of the South, under the stranglehold of Jim Crow. The white residents of Shanty Town had little to no interaction with the city’s black population. The city officially outlawed segregation in 1963, but it was a slow, violent process, and in the mid-’60s, the Ku Klux Klan bombed several homes of families whose children had begun integrating the all-white public schools.
“There didn’t used to be a black anywhere around this place, this used to be nothing but old rednecks,” says Odom, who has plenty to say about the white flight that long ago turned Shanty Town into what he says is now an impoverished, drug-riddled, predominantly African-American neighborhood called “the Bottom.” According to Odom, many of the homes of his and Van Zant’s childhood neighborhood have been sold to the city and turned into public housing.
In 1970, several years before Skynyrd reached its height of popularity, legendary backup singer Merry Clayton, who had sung with artists such as Ray Charles, Carole King, and Linda Ronstadt but is today best-known for her backup vocals in the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” was sick of singing in the background and decided to take a stab at a solo career. But when her second, self-titled album, which opens with a piercing R&B take of Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” was a commercial failure and quickly forgotten, Clayton was once again relegated to the role of studio backup singer.
Just a few years after recording Young’s tune, Clayton got a call from fellow singer Clydie King asking if she wanted to sing on a new song by a band named Lynyrd Skynyrd. For Clayton, the inner conflict she felt about this particular gig was overwhelming: “[Clydie] said the song was called ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’” she said in a recent interview. “There was a silence on the phone for quite a while. I said, ‘Clydie, are you serious? I’m not singing nothing about nobody’s sweet home Alabama. Period.’”
After much deliberation, Clayton, whose ambivalence toward “Sweet Home Alabama” is highlighted in the recent documentary “20 Feet From Stardom,” decided that contributing to the song in her own way would be better than simply remaining silent. “And I got it; at that moment, it clicked in my head and I got it,” says Clayton. “So I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to go to this session, but you better believe I’m going to be singing through my teeth ‘Sweet Home Alabama.'”
Such is the reality of a song whose racial politics to this day remain, at best, eternally ambiguous. In his essay “How To Sing Along With ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’” professor and musician Drew Daniel zeroes in on the continuous allure of song’s political and racial opacity.
“Determining racism in ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ is a bit like determining anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice: both are clearly susceptible to such uses, and generate such readings for a reason, but they are also both shot through with enough counter-evidence that they remain permanently evasive,” writes Daniel. “There’s an adaptive vagueness to ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ which — along with it just being a ‘good song’— is perhaps what makes it so anthemic. You can detect within it whatever political relation to the legacy of Southern racial politics that you want, from full-dress irony and dry wit in the face of tragedy all the way along the spectrum to straight-up white-boy chest-beating Southern pride. In other words, it’s a perfect pop song.”
Sweet Home Tuskegee
Apart from a slew of rap songs that sample Ed King’s riff, it is quite rare to come across a non-white performance of “Sweet Home Alabama.” But the song is the closest thing to a hit Keenan West’s band has ever experienced.
West is a tall, handsome man who sports a completely shaved head and has a nighttime gig fronting a cover band in his native Cincinnati. When he’s not traveling for work as a motivational speaker and advocate for bullying prevention, he can be found at Jag’s Steak & Seafood, or at Carlo & Johnny, or any number of restaurants, clubs, and bars in and around his hometown.
West prides himself on his band’s versatility. On any given night, he might sing “My Way” by Frank Sinatra, “OMG” by Usher, “Hotel California” by the Eagles, “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” all in a single set. He knows what some might expect from a black singer, but when he’s on stage, he’s just as excited to sing John Mayer as he is to sing Michael Jackson. “As an African-American male, you tend to sing R&B and Motown and that type of genre,” West tells me. “I want to make sure that I represent every culture when I sing.”
For West, that included the culture that produced “Sweet Home Alabama.” The singer was looking to include some classic rock in his set when one day at rehearsal, his keyboard player Zach Shelley started playing a few chords on the piano. “I was like, ‘What song is that?’” West says. “And [Zach] was like, ‘It’s Sweet Home,’’’ and I was like, ‘That ain’t Sweet Home.’ And then I just started singing it; the way he was playing those chords made me sing it differently. We said, ‘Let’s still respect the song, but let’s change it up a bit.’”
Though immediately recognizable as the same Skynyrd song, West’s version of “Sweet Home Alabama” turns the gritty rocker into something quite different. The altered chord progression finds West’s voice flirting with the original melody, keeping the melody up high toward the end of a line when Van Zant’s voice typically drops. With its sparse accompaniment of piano, synth, and drums, West and Shelley’s arrangement transforms “Sweet Home Alabama” from Southern rock into smooth R&B, a transformation that to the casual listener doesn’t seem to have required all that much altering.
“When we started doing it, people would be like, ‘Who did that version of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’?’ It was weird. Every time we sang it people would stop. White people, black people, everyone.” Facing such positive reaction for the first time, West decided that he needed to go into the recording studio. After recording the song and filming a music video, his take on the Skynyrd classic eventually found its way onto local radio stations.
It didn’t come without its detractors. “I had this one white guy come up to me once and go ‘Hey, now why’d you sing that? Don’t you know the history of this song?”’ West says. But as quick as he is to downplay the politics behind his reinterpretation of Skynyrd’s divisive anthem, he is acutely aware of its subtle power. “The other thing that I think, believe it or not, that I’m actually proud of, and it doesn’t get talked about or may be under the radar, is that an African-American male is singing the song,” West finally lets out to me when discussing the popularity of his rendition. “The beauty of me and my buddy Zach doing it is, OK, this is Southern rock, and we went back and said ‘Hey, maybe there’s some healing here, maybe as a country we’ve seen some healing in this area of race.’ It’s the whole embodiment of me doing it as a black male, and me singing those lyrics that go back to struggles in the South.”
A few stray criticisms aside, the response to West’s “Sweet Home Alabama” has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly within his own family. When asked what he thinks of those who consider Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” to be a fundamentally racist song, West has a pointed response. “I can see that and understand that,” he says, “but when I sing that for my family, my mother’s first response, when we had a family reunion a few years ago, was ‘Hey, sing that song ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’ Because you got to remember what blacks have went through, when I sing that song for my family, it’s like ‘that’s my home. Sweet home Alabama.’”
Before he went into the studio to record “Sweet Home Alabama,” West’s mother explained to him why the song meant so much to her. “She had to remind me my grandmother is from Tuskegee,” says West, whose mother was also born in the small Alabama city that bore witness to some of the most profound tragedies and triumphs in 20th century African-American history. Without even realizing it, West had given his family a song about their very own ancestral home. Which is perhaps why he feels the very same need to resist Southern stereotypes that Van Zant decries in the original. “Let’s not just say that you don’t want to go to Alabama because they’re all racists and there are Confederate flags,” he says, “We’ve grown from that.”
In the hands of Keenan West, a song whose ambiguous racial politics remain divisive becomes a prayer for progress and healing. He takes Merry Clayton’s muted, tongue-tied presence on Skynyrd’s original recording and makes it the song’s central focus. In moving a non-white voice from background to lead, the song’s divisiveness suddenly strives toward unity, or at least a different sort of divisiveness. West cleans up Ronnie Van Zant’s mess, and then makes it even messier. He is, in a sense, a black man singing a white man’s fantasy of black Southern domesticity. Stripping the original lyric of its caricatured “Alabamy,” a direct vestige of 19th century minstrelsy, there is a tremendous weight to the last line of the first verse when West sings lament in his soulful soprano: “I miss my Alabama once again, and I think it’s a sin.”
Christmas In Al Anbar
In 1938, Irving Berlin was 50 years old and in the prime of his prolific, singular songwriting career when the prominent radio singer Kate Smith debuted his latest composition, “God Bless America.” Berlin had first composed a rough version of the song 20 years earlier, but on the eve of a Second World War, he realized he needed to find a way to raise national morale.
In his book “This Land That I Love,” music historian John Shaw noted how an anthem that defined the popular music of a previous century found its way into Berlin’s tune. “The closing line is a direct lyrical quote. By ending his song with a prominent line from the classic parlor song, ‘Home, Sweet Home,’” Shaw writes, “Berlin domesticated his patriotic vision, tying love of country to love of home. Mountains, prairies, and ocean shores are all ‘home’ because they’re all America.”
Like the chorus of “Sweet Home Alabama,” the closing refrain to “God Bless America” relies heavily on Payne’s 19th century home song, reinforcing its warm patriotism with an appeal to restful domestication. Berlin’s song became wildly popular, both at home and overseas, in the war-focused years after its ’38 debut. Much as “Home, Sweet Home” had served as the central cry for soldiers in the Civil War, Berlin’s song resonated strongly with American troops during World War II.
With “God Bless America” and “White Christmas,” a brand new Berlin tune from 1941 that also traded on rural tranquility, the Jewish immigrant’s music enraptured men and women who were proudly, wistfully dreaming of home. Berlin spent much of the early ’40s performing his musical “This Is The Army,” the centerpiece of which was “God Bless America,” for military personnel all over the world. And according to critic Jody Rosen, Berlin’s holiday tune was equally, if not more, popular. “‘White Christmas’ never mentioned the war,” writes Rosen in his book “White Christmas: The Story of an American Song,” “yet it was the more potent wartime anthem, inciting patriotism in its most primal form: homesickness.”
A year after his 2007 USO performance, Kid Rock was back again in Iraq for the holidays. One mid-December evening, Staff Sgt. D. Glenn Blanks joined his buddies at an outdoor show where Rock was the headliner. By the time Rock took the stage as the last act of the night, Blanks, an intelligence analyst stationed in Al Asad airbase, was shivering. “The guest of the night came out during the coldest part of the event,” Blanks wrote on his blog. “Upon his entrance, the audience stood to their feet, applauding and cheering for several minutes, barely able to clap, as hands were hindered by the effects of the weather.” Rock then performed a well-received set, and despite the freezing temperatures, the troops clamored for more as the evening drew to a close.
“As he was due to exit the stage, the crowd, including myself, chanted ‘One more song!’ In the spirit of the holidays and with the hopes that we would all make it home soon, we were honored to have him sing ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’ One day, we all would be home again.”
Six months before Rock had released his Skynyrd-sampling single. “All Summer Long,” was a simple summer hit, a nostalgic ode to carefree rural adolescence, with Rock singing about the easy pleasures of growing up in rural Michigan. Asked by a reporter if his mash-up pop hit introduced “Sweet Home Alabama” to many Europeans and international fans around the world, Rock said: “I thought that. But years ago, I was getting ready to play ‘Cowboy’ at this huge festival in Germany. I started riffing off ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ people started clapping and they wouldn’t stop. So I played it. There was 80,000 Germans singing along; you could hear the accents.”
With his nostalgic, Skynyrd-sampling “All Summer Long” and his repeated USO performances in Iraq and Afghanistan, Rock has helped to cement the legacy of “Sweet Home Alabama” as a contemporary, quintessential American home song. It has become one of the most prominent examples in a long lineage of American songs of weary nostalgia, of using homesickness as a means of longing for one’s youth, and one’s past. In her book “Homesickness: An American History,” Susan Matt traces the emotion’s evolution, and persistence, throughout several hundred years of the nation’s history. “It may have disappeared from adult conversation,” Matt writes, “but homesickness lurks inside the heads of many Americans.”
Indeed, homesickness has always been a primal condition of U.S. soldiers fighting overseas. Just as “Home, Sweet Home” was the anthem of choice during the Civil War, and just as Berlin’s “Home, Sweet Home”-quoting “God Bless America,” alongside “White Christmas,” were immensely popular for soldiers serving in Europe in WWII, during the first decade of the 21st century “Sweet Home Alabama” became, thanks largely to Kid Rock, the signature patriotic song for American armed forces abroad.
“When he sings it, it is transformative,” writes comedian Lewis Black, who toured Iraq with Rock in December of 2008. “He knows how to cut right through the bullshit that mires down the song with nonsense and hooey and goes straight to the gut and bone. Listening to Kid’s rendition of it, the troops are no longer knee-deep in the shitstorm that is this war in Iraq. They are singing. Their faces are aglow with smiles. It’s the rapture of rock-and-roll. Kid Rock has thrown a magic carpet out to them and whisked them home. Every time he plays that song, I cry. The roar that follows when he finishes sends a rush through my body. That roar is the sound of souls being freed from this earthly madness. It’s the sound of a real Christmas.”
And it’s not just Rock who relies on “Sweet Home Alabama” to rev up homesick troops. Purrfect Angelz, an all-female group of cheerleaders and dancers that performed overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan roughly a dozen times from 2004 to 2011, has been performing to it since the troupe’s inception. “We typically make up a routine, use it for a year, and then take it out of our set, but we still have that one in our repertoire because the crowd loves it no matter what,” Angelz founder Lisa Ligon tells me when I reach her in Los Angeles. “For me, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ is about a simple life and a simple way to live. When the troops are overseas at war, [the song] brings them back to American life, a simple blue sky, beer, girls, and country music. It brings them back home and makes them realize what they’re fighting for.”
The night Staff Sgt. Blanks went to see Kid Rock perform at Al Asad, the singer interrupted his final song of the evening to leave the shivering troops with some parting words.
“I’ll come to sing for you guys as long as you want me here, and as long as you’re here,” he said. “But to say that any of us love to be here and do what we’re doing, motherfucker, come on. I mean I could think of a lot of places I’d love to be. Let’s see, maybe on a beach in Southern Florida somewhere. Maybe up in the beautiful mountains in Colorado, skiing. How about this: maybe I’d really like to just be home with my family in my own bed and a hot shower right now.”
I Heard The U.N. Talk About Her
Menachem Herman was a young teenager in Winnipeg, Canada, when he first heard “Sweet Home Alabama.” An only child, he spent much of his youth alone, and at an early age began to take after his mother, an accomplished violinist. With a lonely fervor, he learned to play multiple instruments. He first played drums as a 6-year-old. He then quickly switched to accordion at 8, before settling, for the time being, on the bass guitar at age 12.
As a teen, Herman spent every free moment he had playing in bands with older kids. But by the time he had graduated high school, he had grown disenchanted with the music scene around him. His bandmates, fellow musicians, and friends were becoming increasingly distracted from the actual music, which was the part of being a musician that Herman loved the most. “For most people, music was becoming this vehicle to be stoned and turned off from life. For me, as an only child, music was really the only thing that turned me on to life,” Herman explains in an interview. “I was looking for something a bit more spiritual.
At the age of 20, Herman moved to Israel, where he has been living and working as a professional musician ever since. Six years ago, following three decades of singing primarily in Hebrew, he decided to incorporate songs in English into his repertoire. Performing on stage one night in Yad Binyamin, a religious settlement in central Israel, Herman explained his newest project: “Everybody has a problem with their favorite rock and roll, right? You can’t relate to the words so much if you’re a religious Jew.”
Herman has since become obsessed with using rock and pop songs to share his love of faith with Israeli’s secular majority, which includes a sizeable population of Jewish-Americans who grew up on American music. With his friend Lazer Brody, a rabbi, he has rewritten a slew of classic rock standards: “With A Little Help From My Friends” became “With a Little Help From Hashem;” James Taylor’s hit “You’ve Got a Friend” became “You’ve Got Hashem.” Herman’s favorite song though, was his remake of “Sweet Home Alabama,” which he re-wrote with Brody as “Sweet Home Jerusalem.” Herman liked it so much, he chose the track to lead off his first-ever collection of English-language rock songs.
The earnest, unselfconscious approach at spiritual enlightenment with which Herman repurposes familiar hits can be both alienating and fascinating for a secular Westerner. His most popular video, “Get Clarity,” a Rosh Hashanah-themed cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” features young men repeatedly back-flipping and a young boy repeating “Rosh Hashanah, time to get clarity” in a heavily auto-tuned, pre-pubescent falsetto. It has been viewed more than 1 million times on YouTube.
Most of the songs on “Sweet Home Jerusalem” reach the same conclusion: that spiritual introspection and submission to a higher power will solve nearly all of the worldly problems presented in American popular music. With its slick production and easy word substitution, most every track is content with the easy answers it presents.
The exception can be found in the album’s title track, where there’s a palpable sense of trouble and worry running underneath the proud Jerusalem devotional. Herman does not have to work very hard to recast Van Zant’s defensive pride of the South for the conservative minority of his adopted country. “Sweet Home Alabama” presents a generic scenario: the scrutinized underdog brave enough and proud enough to defend itself against outside pressure. It is a template of an anthem, a song that invites maligned oppositions around the world to adopt the song for their own cause, whether it’s a relentlessly proud Southerner, or an ultra-religious, militant Israeli.
Herman and Brody follow the original’s structure closely, opening the song with the type of natural, mythic imagery (“eagles’ wings keep on flying,” in place of “big wheels keep on turning”) that evokes each respective spiritual homeland. As is the case in Van Zant’s original, Herman places its most deeply felt, openly provocative, and politicized lyric in the second verse:
Well I heard the U.N. talk about her
But a Jewish boy won’t drink this brew
Uncle Sam please remember
That Jerusalem won’t be split in two
Operating without the advice, pressure, and control from a carefully run major-label marketing campaign, Menachem Herman is considerably less guarded than Ronnie Van Zant was when discussing personal politics. “There’s a real problem over here with the Arabs; they don’t like us,” he says. “Not only do they not want us to live here, they don’t want us to exist. It’s not like in the States or in Canada where you can talk about problems over a cup of coffee; these people have a completely different agenda.”
A 2008 press release for Herman’s “Sweet Home Jerusalem” project proudly boasts an anonymous description of the album: “It’s politically incorrect, & about time!” But as Herman continues to explain “Sweet Home Jerusalem,” it becomes clear that his adaptation of the Skynyrd song is intended as much more than campy humor or mere provocation. Talking about the original song, he says, “Basically it was a parallel thing where people try to tell us what to do in our hometown, just like Neil Young, who is from Winnipeg, tried to tell the Southerners what to do. The U.N. is telling Israel what to do. If there was a suicide bomber in say, Montgomery, Alabama, the United States government would not put up with it.”
When I ask him what he thinks the most important line in the song is, Rabbi Brody is quick to answer. “Jerusalem won’t be split in two,” he says. “That’s it, that’s it. Jerusalem won’t be split in two. Jerusalem will not be split in two.” (As a response to what he considers a recent lack of unilateral support of Israel from the United States, Herman has lately been changing the lyric in the second verse. “President Obama, please remember,” he sings, staring his audience straight in the eye, “That Jerusalem won’t be split in two.”)
Like the song it’s miming, “Sweet Home Jerusalem” masks its anxious defensiveness in regional pride. Embedded in both Herman and Van Zant’s proud homeland boasting is apology and embarrassment, the implication that a city, state, nation, or group of people need be celebrated openly only when it is also conflicted, even shameful of its past. For Herman, the tension between North and South that has been part of American culture since before the Civil War serves as an apt analogy for the eternal conflict between the Jews and Palestinians. And sure enough, among the English-language material that Herman has recently taken to remaking, “Sweet Home Jerusalem” has had the widest appeal. “Of all the songs we do, it actually gets the biggest applause,” he says. “We do concerts for people in different walks of life, mostly Jewish but not all, some religious and some not, and we try to find different common themes to sing about, and this one just works all the time.”
I Think It’s A Sin
Though he grew up on his dad’s favorite classic country music, as a teenager Van Zant was most fascinated by the blues of the American South as channeled through the young white musicians of the British Invasion. His first band, The Noble Five, closed each concert for several years with Cream’s arrangement of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads.” But his favorite group growing up was the blues-loving Rolling Stones. Ronnie’s life was changed when he went to see his first Stones concert at the age of 17.
“For Ronnie, the experience was transforming,” writes Gene Odom. “That night he went from pondering a career in music to steeling himself to a dream and vowing that he’d make it come true. That night Ronnie made up his mind. He was going to become Mick Jagger, Jacksonville-style.” And as his career progressed, Van Zant became a huge fan of the country blues that so inspired his favorite group.
By the mid-20th century, blackface minstrelsy had all but disappeared from American culture as an overt form of entertainment, but its vestiges have never stopped casting their shadows on our popular music. One of those legacies can be found in the home song. Writing about Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Jody Rosen describes the minstrel shadows that lurk behind the quintessential nostalgic Christmas tune, which is generally considered to be the best-selling single of all time.
“Once again, primordial American homesickness is overlapping with American racial obsession,” writes Rosen, discussing the blackface imagery present in Holiday Inn, the Irving Berlin musical that had as its signature number his immortal holiday song. “In the home song tradition we find a variation on the ‘outrageous’ sentimental dream that [literary scholar] Leslie Fielder identified in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick, where white social outcasts, forlorn and forsaken, seek solace in the arms of a black man. The musical case is slightly different from the literary one: the hapless home song dreamer wants not to be embraced by the black man but to become him.”
Gene Odom puts it similarly. “Ronnie revealed a lot about himself, including his love for the purity of expression he found in country and blues music, his respect for hard-working men of every color, and his ardent wish to be like them and be held in the same regard [emphasis added],” he writes of Van Zant’s “Ballad of Curtis Loew,” a song that was released on the same record as “Sweet Home Alabama.” The song was about a mythical, unheralded, backyard black blues picker, a composite character of the many talented, undiscovered local musicians Van Zant had grown up with, and met throughout his life.
When Van Zant sat down to write his retort to Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” surely none of these things — John Howard Payne’s “Home, Sweet Home,” blackface mimicry, the minstrel tradition of American home songs — were on his mind. Yet, listening to the opening lines of “Sweet Home Alabama,” one hears the faint echoes of Robert Hoffman, Ray Whitley, and Gene Autry. One hears a fraught longing for mammy.
One also hears, in Van Zant’s modern Dixie parlor tune, a fitting musical reference in the song’s opening line. Van Zant lifted the opening “Big wheels keep on turning” directly from the 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival hit “Proud Mary.” “Proud Mary,” later immortalized by Ike & Tina Turner, was written by John Fogerty, another outsider with rock and roll dreams who laid his claim on the Deep South, the fantastical, ancestral home of the music he loved so much. Like Fogerty, Van Zant traced the steps of Jolson and Autry, riding the very same mythical train to an imaginary Southern promised land. Forty years after Fogerty’s “Proud Mary,” the white-rapping Kid Rock drew on that very same racial longing to reinvent himself as a country star on “All Summer Long.”
There are layers upon layers of romanticizing and fantasizing in Van Zant’s opening appeal to an Alabama that he had only recently discovered when he wrote the song in 1973. Driving around the remains of Shanty Town, it is easy to imagine him finding deep comfort in the escape to the rural beauty of Northwest Alabama, which was the first place Van Zant and the band had ever spent any extended period of time outside of their less-than-idyllic west Jacksonville home.
Yet “Sweet Home Alabama,” which devotes an entire verse to the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (a.k.a. The Swampers), is as much longing to be embraced by the rich black music of the Deep South as it is a defense of, and an ode to, a state Van Zant could hardly claim he understood. Although the Swampers — who recorded hundreds of hit singles by soul legends like Percy Sledge, the Staples Singers, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, and Clarence Carter — were from Muscle Shoals, they, too, were white musicians who found a calling, and a career, in the styles, sounds, and traditions of African-American music.
When Van Zant sings “I miss Alabamy once again” in the opening verse, his use of the vaudeville-dialect Alabamy sharply, and directly, evokes the history of minstrel Alabama home songs. The second half of the under-discussed line is even more curious: “I miss Alabamy once again, and I think it’s a sin.” For a racially motivated American home song, the narrator of “Sweet Home Alabama” displays a rare self-consciousness, an awareness of the song’s desires and their origins.
“Sweet Home Alabama” is a descendant of the minstrel home song, but it is acutely mindful of its ancestors. “Singing songs about the Southland,” is the line that directly precedes Van Zant’s homesick cry for Alabama at the end of the first verse. The song’s narrator is riding a Southbound train for his utopic home he knows mustn’t exist; the only thing keeping him going are the minstrel home songs, or the “songs about the Southland” that he can sing to himself along the way. Before the second verse has even begun, “Sweet Home Alabama” is already burdened by the weight of its history. Before Neil Young, Gov. Wallace, Watergate, and The Swampers even enter the story, the nostalgic ode to a mythic “Southland” is all-too aware of its fraught ancestry.
“Sweet Home Alabama” is both a response to and a vestige of the minstrel home song. The song swiftly collapses the fantasy of utopian racial harmony, historically a defining feature of hybridized minstrel home songs about the South. Yet for all the ambiguous complexity and myth-shattering self-consciousness presented in the verses, the chorus of “Sweet Home Alabama” might as well be lifted from a Stephen Foster song or a 1930s Tin Pan Alley chart-topper. In an interview, Ed King, the former Skynyrd guitarist, compared the song’s music, and classic riff, to perhaps the most famous tune about Alabama in American history. Paraphrasing King, Alabama journalist Greg Richter writes, “In fact, the song’s repetitive rhythm and chord progressions are supposed to evoke a Stephen Foster ‘banjoish’ sound, in the vein of ‘Oh! Susannah.’”
For all of the song’s nuances, it is the chorus that has anchored “Sweet Home Alabama” to its pop immortality. Like “Home, Sweet Home,” the chorus of the song is musical comfort food, Walter Everett, professor of music theory at the University of Michigan, told Richter. “Where the skies are so blue” and “Lord, I’m coming home to you” are both pretend devotions to a land, and a home so generic that it cannot truly exist. “The casual listener probably enjoys the song’s predictable repetition in terms of both rhythm and chord progressions,” Everett notes. “In other words, the chords of the chorus are chosen so the repeated passage sounds like it’s constantly flopping into a La-Z-Boy chair.”
Once Skynyrd reached the height of its fame in the mid-’70s, Van Zant was eager to leave Shanty Town. Eventually, he bought a lake house outside the city, leaving behind his cramped, working-class neighborhood for good. The song that inspired so many to dream about a faraway Southland was just as much of a fantasy, and an escape route, for its creator.
“Ronnie loved it here because the train would come by and make a whistling noise,” Odom says while driving around the front of Van Zant’s old lakeside property outside Jacksonville, the last home he lived in before he died. “He always loved those train sounds.”
Ten years after the plane crash, the still-living members of Skynyrd decided to reunite the band, recruiting Ronnie’s younger brother Johnny as their new lead singer. Though the tour was meant as a one-off reunion, the band has been touring as Lynyrd Skynyrd ever since, most recently on the casino, state fair, and summer festival circuit generally suited for groups long past their prime. Gene Odom calls it “second-class Skynyrd.”
As one of the few rock bands willing to openly support the Republican Party, Skynyrd also finds itself booked at G.O.P conventions and conservative rallies. “Sweet Home Alabama,” which the National Review named the fourth greatest conservative rock song of all time, is usually the anthem of choice. Talk-show hosts Sean Hannity and Mike Huckabee have both performed the song with the band, and Mitt Romney personally invited Randy Owen, the lead singer of the country group Alabama, on stage during a 2012 campaign stop.
But the song’s most enduring symbolism is more often caught up in cultural rather than political skirmishes. In 2012, the band decided to stop performing in front of a Confederate flag — which it had originally done at MCA’s urging since the mid-1970s, most prominently during “Sweet Home Alabama” — citing the flag’s co-opting by racist hate groups. Diehard Skynyrd fans, who for decades viewed the band as an emblem of Southern pride and rebelliousness, were outraged, and less than two weeks later, the band reversed its decision with a lengthy apology from Rossington. “We know what the Dixie flag represents and its heritage; the Civil War was fought over States rights,” he wrote. “We still utilize the Confederate (Rebel) flag on stage every night in our shows, we are and always will be a Southern American Rock band, first and foremost.”
The quick reversal, and ensuing ambivalent apology from Rossington, was a pristine example of the band’s haphazard, noncommittal approach to the cultural politics of its time. It has always seemed as though Skynyrd intended to be the standard-bearer of lingering, messy, post-bellum Southern heritage no more than Bob Dylan wanted to be a spokesperson for the ’60s cultural revolution. “[Ronnie] just wrote those lines about ‘Southern Man,’ which seemed cute at the time, almost like a play on words. But we didn’t know that song would turn into such a huge deal,” Rossington has said.
“We’re not a ‘Southern Rock’ band.” Van Zant said a few years after the release of “Second Helping.” “We’re a band from the South.”
Several decades later, Rossington’s apology wasn’t nearly enough to placate fans who had been enraged at the mere suggestion of ever eliminating the Confederate flag from the band’s image. “Don’t ever, under any circumstances, ever, ever, for any reason, try to distance yourself from that Flag again,” wrote one fan. “We grew up listening to your brother sing about our heritage and he has always made us proud of where we come from.”
A year later, in 2013, country star Brad Paisley released, “Accidental Racist,” a clunky attempt at conciliation that enraged liberal critics with its naiveté. The opening verse, which described a white Southerner being served by a black man at Starbucks, revolved around none other than Skynyrd:
To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main,
I hope you understand.
When I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say,
Is I’m a Skynyrd fan.
The red flag on my chest somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the south.
And I just walked him right in the room.
When Kid Rock released “All Summer Long,” The Guardian asked him whether he had any reservations about sampling a song that some consider racist, comparing the song itself to the ongoing debate about the Confederate flag. “Sure, it’s definitely got some scars, but I’ve never had an issue with it,” Rock said of the flag. “To me it just represents pride in Southern rock ’n’ roll music, plus it just looks cool.”
Sweet Home Everywhere
When the Birmingham News needed someone to take over “Outside Looking In,” a Sunday column that traced what others around the country, and world, were saying about the state of Alabama, it turned to Greg Richter, who had been working as a copy-editor at the paper for almost 10 years. Richter, a middle-aged man who wears black-rimmed glasses to go with his trimmed goatee and short hair, was acutely aware of his home state’s national reputation. “Part of the column was addressing this attitude where everybody thinks we’re all racist and backwards,” says Richter. “The column was a way of seeing if people are saying good things or bad things.”
As Richter scoured the internet each day for mentions of the state in the media, he began to see a strangely common thread. “When I was doing these searches, I started noticing that I was getting a lot of results for ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’” he says in a mild twang. “It was noticeable. I was looking through all these results and I was like, ‘Why are people so interested in this song?’ Everyone kept singling it out.”
Eventually, Richter realized he might have a story. How was a ’70s rock song so greatly shaping the 21st century image of the state of Alabama? He devoted one of his weekly columns to the many mentions of the song, headlining it “Sweet Home Alabama? Sweet Home Everywhere.” The column was so well-liked that before long Richter suddenly had a new side-gig as the head writer of a blog that traced references, uses, and discussions of the song from all around the world. In his inaugural post, he explained the impulse behind his new “Sweet Home Alabama” blog: “I noticed that bands in Ireland, Australia, and Japan were playing the song. Why would they care?”
For the next six years, Richter’s beat was “Sweet Home Alabama.” He penned nearly 200 blog posts about the song’s continuing relevance, making him the world’s pre-eminent expert on its outsized, diverse cultural import. He left the paper in mid-2013, but the posts remain, a rare documentation of the meandering cultural lifespan of a popular song. Together, they argue, implicitly, that a song gains its vital energy not from its creators, but from its audience. That audience has the ability to shape a song’s legacy, influence, and relevance as it alters, reworks, and adapts the piece of music for its own beliefs, desires, and whims.
To read Richter’s blog is to see this cultural process, which often takes decades to develop, unfold in real time. He profiles a kid who has rewritten the tune as “Sweet Home Oregon” (“Now recycling does not bother me, ’cause we all like to keep it green”). He highlights a clip of young Jewish men dancing wildly to a cover band performing “Sweet Home Alabama” at an Israeli wedding. He shows Rodney Glassman, a former Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, singing “Sweet Home Arizona” as a campaign ad targeted against opponent John McCain (“Well I hope McCain will remember, our working families don’t see him around, anyhow”). He even takes note of a candy shop in England called Sweet Home Alabama, showing that for many, the title had taken on a meaning that often had almost nothing to do with the actual song.
The convoluted mix of ambiguous intention and conflicting meaning invites “Sweet Home Alabama” to be heard as a blank slate, a space where meaning could be self-determined by whomever happened to be listening. For the candy shop owners in England, it meant a catchy title that connoted exotic mystery. For a kid in Oregon, it was a flexible symbol of regional pride. For many older Southerners, it was the rare defense of an ancestral heritage that was unequivocally mocked elsewhere. For liberal Northerners who had never been south of Washington D.C., it was a reminder of a continuing ugly pride for a region’s horrific past. And for many who had never been to the Southern state, the song was Alabama.
“If you’re in another part of the country, or world,” Richter explains to me while discussing his blog, “what are you going to know about Alabama? ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ was intriguing to these people. A lot of them said the song was the reason they wanted to visit Alabama.”
Richter was born and raised in Cullman, a midsized town of 15,000, 45 minutes north of Birmingham, where he again lives today. He was never a huge Skynyrd fan, he says. For a teenager growing up in Alabama in the ’70s, Skynyrd was just part of the culture, which explains why, taking a cue from his step-cousins who named name their dog Molly after the Southern rock group Molly Hatchet, a teenaged Richter named his Lynyrd.
Richter’s attraction to “Sweet Home Alabama” stems from the same hard-to-define allure that has attracted fans for decades. When asked what he thought Ronnie Van Zant was saying in the song, he takes a moment to answer a question that has been asked and debated for 40 years. Richter’s well-considered answer shouldn’t be a revelation, but for a song that has so often managed to force its audience to take strict sides, it is.
“I bought the story that they were defending the state, they were defending it all and saying ‘Hey, that’s not everybody. You can complain about some of those people but just don’t take a dig at everybody.’ But at the same time,” Richter pauses, before explaining Van Zant’s response to Neil Young’s condemnation of the South, “they were also like … ‘You’ve got a point.’”
“And yet — and yet,” writes Diane Roberts of a song she wants so badly to loathe. “I’ve been in bars in New York and Tampa and once even London, and if ‘Sweet Home’ starts playing, something strange happens.”
On a cold Saturday night in early February, I took a train to a small town in Long Island to see Sons of Skynyrd, a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band, perform at a bar named Spanky’s.
At 9:30, Spanky’s is just waking up. The members of Sons of Skynyrd are getting their instruments ready for the long night that lies ahead. The seven-piece tribute band won’t be starting for another half-hour, but the old-smelling, wood-paneled bar is beginning to fill up. A gray-bearded man is buying shots of Patron for three leather-clad women waiting for him back at the bar’s sole table. Meanwhile, a few members of the New York chapter of the Retribution Law Enforcement Motorcycle Club arrive.
By the time Sons of Skynyrd open their set with “Saturday Night Special,” Van Zant’s typically ambiguous, satirical ode to cheap handguns, most of the crowd has inched up front toward the dance floor, primed for a night of fierce Southern rock. One of the women who had been waiting on the Patron shots is now simultaneously dancing and eating a chicken wing as Bryan Williams, the band’s lead singer, starts doing his best Ronnie.
Four hours later, most of Spanky’s Saturday night crowd is somehow still intact. It’s just about two in the morning, and Sons of Skynyrd is deep into its second set. Williams has belted through almost everything Van Zant ever wrote, but it’s hard not to notice the one song that hasn’t yet been played.
When the band begins the opening riff to its final number of the evening, the still-standing crowd starts to yell and holler. By the chorus, everyone is shouting along.
“Lord, I’m coming home to you,” they sing in unison, not quite sure to whom they are singing, or about where, but singing loudly nonetheless.
Sweet Home Everywhere, by Jonathan Bernstein, is issue no. 3 of The New New South, published June 2014.
For more information, please visit newnewsouth.com.
Author Jonathan Bernstein
Jonathan Bernstein is a freelance music journalist and fact-checker based in New York. His writing has appeared in Oxford American, Rolling Stone, Time, and American Songwriter, among others. For more information, please visit jonbernsteinwriting.com.
Photographs of Jacksonville by Jonathan Bernstein
Special thanks to Menachem Herman, Keenan West, Greg Richter, Drew Daniel, Jody Rosen, Lisa Ligon, Christian McWhirter, Gene Odom, D. Glenn Blanks, Michael Givens, Rabbi Lazer Brody, John Ratliff, Brian Lee, and Beth Schneider, Christopher Kline, and Ben Bresky.
Special thanks also to Gray Beltran, Tom Bubul, Crystal Fawn, Olivia Koski, and the rest of the team at Atavist.