Certain Songs #1062: Lynyrd Skynyrd – “Sweet Home Alabama”

Album: Second Helping
Year: 1974

“Turn it up!”

So many angles to come at this one from. I mean, first off, there’s the fact that Lynyrd Skynyrd weren’t even from Alabama, but like Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and the Allmans, were from northern Florida.

Or how about the weird coincidence that I’m writing and posting this during a moment where Alabama is central to the national political conversation in a way it hasn’t been in years.

Or maybe the fact that this declaration of state pride was a nationwide Top Ten single in 1974?

Those are all good, but c’mon, you know it’s gotta be “Sweet Home Alabama” as a proto diss track:

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 anyhow

With the main riff and solos coming from replacement bassist turned third guitarist Ed King, “Sweet Home Alabama” was a veritable hook machine, adding new wrinkles throughout. In truth, it could probably just gotten by on the unfolding and refolding main riff and the massive singalong chorus, but the more you listen to it — and let’s face it, given that it was a Top Ten single during the exact moment I was glued to AM radio, and was an instant FM staple, to boot, that number is probably in the 100s, maybe 1000s — the more you find.

For example, listen to how producer Al Kooper deploys the background singers — Clydie King, who sang on Exile on Main St. then backed Bob Dylan for a decade, and Merry Clayton, who had that apocalyptic moment in “Gimme Shelter” — sliding them in with ooohs at the beginning of the second verse, and then doubling down on “Southern man don’t need him around,” and later with the joyous “Hoommmmmmmmmme Alabama hooommmmmmmmmmmmme” at the end of the guitar solo.

It was such a great song that even Neil Young couldn’t resist, declaring himself a fan of the song and of the band. Not only did he supposedly write “Powderfinger” for them — I go back and forth on being sad about this, because on one hand, that would have been cool, but on the other, it might have kept Neil from recording what just might be his greatest song — and at least according to a legend I heard in a song, was a pallbearer at Van Zant’s funeral.

Well maybe. In this case, I’m going to print the legend, because it’s way more fun. Meanwhile, back in “Sweet Home Alabama” proper, Van Zant’s booed the segregationist governor, praised Patterson Hood’s father, declared himself not bothered by Watergate, and asked you about your own conscience. Tell the truth.

The is pretty heady stuff for — once again — a top ten single in the dead center of the 1970s.

In the end, Billy Powell brings “Sweet Home Alabama” to its fade with a rollicking honky-tonk piano solo, and it’s time for the interpretations and controversy to begin.

“Sweet Home Alabama”

“Sweet Home Alabama” performed live in Oakland, 1977

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2 Responses to “Certain Songs #1062: Lynyrd Skynyrd – “Sweet Home Alabama””

  1. Ira Brooker says:

    It drives me nuts that Skynyrd has become the default shorthand for “ignorant redneck” music. As you point out, there was a ton of social consciousness, wry wit, and even satire tucked away in Ronnie Van Zant’s lyrics. Hell, “Things Going On” is a straight-up call for the government to get out of Vietnam and invest in social welfare programs in the ghetto. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I reckon the whole right-wing redneck aspect was mostly a post-crash cash-in for a band that should have died with its leader.

  2. Jim Connelly says:

    Nope, that’s exactly right. And (as I’ll point out in my very next post), “Saturday Night Special” was anti-handgun, and called for confiscation!

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