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Big wheels keep on turning
A virtually identical lyric (only minus the "s" on "wheels") forms the chorus of another legendary classic rock song, Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary."
Creedence's "Proud Mary" peaked at #2 on the pop charts in 1968. A soul cover of "Proud Mary" performed by Ike and Tina Turner reached #4 in 1971. "Sweet Home Alabama" hit #8 in 1974. Big wheel(s) turning: apparently a sure-fire recipe for Billboard success.
Carry me home to see my kin
Number of Lynyrd Skynyrd band members who were actually from Alabama: zero
The band formed in Jacksonville, Florida, where founding members Ronnie Van Zant, Allen Collins, and Gary Rossington attended high school together.
Apparently "Sweet Home Florida" just didn't have the same ring.
Singing songs about the Southland
In the early 1970s, Lynyrd Skynyrd became the most popular (Confederate) flag-bearer for the emerging sub-genre of Southern Rock.
Skynyrd's sound, a bluesy strain of hard rock, was southern to the core. Besides "Sweet Home Alabama," Skynyrd recorded several other tracks explicitly rooted in southern geography—"Mississippi Kid", "Jacksonville Kid", and "Georgia Peaches."
I heard Mr. Young sing about her
I heard ole Neil put her down
Rocker Neil Young, who often incorporated progressive social commentary into his songs, criticized white Southerners' resistance to the Civil Rights Movement in songs like "Southern Man" and "Alabama."
"Sweet Home Alabama" was clearly intended as some kind of response—defiant, joking, or something in between—to Neil Young's "Southern Man."
In fact, if you listen carefully, you can hear someone beginning to sing the chorus of "Southern Man" faintly in the background of "Sweet Home Alabama." The faint snippet of "Southern Man" can be heard just after Van Zant finishes the line, "I heard Mr. Young sing about her"—it appears only on the left channel, making it much easier to hear if you're listening on headphones.
Apparently, the stray "Southern Man" lyric was recorded by the band members while they were goofing off between takes in the recording studio, then left in the final mix as a kind of "easter egg" for particularly observant fans. Like you.
A Southern man don't need him around anywhere
The lyrics of Neil Young's "Southern Man" were particularly strident:
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
Many listeners have (understandably) interpreted "Sweet Home Alabama" as a simple, hostile response to Neil Young's critical portrayal of the South.
However, the band members themselves insisted that they always admired Young and even hoped to collaborate with him on an album; the lyrical sparring between "Southern Man" and "Sweet Home Alabama," they said, was offered as a kind of tongue-in-cheek barb among friends.
Birmingham is the largest city in Alabama. In 1963, the city was the site of massive civil rights activism, as thousands of demonstrators led by Martin Luther King, Jr. sought to desegregate downtown businesses.
Birmingham was the scene of some of the most violent moments of the Civil Rights Movement.
Segregationist police chief Bull Connor unleashed attack dogs and high-pressure water cannons against peaceful marchers, including women and children; just weeks later, Ku Klux Klansmen bombed a Black church, killing four little girls.
They love the governor
George Wallace served four terms as governor of Alabama, beginning in 1963.
Wallace first became a nationally famous—some would say infamous—figure in 1963, when he marked his first inauguration as Alabama's governor by declaring, "I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!"
By the time "Sweet Home Alabama" was released in 1974, Wallace had moderated his segregationist views, but he was still known best for his earlier strident opposition to the Civil Rights Movement.
Boo Boo Boo
Is this line meant to be heard as booing of Governor George Wallace, or is it just random harmonizing?
Arguments over whether or not "Sweet Home Alabama" should be interpreted as a segregationist anthem hinge on these three little syllables.
Many listeners, over the years, have interpreted the line, "In Birmingham they love the governor," as a sign of Skynyrd's support for George Wallace and his anti-civil rights politics. But Ronnie Van Zant insisted that these lyrics are boos, written into the song to indicate disapproval of Wallace and everything he stood for.
"Wallace and I have very little in common," Van Zant once told an interviewer. "I don't like what he says about colored people." So, depending upon what "boo boo boo" means to you, "Sweet Home Alabama" could be either a pro-Wallace or anti-Wallace song.
Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscience bother you?
Watergate was the name of the political scandal that forced President Richard Nixon to resign from office in disgrace in 1974.
What is Watergate doing in a song about Alabama? One way to read the lyric would be as Skynyrd's attack against the liberals who were so outraged at Nixon's conduct during Watergate. But the line could also be read in a different way, if viewed across a regional rather than political dividing line.
Perhaps the band was speaking for the entire South, saying to Northerners, "We're not judging you as ordinary citizens for the failures of your leaders in Watergate; don't judge all of us as individuals for the racial problems of southern society, either."
Again, depending upon your interpretation of the line, you might see the song's politics as being either unapologetically reactionary or vaguely progressive.
Now Muscle Shoals
Muscle Shoals is a small town in northern Alabama famous as a center of musical talent. Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded their first album there.
Dozens of famous rock, blues, country, and folk musicians have made pilgrimages to Muscle Shoals to lay down tracks at the city's famous recording studios.
Besides Lynyrd Skynyrd, notable artists who recorded at Muscle Shoals include the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, the Allman Brothers, the Staples Sisters, Paul Simon, and Rod Stewart.
Has got the Swampers
"The Swampers" was the nickname for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, a group of highly regarded session musicians.
Though the lyric says the Swampers "could pick a song or two," in fact, the famous session musicians of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio laid down literally thousands of tracks over the years, backing artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to Bob Seger to Joe Cocker to the Oak Ridge Boys, all of whom wanted to share in the Swampers' trademark "Muscle Shoals Sound."