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In the 1950s and '60s, Alabama was ground zero for the Civil Rights Movement.
It was in Alabama that Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. Martin Luther King led protest marchers on a long walk from Selma to Montgomery. In Birmingham, police attacked civil rights demonstrators with dogs and fire hoses, and Ku Klux Klansmen blew up a black church, killing four little girls attending Sunday School inside.
Social change—racial change—came to Alabama in a hurry… but not without generating stiff resistance from more than a few tradition-minded white folks who liked things just fine under the old Jim Crow system of racial segregation. They rallied around their defiant governor, George Wallace, who marked his inauguration into office in early 1963 by declaring, "I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."
To many outsiders—especially to liberal-minded people from the North—white Alabamians' militant defense of the color line seemed, simply, indefensible.
Neil Young certainly saw things that way. The Canadian-born rock legend recorded a pair of tracks, "Southern Man" and "Alabama," ripping white southerners for standing in the way of progress. "Southern man," Young sang, "better keep your head / Don't forget what your Good Book says / Southern change gonna come at last / Now your crosses are burning fast."
The southern men who comprised Lynyrd Skynyrd were huge fans of Neil Young and his music, but they felt that Young had gone too far in launching his broadside attack against the entire South and all its (white) people. The Skynyrd boys weren't racists; what gave Neil Young the right to judge them? Or, as band frontman Ronnie Van Zant put it in a 1974 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, "We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks to kill one or two." Not every southern man was a cross-burning bigot; was every white southerner supposed to feel ashamed merely for being who he was?
So Lynyrd Skynyrd went into an Atlanta recording studio late in 1973 to cut "Sweet Home Alabama", a record self-consciously designed to serve as the South's answer to "Southern Man" and "Alabama." The result was the biggest hit of their career (and a much bigger hit than either of the Neil Young tunes that inspired it), a hard-rocking anthem of southern pride that remains a staple of frat party DJs and classic-rock radio stations to this day. Few would argue against the idea that "Sweet Home Alabama" is worthy of consideration for any shortlist of the greatest rock songs ever.
So there's not much question that "Sweet Home Alabama" was a success, as a song. But did it succeed as the South's answer to northern criticisms of southern culture?
That all depends on what you think the song actually means. We know that the song was written as a direct response to a couple of Neil Young tunes criticizing southerners for racism. We know that the song invokes a series of hot-button political references—to segregationist Governor George Wallace, to the city of Birmingham where much bloody violence occurred during the Civil Rights Movement, to President Nixon's Watergate scandal. We know that that key verse ends with Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant sneering that all that stuff "does not bother me / does your conscience bother you?"
But we really don't know exactly what that means.
Many fans (and critics) have heard the song as a simple and straightforward attack on Neil Young (and northerners in general) and a militant defense of the South, its traditional "good ol' boy" culture, and perhaps even its system of white supremacy. In this interpretation, the song is a kind of redneck anthem, defiantly flipping the bird to sanctimonious liberals and northerners. A casual listen to the lyrics certainly lends itself easily to this interpretation, as does the enduring image of Lynyrd Skynyrd performing the song live before thousands of (almost entirely white) fans with a giant Confederate battle flag hanging behind the stage and hundreds more waving in the crowd.
But there's another way to hear the song, in which "Sweet Home Alabama" sends a much more complex and nuanced message than most people usually think. Interestingly, it is this alternative interpretation that seems to have been favored by Lynyrd Skynyrd and, perhaps surprisingly, also by Neil Young.
In this version, the song is less a defense of the worst aspects of modern southern history than a simple reminder that northerners have their own problems and that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. In this version, the backup singers' chorus ("Boo! Boo! Boo!") after the line about loving George Wallace is intended to signal the band's disapproval of the segregationist governor's racial politics; the next line, "we all did what we could do," might then mean that they had tried to work against him. "Now Watergate does not bother me" might be understood as something more than a line designed simply to aggravate liberal foes of President Nixon. It might be heard, instead, as Van Zant arguing that he wasn't judging all individual northerners to be bad people because their president had committed bad acts; they shouldn't judge him for the things George Wallace did either.
So… "Does your conscience bother you?"
Like any work of art, "Sweet Home Alabama" means what its listeners think it means. It's fascinating that both Neil Young and George Wallace reportedly loved the song. Ronnie Van Zant and the band worked the ambiguity to great effect; they performed beneath the stars and bars but also called the eruption of Confederate paraphernalia among their fans "embarrassing." They publicly criticized George Wallace's racism, but happily accepted the governor's invitation to personally anoint them Grand Marshalls of the State of Alabama. They told Neil Young, in so many words, that "a Southern Man don't need him around," but continued to idolize the man and his music; Ronnie Van Zant often wore a Neil Young t-shirt in concert, and was hoping to collaborate with him on a new record before those plans were destroyed by the plane wreck that killed Van Zant and two of his bandmates in 1977.
That tragic accident made it impossible for Ronnie Van Zant to further clarify what "Sweet Home Alabama" meant to him.
So what's it mean to you?