“Sweet Home Alabama” is a song by Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd that first appeared in 1974 on their second album, Second Helping.
It reached number 8 on the US chart in 1974 and was the band’s second hit single. The song was written in reply to “Southern Man” and “Alabama” by Neil Young; Young is name-checked in the song’s lyrics.
None of the three writers of the song were from Alabama; Ronnie Van Zant and Gary Rossington were both born in Jacksonville, Florida, whilst Ed King was from Glendale, California. In an interview with Garden & Gun, Rossington explained the writing process. “I had this little riff,” he said. “It’s the little picking part and I kept playing it over and over when we were waiting on everyone to arrive for rehearsal. Ronnie and I were sitting there, and he kept saying, ‘play that again’. Then Ronnie wrote the lyrics and Ed and I wrote the music.”
“Sweet Home Alabama” was a major chart hit for a band whose previous singles had “lazily sauntered out into release with no particular intent”. The hit led to two TV rock show offers, which the band turned down. In addition to the original appearance on Second Helping, the song has appeared on numerous Lynyrd Skynyrd collections and live albums.
“Sweet Home Alabama” was written as an answer to two songs, “Southern Man” and “Alabama” by Neil Young, which dealt with themes of racism and slavery in the American South. “We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two,” said Ronnie Van Zant at the time. The following excerpt shows the Neil Young mention in the song:
Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow
In his 2012 autobiography Waging Heavy Peace, Young commented on his role in the song’s creation, writing “My own song ‘Alabama’ richly deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record. I don’t like my words when I listen to it. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue”.
Van Zant’s other response was also controversial, with references to the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace (a noted supporter of segregation) and the Watergate scandal:
In Birmingham, they love the governor (boo boo boo)
Now we all did what we could do
Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscience bother you?
Tell the truth
Sweet home Alabama, oh, sweet home baby
Where the skies are so blue and the governor’s true
Music historians point out that the choice of Birmingham in connection with the governor (rather than the capital Montgomery) is significant for the controversy as “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… [and] 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.”
In 1975, Van Zant said: “The lyrics about the governor of Alabama were misunderstood. The general public didn’t notice the words ‘Boo! Boo! Boo!’ after that particular line, and the media picked up only on the reference to the people loving the governor.” “The line ‘We all did what we could do’ is sort of ambiguous,” Al Kooper notes. “‘We tried to get Wallace out of there’ is how I always thought of it.” Towards the end of the song, Van Zant adds “where the governor’s true” to the chorus’s “where the skies are so blue,” a line rendered ironic by the previous booing of the governor. Journalist Al Swenson argues that the song is more complex than it is sometimes given credit for, suggesting that it only looks like an endorsement of Wallace. “Wallace and I have very little in common,” Van Zant himself said, “I don’t like what he says about colored people.”
Music historians examining the juxtaposition of invoking Richard Nixon and Watergate after Wallace and Birmingham note that one reading of the lyrics is an “attack against the liberals who were so outraged at Nixon’s conduct” while others interpret it regionally: “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”.