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“Sweet Home Alabama”

Posted by purplemary54 on June 22, 2013

Special thanks to Sandee for making me think about this song again.

I love “Sweet Home Alabama.”  There.  I said it.  I love this song.  It’s a slow burn of sweet tea, barbecue, and beer that just makes me smile.  The song is humid and languid, much like the place that inspired it.   But it’s also a song that I think has a lot more depth than it’s surface implies.

Right from the opening, when Ronnie Van Zant calls out “Turn it up,” this song takes you someplace different.  I always feel compelled to turn up the volume whenever he says that, like if you listen to it hard enough–and loud enough–something will be revealed.  It’s like an invitation to a secret club, an opening to a place that only lives in dreams.  The “Sweet Home Alabama” that Van Zant sings about isn’t Alabama so much as it is home.  It’s the place where your best memories were made, where you feel comfortable and free.

Many people, both pro and con, associate this song with the worst impulses of the South–with racism and sexism and general stupid redneck-ism.  It didn’t help that Lynyrd Skynyrd would fly the stars & bars at their concerts, or that the song itself was supposedly written as an angry response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man”, a song calling racist rednecks on their bullshit.  Skynyrd played up their working class redneck roots partly to sell records, partly because it was what they knew.  I’m sure it was a big part of who they were.  These guys grew up in a world where everybody had gun racks on the back of their trucks and Confederate flags hanging in their houses.  They lived in world where it was the War of Northern Aggression, Robert E. Lee was considered a saint, and the South would rise again, by god.  Whether they were racists themselves, or believed any of the claptrap idiot local politicians spouted, is up for debate.  But people have used “Sweet Home Alabama” as an example of a song that champions bigotry and arrogance.

I’ve never felt that way, even after I learned about all the troubled history of the South.  The romantic myths so many attribute to the South is nothing more than violence and evil.  Slavery, Jim Crow, the KKK–and that doesn’t even take what happened to the Native Americans into account.  But “Sweet Home Alabama” is about an Alabama that only exists in the minds of Lynyrd Skynyrd.  It’s about that mythical place we all have in our hearts and minds: the place where we grew up.  We whitewash (pun intended) the faults of the real place, if we were even aware of them in the first place.  Kids are smart, but they’re not always that observant.  They tend to focus on the things that involve them, and ignore anything that doesn’t.  Our childhood memories take on a soft focus that discounts any reality.  Hell, when it comes down to it, Ronnie Van Zant and the rest of Skynyrd weren’t even from Alabama; they grew up in Jacksonville, Florida.  If they were singing about “Sweet Home Alabama,” then they really were singing about a home that didn’t exist.

Which brings me back to why I love this song.  It isn’t about a place filled with racism and hate.  It’s about being with your family and friends in the place you call home, wherever that happens to be.  Alabama, Florida, New York, California.  It’s all the same in the end.  It’s the place you love, filled with people you love.   Take off your coat and stay a while.  Put your feet up and have a cold drink.  It might not be perfect, but it’s home and it’s yours.

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4 Responses to ““Sweet Home Alabama””

  1. Oh, I love this song too. It’s a feel good song

  2. Sandee said

    This song is so infectious, I couldn’t help but see it for its charm. There’s something humble about the way Van Zant says:

    In Birmingham they love the governor
    Now we all did what we could do
    Now Watergate does not bother me
    Does your conscience bother you?
    Tell the truth

    Oh and of course I do love the antithesis, Southern Man.

    • When you quote that verse, it becomes kind of clear that Van Zant and company were kind of on the pre-Civil Rights side of the argument. “Now we all did what we could do” sounds like trying to work around the racist idiots that tried to stop desegregation. I’ve always wondered about the Watergate part, though. Why wouldn’t he be bothered by political corruption? “Sweet Home” isn’t as overtly political as “Southern Man” but it gets a few good jabs in. And both are totally awesome songs.

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