Lynyrd Skynyrd, Second Helping (1974)

Despite living in the south, or at least a Disneyfied offshoot of it, I don’t care much for the south and their fine traditions like worshiping dead racists and traitors. I’ve read most everything the brilliant Stephen Crane has written, but still refuse to read The Red Badge of Courage. When I learned that an arsonist burned down Margaret Mitchell’s house no less than three times, I laughed for a long, long time.

And yet, inexplicably, I like southern rock. Sure, guys from New York and Detroit and Liverpool did it better, but the musical melting pot of the south was where it all started. Of course, these southern rock guys couldn’t hold a candle to their predecessors like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, but something about those brash, swaggering, infectious grooves gets me in a way I can’t quite explain. This song has been called the “standard bearer” of the genre, and exemplifies everything that is good, and bad, about southern rock.

It’s all Neil Young’s fault, really. Never one to hold back his feelings, Young penned the caustic tune “Southern Man” for his 1970 album After the Gold Rush. A vicious and chilling attack with images of cotton fields, bullwhips, and burning crosses, it’s probably angry Young at his best. “Sweet Home Alabama” started out as a tribute to Muscle Shoals (www.mssound.com), the great R&B studio where giants like Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin recorded. Little remains of that except the verse where they namedrop the studio and their in-house band, The Swampers. Instead, the song became dominated by a response to Young and a reflexive defense of the south. Young liked the song, though; he and the band were mutual admirers. Young even played part of the song at one of his concerts as a tribute to them.

Really, though, the politics are appalling. “Watergate does not bother me”? Not great constitutional thinkers here. And “In Birmingham they love the gov' nor”, that governor being George Wallace, whose great shining moment was to block a schoolhouse door and make a speech against desegregation. Yet it is a stirring tribute to their not quite home state – the core of Lynyrd Skynyrd went to high school together in Jacksonville.

It was Warren Zevon who would have the last cynical, biting word on his 1980 album Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School. The song “Play It All Night Long” is a bitter southern gothic vision with the chorus:

Sweet home Alabama
Play that dead band's song
Turn those speakers up full blast
Play it all night long

“That dead band” referring to, of course, the 1977 plane crash which wiped out most of the band, including Ronnie VanZant. Zevon aside, most everyone seems to like this song, including murderers and convicts. One of the most memorable moments of the otherwise lackluster Con Air was Steve Buscemi’s character commenting upon the sight of a planeload of convicts cavorting to this song: “Define irony: bunch of idiots dancing on a plane to a song made famous by a band that died in a plane crash.”

Turn it up!

Big wheels keep on turning
Carry me home to see my kin
Singing songs about the Southland
I miss Alabamy once again
And I think its a sin, yes

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

Sweet home Alabama
Where the skies are so blue
Sweet Home Alabama
Lord, I'm coming home to you

In Birmingham they love the gov' nor
Boo hoo hoo
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
Where the skies are so blue
Sweet Home Alabama
Lord, I'm coming home to you
Here I come Alabama

Now Muscle Shoals has got The Swampers
And they've been known to pick a song or two
Lord they get me off so much
They pick me up when I'm feeling blue
Now how about you?

Sweet home Alabama
Where the skies are so blue
Oh Sweet home
Sweet home Alabama
Lord I'm coming home to you
And the gov'nor's true
Sweet home Alabama
Where the skies are so blue
Oh Yeah
Sweet home Alabama
Lord I'm coming home to you

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