[Y'all enjoy this guest post by OTI good ol' boy Rob Goodman!]
“You can’t dance to that!”
Strictly speaking, that was true. Gawky white boy that I am, I can’t dance to anything, though that’s never stopped me.
“No, you can’t dance to that. ‘In Birmingham they love the Governor’? Do you know who the Governor was when that song came out?”
I did not. I did not know that there anything ethically objectionable to dancing to “Sweet Home Alabama” at a party, but I trusted my friend’s opinion and stopped then and there. That night, before I passed out, it took me three minutes on Wikipedia to discover that the Governor was George Wallace—George “Segregation Forever” Wallace—and that what I’d always imagined to be a harmlessly infectious rock song was something much darker, and more interesting.
(N.B.: I should mention here that members of the band responsible, Lynryd Skynyrd, have insisted that the song is not an endorsement of Wallace at all. I address that claim below.)
I can’t say that I’ll ever be back to the point of enjoying “Sweet Home Alabama” with an entirely easy conscience. But what I’ve lost in innocence, I’ve more than gained in respect for the song and its craftsmanship. Whatever our opinion of its implicit politics, I think we have to agree that it is an absolute master class in the art of political music. In a field with more than its share of hamfisted, unsubtle preaching to the choir, “Sweet Home Alabama” stands alone. It is, quite simply, the most effective protest song ever recorded.
Of course, most of us associate the category “protest song” with the Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger/Bob Dylan hippie-with-an-acoustic-guitar genre. “Sweet Home Alabama” is effective because it sidesteps that template entirely—but it is a protest song all the same, a protest against what the song regards as the smug political superiority of the South’s post-segregation political critics. It is effective because it absolutely devastates the song it is in dialogue with—Neil Young’s “Southern Man”—to the point that the latter would be entirely forgotten if its memory weren’t resurrected only to be dispatched like the Washington Generals every time “Sweet Home Alabama” comes on the radio. Above all, “Sweet Home Alabama” is effective because it is ubiquitous—because, even if you are a racially enlightened liberal like myself, you know at least its chorus by heart.
What are the secrets of its success?
1. It Changes the Subject
As Karl Rove once said: “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” Karl Rove should be credited in Skynyrd’s liner notes, because the song is that philosophy embodied.
Cynical as it may sound, most of us instinctively associate explanation—the reasonable, good-faith attempt at political persuasion—with weakness. Strong leaders do not explain. They assert, they state, they restate—but they do not stoop to explain. Skynyrd understood this instinctively.
Think of “Sweet Home Alabama” as a closing statement in a high-stakes debate with Neil Young (and the fact that Young and Skynyrd’s lead singer Ronnie Van Zant actually got along quite well changes none of the argument). The Canadian-born Young has just delivered a scathing indictment of the South’s legacy of slavery and racial apartheid:
I saw cotton and I saw black
Tall white mansions and little shacks.
When will you pay them back?
I heard screamin’
And bullwhips cracking
How long? How long?
Now, there were a number of more-or-less reasonable responses to this line of attack. Skynyrd might have pointed out that the South, by 1974, had at the very least openly confronted its history of racism and begun the work of desegregation. It might have attacked the hypocrisy of singling out the South for criticism, when—as civil rights leaders from MLK to Malcolm X pointed out—Northern cities remained hotbeds of de facto segregation themselves. It might have argued that American elites of all regions have had a stake in the racial caste system, and that it was a massive dodge of responsibility and false salve of the conscience to make the South alone the national scapegoat.
But all of these profitable lines of response are discarded, becausee they themselves invite rebuttals and continued argument—whereas the point is to end the conversation.
So Skynyrd’s response is something entirely different, and entirely unexpected (an unexpectedness that could only be dulled by four decades of radio rotation): “Hey—I’m from there! Now shut your Canadian mouth and listen to this awesome guitar lick.”
After all, how does the song begin?
Big wheels keep on turning
Carry me home to see my kin
Singing songs about the Southland
I miss Alabama once again
And how does the chorus begin?
Sweet home Alabama, where the skies are so blue.
This isn’t reactive or defensive—it is entirely positive. Young’s bullwhips are already far, far away, and receding into the distance—we’re in the realm of family, roadtrips, and blue skies.
And when it does come time to address the indictment of the South head-on, “Sweet Home Alabama” turns into a display of the power of logical fallacy. You might read “logical fallacy” as if it’s a bad thing—but I don’t. There’s a reason that the range of logical fallacies has a list of fancy Latin names, that the fallacies are taught and retaught in high school writing classes and in Logic 101—because, for centuries, they have been uncannily effective. We wouldn’t teach the logical fallacies if they didn’t have a deep resonance with the way people actually think—if they didn’t work.
So let’s read the second and third verses closely.
I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow
[Argumentum ad hominem]
In Birmingham they love the governor
[Argumentum ad populum]
Now Watergate does not bother me
[Non sequitur: what does Watergate have to do with the issue at hand except as an assertion of tribal identity—that is, an assertion that the band and its fans belong to the tribe not bothered by Republican electoral shenanigans?]
Does your conscience bother you? Tell the truth
[Tu quoque: in other words, “I know you are, but what am I?”]
And that, outwardly, is all the argument the song engages in. As I claim below, there’s a much more interesting subtext beneath all of this—but on the level of text, “Sweet Home Alabama” is characterized by its refusal to get into an argument it might lose. And that’s why we remember it. Family, kickin’ basslines, and jaunty putdowns—would you rather dance to that, or a song about bullwhips? “Sweet Home Alabama” is not the kind of argumentation that wins high school debate meets—but it is exactly what actually wins hearts and minds in the real world of opinion shaping.
Before moving on, I do want to address the claim that the song is not in fact an endorsement of Wallace. As 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.” Producer Al Kooper added that “the line ‘We all did what we could do’ is sort of ambiguous. ‘We tried to get Wallace out of there’ is how I always thought of it.”
Now, I take these statements about intent at face value—I believe that Skynyrd had no intention of backing Wallace or his divisive agenda. But on the level of the song itself, the defense is a weak one. “Boo! Boo! Boo!” might represent the Southern resistance to Wallace—but as far as we know, it might also stand for the voice of critics like Young who (as Northern elitists) boo Wallace. Essentially, we have no idea who’s boo-ing, or even if these are nothing more than meaningless syllables of backup singing. As Van Zant himself conceded, Skynyrd’s ostensible point was vague enough to be entirely missed by the public—just as the line “We all did what we could do” is also vague to the point of meaninglessness. The only unambiguous line here states that the people of Alabama love their openly racist governor—and the song considers that itself a salient point.
But even if we grant both Van Zant’s and Kooper’s defenses, the essential character of the song is unchanged. It’s not a full-throated endorsement of Wallace—but it is a breezy dismissal of those who would use him to define the character of the state and the region as a whole. Its message is not, of course, “segregation forever!” It is: “leave us alone!” To be sure, a book could be written on how the second message historically enabled the first. But let’s move on.
2. You Didn’t Know It Was a Protest Song
This fall, I watched the final of the Rugby World Cup on an outdoor Jumbotron in Nelson, New Zealand. And as the clock ran out and the rugby-mad Kiwis screamed in celebration of their first championship in a quarter-century, the band at a nearby pub struck up with—“Sweet Home Alabama.”
Long after its political sell-by date, it remains the soundtrack to everything from KFC commercials to antipodean rugby victory. “Sweet Home Alabama” might have begun as a song by and for Southerners, but it’s become well-nigh universal, a permanent artefact of global pop culture. It’s done so by keeping its politics cannily below the surface level. If it is no longer treated as a partisan song, that’s because it takes great pains to sound, at least on first hearing, apolitical.
Contrast that with other well-known message-bearing songs, anything from “The Times They Are a-Changin’” to the more recent “When Bush Talks to God.” These songs identify themselves as political from the very first bar; we know exactly which side they’re on. It can be inspiring and affirming to listen to a song like that if you happen to be on the same side. But if you happen to be on the other side, how likely are you to rethink your own views just because your enemy decided to set his message to music? From the moment we identify such a song as “property of the other side,” our cognitive defenses help us to tune the message out.
“Sweet Home Alabama,” like a musical Trojan Horse, evades those defenses. It’s more concerned with imagery than argument. It largely stays away from political buzzphrases (with the exception of Watergate, which is mentioned deep in the third verse, only to be dismissed). It names no politicians or national figures—only Neil Young, a fellow rocker.
Nor does its sound set off “protest song” alarm bells. There’s a reason that the classic protest song is musically unadorned, often just a single voice backed by guitar. That’s a sound that tells us, “pay attention—the words here are more important than usual.” But “Sweet Home Alabama”’s signature feature isn’t bare-bones lyricism at all—it’s a classic-rock guitar riff.
As a song that manages to be both Southern and universal, “Sweet Home Alabama” resembles nothing so much as its musical ancestor: “Dixie.” The day after Robert E. Lee’s surrender in the Civil War, President Lincoln addressed celebratory crowd at the White House and ended his remarks like this:
I propose now closing up by requesting you play a certain piece of music or a tune. I thought “Dixie” one of the best tunes I ever heard. I had heard that our adversaries over the way had attempted to appropriate it. I insisted yesterday that we had fairly captured it. I presented the question to the Attorney-General, and he gave his opinion that it is our lawful prize.
Of course, this raises the question: “If ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ has become so ubiquitous, isn’t that because it’s become politically irrelevant? It might have been a topical protest song in the ‘70s—but by now, hasn’t it mellowed into just another rock song?”
It’s true that the political conversation has moved well beyond Watergate, George Wallace, and the rest. But most topical songs are quickly forgotten. “Sweet Home Alabama” remains relevant because its surprising central point has, in the manner of all great political art, grown independent of its original political context and remains adaptable to new contexts that Skynyrd never envisioned.
3. It Kinda Has a Point
When someone asks you what you think about “Palestine,” or “Cuba,” or “Tibet,” what are they really asking?
Chances are really good that they are not asking you about the food, or the climate, or the local customs, or the literature, or any of the other things that make up a place. They’re asking you about a political situation, and using the place as shorthand to get the point across. As a kind of metaphor, it’s a lot more efficient to ask “What do you think about Palestine?” in lieu of “What do you think about the Israeli occupation, and Hamas, and the 1967 borders, and the West Bank settlements, etc., etc.?”
But when, through overuse, we start to take that kind of metaphor literally, there are serious consequences. Places, in all their richness, get reduced to issues. People, in all their complexity, get reduced to political cartoons. And it’s really useful when someone comes along to remind us, “Hey—there’s a lot more to this place than the fact that it figures in a political controversy. Maybe you should put the issue aside for a minute and learn some more about the actual, concrete, not-so-easily reduced place.” In other words: “Hey—I’m from there!”
“Sweet Home Alabama’s” most lasting legacy is as a protest against this issue/place substitution. Its deeper point is that “What do you think about the political situation in Alabama?” does not exhaust the scope of the question “What do you think about Alabama?”
No, roadtrips, kin, and “songs about the Southland” are not a substantive answer to the political challenges raised by the likes of Neil Young. But they are a valuable reminder of how much is lost when life is flattened into politics. “Sweet Home Alabama” stands as a testament to the humanity of those whom we eye suspiciously across political divides, whether in the ‘70s or the present. It asks us to see our opponents from the perspective of their own kin and suggests that, aside from the opinions that we find abhorrent, they are as likely to be decent as we are.
Does that absolve them of the fact that they “love the governor” and his bigoted policies? Of course not. Writing at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates rightly criticizes “the ‘good guy’ defense for racist utterances. The implicit idea is that only orcs and child-molesters exhibit hateful bigotry. It’s a deeply self-comforting line of thought, that allows people to excuse all sorts of evil, unintentional and otherwise, in their midst.”
So as we listen to “Sweet Home Alabama” with the benefit of several decades’ hindsight, we are confronted with this paradox about the Alabamans it lionizes: on the most salient political issue of their time, they were wrong; they were also, by the song’s testimony, otherwise good people. It can be almost unbearable to hold those two thoughts in our minds at the same time. We want our enemies to be monsters, perhaps to cover up their similarities to us, perhaps to relieve ourselves of the burden of persuading them; we want to believe that the goodness we see in ourselves and our kin absolves us of bigotry. But social progress of any kind depends on living with the paradox, because social progress is self-criticism in action: it happens when we, who seem to ourselves so good, come to see ourselves as both good and wrong.
I won’t claim that Skynyrd intended this last and deepest point. But it, too, is part of their song’s legacy. If “Southern Man” speaks to the evil of bigotry, “Sweet Home Alabama” speaks to the sometime goodness of bigots. We shouldn’t forget either one.
Rob Goodman is the co-author of a book on Cato and the Roman Republic, due out in 2012. He’s written for sites including The Atlantic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Guernica. You can read his previous contribution to Overthinking It, “The Wire and the Virtues of Addiction,” here.