[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.
I, for one, did not find “The Wire and the Virtues of the Addiction” particularly pervious.
I think a lot of songs are protest songs in disguise. Two that spring to mind are “Born in the USA,” which Reagan himself tried to appropriate, and “Keep on Rockin’ in he free World”.
I always took the lines–
“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”
–to mean that just as Nixon’s guilt with regards to the Watergate break-ins isn’t shared by the American people in general, the guilt associated with Wallace’s actions shouldn’t be shared by the people of Alabama. Leaders are elected, and, whether you support them or not, ultimately the morality of the actions those leaders take lies with the leaders alone.
Don’t think that was the intent at all. To me it seems he’s simply pointing out the hypocrisy of the Northerners harping on the South when they have an even bigger scandal going on in their own backyard.
“We all did what we could do” strikes me as the band pointing out the intractable nature of the problem. Segregation was violent and oppressive, but on the other hand the end of segregation as we saw utterly destroyed Birmingham and turned a jewel of the South in to a third world ghetto just as Wallace and his supporters predicted. Segregation was bad. So was desegregation. There were no easy answers to the problem. It was a vexing moral dilemma that folks were earnestly trying to muddle through.
Well, if human beings never treated other human beings like shit since the dawn of everything, things would be so much better today…and tomorrow.
As a struggling southern longhair I was both a) appalled by the George Wallace chorus in the song but also b) completely sympathetic to the line “we all did what we could do.” If the song had come out after The Sex Pistols instead of before I think it would have been better understood: Watergate? Racist governors? Like anybody in the south was going to listen to what stringy white draft-dodgers from Jacksonville, Atlanta, Knoxville or Huntsville thought about it anyway. (“We all did what we could do” almost certainly wasn’t a statement of pride. More like standard youth powerlessness.)
For the record, about the same time the song came out I left home for the first time. Hitchhiking was very popular, relatively acceptable to non-conservatives, and surprisingly safe. On my way to Boston for the first time I got picked up in north New Jersey by a guy who, upon hearing I was from the south, spent maybe 45 minutes basically dumping Neil Young’s lyrics on me: “how can you beat other human beings with bullwhips?” “Don’t you realize black people have the same rights we do?” On, and on, and on like every white kid in the south got lynch-mob lessons in P.E. and burnable-cross building in wood shop.
Seriously, no kidding, at right about the 45-minute mark there was a newsbreak: a mob of angry whites were stoning a school bus full of African American kids… in Boston!
The guy just pulled his neck in and without the least hint of irony started trying to explain how whites attacking buses full of little kids, or for that matter white rioters stabbing an African American lawyer, in broad daylight, on the front steps of Boston City Hall, with the staff of an American flag no less, was somehow supposed to be different.
“Sweet home” indeed. And unlike some of us anyway, he had not yet “done what he could do.”
The point of the song, therefore, is not that unlike Neil Young’s characterization Alabama was some kind of bastion of racial harmony. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now. Instead the point was that in the context of anti-integration rioting and violence all around the country Young’s songs weren’t helping. As evidenced by the guy who deplored my (nonexistent) application of bullwhips but excused the Pulitzer Prize winning photographic evidence that “Northern Man” also needed to start keeping his head, that they needed to remember what their good book said, that change was coming fast, and that they were just as much on the wrong side of history as too much of the rest of the country was. As we see from current events in Maine to Oregon to Georgia to Connecticut to, yes, Alabama too often still is.
Note: while there was (and sadly still is) plenty of racism to go around in my home town in 1974 our schools had been quietly and relatively smoothly integrated for ten to twelve years. No bombings. No riots. No real foot dragging even. Oh, and enthusiastic receptions for both Lynard Skynard and Neil Young concerts.
The arguments that you so convincingly make lead me to think not only that this song isn’t an effective protest song, but that it may not be a protest song at all.
Your first point is that they change the subject from Neil Young’s song, but the subject they move on to has nothing to do with protest. I think of protest music as a form of defiance, a way to bring up an ignored problem, a call to arms, or a way to give a voice to the oppressed. Changing the subject is a way to try to shut down protest, draw attention away from it. If Lynyrd Skynyrd had changed the subject to something that could be done about racism or to a different problem, perhaps one more salient to the Southern Man at that time, then it might have been a protest song. Instead, as you yourself point out, it mostly mentions things no one condemns (seeing your kin, singing songs) or, as you further point out later, dismisses anyone making the argument that there is a problem as irrelevant.
As to your second point, I would argue that people not noticing that it’s a protest song means it’s failing to be one. Protest songs have a purpose. They try to impart a message, or motivate people into action, even if they attempt to do it subtly. Jay mentioned that many people don’t realize that “Born in the USA” is a protest song, but that’s because they are missing the irony (which, frankly, is a little hard to miss if you hear any lyrics other than the chorus). I think we can all agree that Lynyrd Skynyrd is not being ironic about their love for Alabama. Born To Run uses an anthemic, patriotic chorus to bring you in and then tries to get you angry by showing all the things that are wrong with the country you love. Sweet Home Alabama draws you in with an anthemic pro alabama chorus and cool guitar licks and then says “hey, we know things aren’t great, but we gave fixing things a shot and it didn’t really work out. And anyway, we don’t really care what you think of us cause you guys are no saints and aren’t even from here.” Also, being able to easily ignore the message of a song isn’t a sign of effectiveness if its purpose is to spread that message.
Thirdly, the point that the song is trying to make, the one that is so often ignored all over the world, is contradictory to the goals of protest. This song is defending the status quo, while admitting that it is far from perfect, by arguing against, or changing the subject away from, those who wish to attack it through artistic dialogue. They are highlighting the nice parts of the dominant, possibly oppressive, culture to tell “outsiders” to shut up, while making excuses (we all did what we could do) for not having fixed the problem themselves. L.S. may not be actively defending wallace, but they are, somewhat obliquely, advocating against change.
Perhaps all this means that the song is a “message” song, not a “protest” song. If it is a message song, however, it means that if any of us defend it ( I enjoy the song), we are defending a message of reluctant tolerance towards racism. Personally, I’d rather listen to it as a somewhat knee-jerk, but finely crafted, reaction to an insult from a mostly apolitical band ( though perhaps this view is faulty. I’m not super well versed in the Skynyrd oeuvre).
[please forgive any typos, repetitiveness, or other problems with writing. I’ve been writing this in snippets over the course of a whole work day]
Perhaps I’m misreading; your comment leads me to believe that you feel “protest” songs should necessarily be protesting *against* something. Would you call “Revolution” a protest song but “Give Peace a Chance” a “message” song because the former is about rejecting negativity and the latter is about embracing positivity?
what I was trying to say, perhaps poorly, is that a song trying to impart a message doesn’t immediately make it a protest song. One has to look at what that message actually is. And for me, a protest song has a message that stands in opposition to the status quo, either by being “against” it or by encouraging an alternate path for society to follow.
Give Peace A Chance could be construed as protest against most governments’ tendency to use force. Also, it protests against the opposition elites’ (part of the status quo) habit of only talking about change by proposing a ridiculously simplistic course of action.
In Revolution, however, Lennon, by telling those who want to see the end of the status quo that he won’t join their cause and that everything’s going to be “all right,” is discouraging change. He’s, therefore, defending with the status quo. In a way it’s similar to SHA because it focuses on telling people who want to see change to chill the hell out.
[Personally, the fact that Lennon got the whole “it’s gonna be alright” thing so wrong and that his whole plan of action for better world was something as reductive as “givi[ing] peace a chance” is why I think Lennon was at his weakest when dealing with politics]
The ‘status quo’ Sweet Home Alabama is criticizing is that Americans demonized and exoticized the South, and believed that it embodied everything that was wrong with the US, in a uniquely intense and extreme way. This ‘status quo’ was very good rhetoric from a certain point of view–it associates all these bad qualities with the South and thus makes everybody else in the US ashamed of any resemblance to the South. It’s very much like the way people implicitly demonize Islam in the US by calling Christian extremists “American Taliban” or accusing them of trying to ‘impose Christian Sharia law’ or things like that. It’s rhetoric that’s very effective against its target, for a while, until it backfires in various ways.
“it remains the soundtrack to everything from KFC commercials to antipodean rugby victory… it’s become well-nigh universal, a permanent artefact of global pop culture.”
This is mystifying to me, though of course the irony isn’t as great as in another, similar, case: that of the millions of middle-aged, conservative men and women who’ve danced in stadiums to a song celebrating promiscious gay sex with many anonymous partners.
I kind of figured that “In Birmingham they loved the governor” was meant to indicate that the man WASN’T loved throughout the state, but merely in the densely populated largest city, and that people living in the outlying areas didn’t have as much control over the election as they would’ve liked.
The Watergate line I always took to mean: “You people up North do f’d up things too, and you don’t see me complaining.” It doesn’t make much sense that way, though, when you think about the fact that Neil Young is from Canada, not the northern US… I think the most logical explanation is the one that Lavanya posited, above. They’re saying “WE didn’t vote for Wallace, so we don’t feel any guilt about the things he did. We also didn’t vote for Nixon, so we feel no guilt about that, either. Do you?” This is easy to understand post-post-9-11, when all of us here in the United States were being asked to atone for the ignorance and stupidity of GWB, and most of us kept saying “Woah, now. WE didn’t vote for him.”
Nope, not buying it. They don’t just sing “In Birmingham they love the governor,” at the end of the song they also sing “Where the skies are so blue and the governor’s true.” I’ve never heard this as anything but an endorsement of Wallace. And the “boo boo boo” always just sounded like “hoo hoo hoo” to me, a nonsense sound to round out the verse, not disapproval. Wallace didn’t change his tune about segregation until the late ’70s, years after this song came out.
Also, I’ve never heard the Watergate verse as a disavowal of Watergate, but approval of it. They seem to be basically saying, yes, what Nixon did was bad, but I’m sure you’ve done something bad in the past, too, so no one’s innocent and therefore you shouldn’t complain about Watergate.
By the way, I hate “Southern Man” too. It’s unpleasant to the ear and sanctimonious. Young had a bit of a point, though. In 1974, the civil rights movement was hardly ancient history. It had only been 11 years since MLK wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and only about six since his assassination.