Released in 1974, “Sweet Home Alabama” has since become synonymous with Southern rock. From its opening guitar riff, it is instantly recognizable — a raucous, irreverent defense of a Deep South state and its segregationist governor against the jabs of Neil Young. But the roots of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s best-selling anthem go much deeper than regional pride or resentment of a fellow rocker. The following is an exclusive excerpt of Sweet Home Everywhere, a recently published history of the oft-debated classic rock staple that traces the tune’s surprising centuries-old origins and incredible global influence, which continues to this day.
It might be said that when a song is released into the world, it ceases to belong to its creator. And on the rare occasions when a song becomes a hit, a pervasive piece of music widely heard and discussed by mass audiences, it takes on a life entirely separate from, and sometimes in spite of, its original meaning.
Since its release in 1974, “Sweet Home Alabama” has lived such a life. It is best known for Skynyrd’s mocking rebuke of Neil Young and praise for segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace. But over the last 40 years, as the song has cemented its place as a canonical American rock tune, that bitter history has mostly been forgotten among mainstream fans. Meanwhile, the song has been adapted and reinterpreted more than perhaps any pop hit of the last half-century, finding innumerable new meanings and mutations in the hands of amateurs and pop stars alike (not to mention everyday fans, pandering politicians, and Hollywood producers), who have repeatedly replaced the object of the song’s affection with other “sweet homes.”
The song opens with guitarist Ed King’s instantly recognizable two-bar intro, a riff King claims came to him one night in a dream. Then, the muffled bark from Ronnie Van Zant, Skynyrd’s lead singer — “Turn it up” — a command, a threat, an invitation to keep listening, and an indication that whatever is about to transpire should be heard as loudly as possible. The song that follows is country rock and blues boogie and catchy pop and Southern gospel. The laid-back groove is familiar and comforting. Van Zant’s slurred, country-fried vocals are puzzling, sometimes incoherent, at times indifferent. By the end of the song, when he sings, “Where the skies are so blue and the governor’s true,” the point of the song is almost indecipherable, and it’s nearly impossible to discern his tone of voice. Sarcastic? Bitter? Genuine? Defensive? Comical?
King’s singular riff made “Sweet Home Alabama” an eternal hit single. Van Zant’s inscrutable lyrics — a response to “Alabama” and “Southern Man”, two Young tracks that attacked the South for its backward ways and sinful, racist past — made the song worth fighting over. But Van Zant never thought much about the song that would come to define him, or at least he pretended not to. In the years that followed the release of “Sweet Home Alabama”, the band’s lead singer routinely dismissed the song’s importance in interviews and remained confounded by its success, dismissing the lyric as a joke or a gag.
“That song was not meant to be a single,” Van Zant once said. “It was just a party tune. It was a Wednesday afternoon and we were all out at the place, rehearsin’, got into that thing, started laughing about it.”
“The place” Van Zant was referring to was a tiny, tin-roofed cabin in Green Cove Springs, Florida, where the band rehearsed and wrote material for most of its first two records. It would become known as “Hell House” for its insufferable temperatures. “That was one of the quickest songs they ever wrote,” says Kevin Elson, a friend of the band, who later served as the group’s producer and studio engineer in Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History. “The idea of it started being played in the morning and I came back later in the afternoon to Hell House, and by the end of the day it was done.”
Ed King remembers the song’s creation similarly. “I started off with that riff and Ronnie was sitting on the edge of the couch, making this signal to me to just keep rolling it over and over,” King has said. “Finally, after maybe 10 to 15 minutes, he got up and sang a verse and a chorus.”
In the four decades since, “Sweet Home Alabama” has refused to go away. Last year, it became the first song recorded before 1975 to break 3 million digital downloads. If you’re judging a classic song’s “timelessness” by its ongoing commercial success, Skynyrd’s biggest hit has aged more gracefully than any single from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, or any other iconic artist from rock’s heyday of the ’60s and ’70s.
Why? Why is a song written as a tossed-off, semi-sarcastic joke, a song whose author insisted it was meaningless, still so thriving, in karaoke bars, cover-band set lists, classic rock radio stations, and iTunes playlists of 15- and 55-year-olds alike? How is it that the song’s title has spawned a reality TV show, a middling rom-com, and countless newspaper headlines, all the while becoming a state motto and an international catchphrase? How would Ronnie Van Zant, who was thoroughly shocked by the nationwide success of “Sweet Home Alabama”, have reacted to the dozens of adaptations and parodies of the song from all corners of the world, from “Sweet Home Buenos Aires” and “Miña Terra Galega (My Galician Homeland)” to “Sweet Home Jerusalem”, “Sweet Home Australia”, and “Sweet Home South Korea”. (“Well I hope Kim Jung will remember/ South Korea don’t need him around, anyhow.”)
What would he have thought of the ever-growing list of performers who have covered “Sweet Home Alabama”, which includes Green Day, Bret Michaels, Rihanna, Less Than Jake, Jewel, Hank Williams Jr., Mumford & Sons, Jimmy Buffett, Nirvana, Garth Brooks, Counting Crows, Dave Matthews Band, Kenny Chesney, Killdozer, Tori Amos, and, naturally, Alabama? How would he have reacted to Eminem freestyling to the song’s melody in 8 Mile or to the polka bands and Mariachi groups that have reimagined the Southern rock tune, the Christian Rock bands that have adapted the song for their own purposes (“Sweet Home Up in Heaven”), and the neo-Nazis ’80s skinhead group Skrewdriver, whose version of the song includes an ode to the KKK? (“The Carpetbaggers tried to swamp us/ But to the Klan we all stand true.”)
To its advantage, “Sweet Home Alabama” has remained persistently contentious as a symbol, a pawn in the ongoing cultural, social, and political conflicts pitting the South against the rest of America. Writer Diane Roberts puts it well: “The chords chime, then somebody (Ronnie?) says ‘turn it up,’ and you do turn it up, unless you turn it off. You have one of two reactions: fight or flight.”
But for many, the song has become apolitical, ahistorical, and ageographical, a generalized devotion to one’s home that finds as many fans in Eugene, Oregon, and Sydney, Australia, as it does in Birmingham, Alabama. As with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A”, key lyrics of the song are commonly misheard, which is to say they’re ignored (an entire third verse is devoted to the studio musicians of Muscle Shoals, Alabama). The strange, brave, reactionary, hateful, peaceful, proud, sexy, solemn, new lives that “Sweet Home Alabama” has led in the last 40 years have come to mean so much more than a clumsy feud or a half-baked sarcastic jab at a fellow rock star. They’ve become the very essence of “Sweet Home Alabama” as it exists today, as a breathing, growing, dynamic, downloadable pop-object that is at once intensely American and surprisingly global.
Complete versions of Sweet Home Everywhere can be purchased at the following links.