Unfurling 'Sweet Home Alabama,' A Tapestry Of Southern Discomfort More than 40 years after its release, Lynyrd Skynyrd's Sweet Home Alabama is still one of the most recognized rock anthems celebrating the deep South. It's also a song with a complicated legacy.

Unfurling 'Sweet Home Alabama,' A Tapestry Of Southern Discomfort

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Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" cracked the top 10 list back in 1974.


LYNYRD SKYNYRD: (Singing) Sweet home Alabama, where the skies are so blue.

GREENE: Since then, this song has become kind of an anthem for the state. But it's history and meaning are really complicated. For our series American Anthem, NPR's Felix Contreras gives "Sweet Home Alabama" another listen.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: The song starts out with one of the best known guitar riffs in rock ’n’ roll.


CONTRERAS: What follows is a down-home ode to the state that is known as the heart of Dixie.


LYNYRD SKYNYRD: (Singing) Big wheels keep on turning. Carry me home to see my kin, singing songs about the southland.

CONTRERAS: Folksy colloquialisms, eternal blue skies, family - pretty simple, right? Maybe not. In a way, the song began as a contradiction. It was written by two guys from Florida and one from California, none of whom ever lived in Alabama. So where did the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd get the gumption to write about a state they had only driven through? In part, because of this.


NEIL YOUNG: (Singing) Southern man better keep your head. Don't forget what your good book said.

CONTRERAS: That's Neil Young singing "Southern Man," a song he released in 1971 taking the entire South to task for the bloody history of slavery and its aftermath. In the Showtime documentary "If I Leave Here Tomorrow," one of the songs composers, lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, explained the musicians wanted to counter what they saw as Young's one-dimensional stereotype.


RONNIE VAN ZANT: We knew that by doing that song - just from writing those lyrics, we knew in the beginning that we'd get a lot of heat from it, you know? And, yeah, I did attack Neil Young in that song. What are you talking about, you know? From what I'm told, you was born in Canada, you know (laughter).


LYNYRD SKYNYRD: (Singing) Well, I hope Neil Young will remember. A Southern man don't need him around anyhow.

CONTRERAS: Even as the song tried to dispel stereotypes of the South, back then the band performed in front of a large Confederate flag at the suggestion of its record label. And in the documentary, Van Zant offers this.


VAN ZANT: Everybody thinks we're a bunch of drunken rednecks, and that's correct (laughter).

CONTRERAS: So which is it? Mark Kemp is originally from Asheboro, N.C., and is the author of a book called "Dixie Lullaby: A Story Of Music, Race And New Beginnings In A New South," a memoir about his relationship with rock ’n’ roll from the South.

MARK KEMP: You know, at the root of it is a very, very human dilemma of bigotry, you know, and stereotyping and the South is for our country. It embodies that, and I don't think it's ever going to go away. That discussion's the integral part of our nation's history.

CONTRERAS: Neil Young took his lumps and finally in his 2012 autobiography stated that he deserved that musical jab, writing, quote, "I didn't like my words when I wrote them. They were accusatory and condescending." And yet, maybe Young wasn't completely off-base. "Sweet Home Alabama" does name-check one of the state's most controversial leaders, George Wallace, who was governor when the song was released. In 1963, when he was elected to his first term, he famously said this.


GEORGE WALLACE: And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.


LYNYRD SKYNYRD: (Singing) In Birmingham, they love the governor. Boo-boo-boo (ph). Now, we all did what we could do.

CONTRERAS: "Sweet Home Alabama" was co-written by guitarist Gary Rossington. And in the Showtime documentary, he explained that reference.


GARY ROSSINGTON: And a lot of people believed in segregation and all that. We didn't. We put the boo-boo-boo there. So it was saying, we don't like Wallace.

CONTRERAS: But he also added that the song could be interpreted in different ways.


ROSSINGTON: I'm sure if you asked the other guys who are not with us anymore up in rock ’n’ roll heaven - they have their story of how it came about.

CONTRERAS: Any more clarity about "Sweet Home Alabama" died in a plane crash. In 1977, just three years after the song hit the airwaves, three members of the band, their road manager, as well as a pilot and co-pilot died when their chartered plane went down. Ronnie Van Zant was among the dead, and he remains the ghost in the room when trying to pin down exactly what he wanted the song to say.


LYNYRD SKYNYRD: (Singing) Alabama, Alabama.

CONTRERAS: The song's meaning was crystal clear to Merry Clayton. She was an in-demand background vocalist who famously recorded with the Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Ray Charles, among a bunch of others. And she remembers her reaction when she got the call to do the "Sweet Home Alabama" session.

MERRY CLAYTON: I really don't want to sing anything about Alabama after what happened in Alabama.

CONTRERAS: Clayton is African-American and says she could not stop thinking about the infamous 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of a church in Birmingham.

CLAYTON: I said four little girls lost their lives, and it just broke everyone's heart. I said, I really don't want to sing anything about Alabama. And I just went on and on and on.

CONTRERAS: But your way of combating that is that, I'm going to sing on this record, lay claim to it that I am part of this song and our experience is part of the Alabama experience as well.

CLAYTON: Absolutely. You got it. You got it.

CONTRERAS: Some insist that Southern pride absent the racism is what "Sweet Home Alabama" is all about. At a concert featuring the reconstituted Lynyrd Skynyrd in Kansas City, fan Nick Paul was tailgating outside before the show.

NICK PAUL: It honestly is an American anthem. It really is. I mean, I feel like that personifies a lot of America. And, I mean, I don't think you can go to a party and play that song without everybody singing along.

CONTRERAS: It is a catchy tune, and Dr. Henry Panion III also thinks so. He's a composer and professor of music at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who recently arranged the song for marching band and symphony orchestra.


CONTRERAS: Panion is also African-American.

HENRY PANION III: What they were trying to do when they wrote it was trying to say, wait a minute, everybody's talking about the South; But there are some wonderful things about the South, and everyone don't necessarily subscribe to the policies and practices of bigots and racists.

CONTRERAS: For some, the passage of time has muted the song's ambiguity. And Panion says maybe he would go one step further - to reclaim "Sweet Home Alabama" as an anthem for all Alabamans.

PANION III: Maybe I should program that song in February during a Black History Month celebration. And (laughter) - and then maybe we can begin to change how it's being used. How about that (laughter)?

CONTRERAS: You have to wonder what Ronnie Van Zant would've thought of that. Felix Contreras, NPR News.


LYNYRD SKYNYRD: (Singing) Yeah, yeah.

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