Today, I am going to tell a story that seems to have fallen away a bit. But, I think about it often, especially these days. So you should to.
In 1970, during the heart of the post-Civil Rights Act era, Neil Young wrote this song.
For reference, this is on my favorite Neil Young record, and I completely connected with it from the second I heard it. I think its self explanatory.
Ronnie Van Zant and his band, being avid Neil Young fans, decided to write an opposition piece to these songs. In that band’s style, they came up with a fucking riff that you can’t beat, a slamming chorus, and no one actually paid attention to the goddamn lyrics.
Now, in doing research about this relationship, I assumed it was one of those rock stories that had fallen by the wayside. Nope, turns out, people have written whole albums about this. The wikipedia page is pretty clear about all this. Neil Young later said he regretted writing it, and that he shouldn’t have castigated the entirety of the state.
I am going to argue that Neil Young was wrong to retract his words. And Ronnie Van Zant was irresponsible in how he handled it.
First, lets start with Sweet Home Alabama. In terms of a song to go against Neil Young’s indictment of the South, its fucking stupid. The entire message of that song is, “Hey, we didn’t all vote for George Wallace. We did what we could so oh well. And we wont be sad when he’s gone. Oh, and hey look, we have Muscle Shoals and plenty of black artists have recorded there!”
That is a fucking stupid argument. Yes, you didn’t vote for George Wallace, but enough people did to where he is the fucking governor of your state. The answer isn’t oh well. If you honestly don’t like the man, maybey our chorus shouldn’t be “Sweet Home Alabama,” but “Fuck George Wallace.” This is a classic thing Southerners do. They absolve themsleves from the sins of their countrymen. And this has been going on since the Civil War. “Well, I didn’t have any slaves, so I’m alright.”
Second, there is no avoiding the sins of the past. And there is no “wasn’t me,” you can do here. If you don’t accept that what happened back then was wrong (a) and (b) we are all responsible for it, you will never make any progress. There is no responsibility and collective guilt. We just ignore the sins of the past. Well I didnt do it so it musn’t have been that bad.
Cut to today. When no lessons are tought, when no shame is applied, we are still stuck in this conflict. Our sins can be laid in front of us, as Neil Young did, and we just say, “Nope not us” like Ronnie Van Zant.
To be fair to Ronnie, he never lived long enough to see what his band would become. I dont think he intended his song to be the anthem of assholes everywhere. And Neil Young was a pallbearer at Ronnie’s funeral. Such is the duality of the Southern Thing. Either way, maybe he should have thought ahead and crafted his argument better. Cause now people just skip to the chorus.
I’ll leave with this thought. I think this conflict between Neil’s two songs and Ronnie’s is the microcosm of the eternal white identity conflict in the south. And until we figure out we shouldn’t be mad at Neil and we should do something about it, we will be stuck in this limbo. And people will still think they are justified in doing terrible fucking shit that hurt other human beings just like them.
I don’t have an answer.
P.S. I thought about closing this post on a different song. Cause this one is rough. But Randy hit it dead on. Eat that shit, assholes. If you don’t know what this song is about, you should listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast about this whole record.