Ronnie and Neil: Laying to Rest the "Feud Myth" Once and for All
Ronnie Van Zant with Neil Young "Tonight's The Night" T-shirt
Oakland Coliseum, July 2, 1977 - Photo by Michael Zagaris
Neil Young with Lynyrd Skynyrd/Jack Daniels Whiskey T-Shirt
Verona, Italy 7.9.1982 - Photo by Paolo Brillo on Flickr
"Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
a southern man don't need him around anyhow"
a southern man don't need him around anyhow"
Growing up in the American South in the 1970's as a Neil Young fan wasn't exactly easy. It seems as if all of our life that whenever the subject of musical tastes came up and we revealed our appreciation of Young's music, almost invariably it was met with those lines above from Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" .
You see, Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" is more than just an anthem for many -- it serves as a statement for a way of life that is intensely protected such that when threatened -- it can produce some very uncomfortable results.
Background of "Sweet Home Alabama"
Thanks to Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd was inspired to write the song "Sweet Home Alabama".
Without Young's songs that were so critical of the South's segregationist and racist attitudes for inspiration, it is doubtful that the band would have produced a song with such a long lasting duration that continues to sell well 30 years after its release.
But the ultimate irony of "Sweet Home Alabama" is that for so many, the song's implied put down of Neil Young was NOT meant as criticism but as support of Young's anti-racism. Thus, for those who think it's so clever to put down Neil Young using the phrase "Hope Neil Young will remember, a southern man don't need him around anyhow" little do they realize that they have the meaning backwards. Every day, someone blogs or tweets the "Neil Young putdown" without comprehending that they've actually praised him. Similarly, with the State of Alabama using the phrase "Sweet Home Alabama" as an official slogan on license plates, one truly has to wonder what they were thinking the song was about.
Somewhere, Ronnie is still having a good laugh at Alabama officials and Neil Young bashers. Such is the duality of the southern thing.
MCA Records 45RPM Single
Is "Sweet Home Alabama" Really Sweet?
The history of Lynyrd Skynyrd's 1974 song "Sweet Home Alabama" has a long and tortured history. The enormously popular song has an extraordinarily complex backstory involving a wide swath of groups which have laid claim to the song's message and symbols. As this article demonstrates, the complicated saga of "Sweet Home Alabama" is anything but sweet.
Rarely has such a widely popular hit song been so vastly misunderstood by so many for so long.
This article came about because we've long been fascinated with Neil Young's influence on other bands ever since we heard Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" which was written in response to two of Young's anti-southern slavery songs, "Southern Man", from the album After the Gold Rush, and "Alabama", from the album Harvest. From "Sweet Home Alabama" lyrics:
- Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ole Neil put her down.
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
a southern man don't need him around anyhow.
Known as a response record, such songs "refer directly to a previous hit and usually do it in a catty, mischievous way". The lines in "Sweet Home Alabama" are a direct response to Young's anti-racist, anti-cross burning "Southern Man" and "Alabama" songs. Lynyrd Skynyrd's comeback was intended to mean, at first glance, "Thank you for your opinion Neil, now leave us alone."
It is this perceived "attitude" which has led to Lynyrd Skynyrd earning a reputation as a "racist" band. Inasmuch as the fact that the band often performed with a Confederate flag as a backdrop, the label and perception has been hard to shake.
Lyrics and Analysis
Four Dead in Alabama
Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" meaning is often interpreted as being "racist" because of the the lyrics reference "In Birmingham [where a black church was bombed killing 4 young girls] they love the governor [George Wallace ]" who was a segregationist. This interpretation and analysis has been intelligently reasoned, hotly debated, passionately argued, bickered over, volleyed about, and scrupulously dissected.
After singing this line, Skynyrd sing "Boo, boo, boo!" as if to disapprove of Wallace and his policies of racism. As for the "Boo, boo, boo!" chorus, some have dismissed it as Skynyrd 's wink at racism. Joshua Marshall writes in Talking Points Memo: "It always seemed to me more likely that that shadow lyric is a mocking allusion to anti-Wallace protestors." Nonetheless, many still regard the song to be a paean to the South's disregard for the civil rights movement.
Alabama Governor George Wallace
The last line in the song is an ad-lib by Van Zant that is rarely understood. He says, "Montgomery got the answer". Some of the original band members revealed this in a radio interview a few years back and possibly references the infamous march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, led by civil rights leader Martin Luther King. George Wallace was the governor of Alabama when this was released and -- apparently -- loved the song, especially the line, "In Birmingham they love the governor."
At best, this is ambiguous. At it's worst, this can be seen as an endorsement of the racist policies of the Alabama state capitol. Wallace, in the end, made the band honorary Lieutenant Colonels in the state militia. So is the song "Sweet Home Alabama" racist?
Immediately after the band sings the verse "Well, I heard Mr. Young sing about her," one can hear in the background what sounds like the phrase "Southern Man." Many believe it was Young's original recording being played. However, others claim it to be the album's producer, Al Kooper, impersonating Young.
Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd: Friends or Foes?
"Now your crosses
are burning fast"
The response song "Sweet Home Alabama" was inspired by the two Neil Young songs "Southern Man" and "Alabama". Specifically, lyrics to "Southern Man":
- Better keep your head
what your good book said
gonna come at last
Now your crosses
are burning fast
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?
And "Alabama"'s lyrics:
- Oh Alabama
through the broken glass
Windows down in Alabama.
See the old folks
tied in white ropes
Hear the banjo.
Don't it take you down home?
In Young's anthology album "Decade" liner notes, he wrote about "Southern Man" in his usual opaque and obliquely ironic fashion:
- "This song could have been written on a civil rights march after stopping off to watch "Gone With The Wind" at a local theater. But I wasn't there so I don't know for sure."
Others have made different interpretations of the contretemps. In Glide Magazine by Ross Warner, this opinion is ventured on Skynyrd's song:
Although the song is perceived as an anthem of southern pride, “Sweet Home Alabama,” was actually intended not only as the band’s fond recollection of their first time in a recording studio but as a reminder to the rest of America that not all southerners were rednecks. When Skynyrd criticized Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” it was for the sweeping generalization of all southerners as rednecks. Don’t condemn southerners now for what their ancestors did. “We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two,” Van Zant said. “We’re southern rebels, but more than that, we know the difference between right and wrong.” In fact, the band was quite outspoken about their disdain for Wallace’s policies.
Southern Rock Opera
The "feud myth" was further fueled with the Drive-By Truckers 2002 album "Southern Rock Opera" (one of the only truly genuine masterpiece albums released in the early 21st century) song "Ronnie and Neil":
- And out in California, a rock star from Canada writes a couple of great songs
about the bad shit that went down
"Southern Man" and "Alabama" certainly told some truth
But there were a lot of good folks down here and Neil Young wasn't around
Now Ronnie and Neil became good friends
their feud was just in song
Skynyrd was a bunch of Neil Young fans and Neil he loved that song
So He wrote "Powderfinger" for Skynyrd to record
But Ronnie ended up singing "Sweet Home Alabama" to the lord
Drive By Truckers guitarist Patterson Hood explains:
- "I wrote this song to tell of the misunderstood friendship between Ronnie VanZant and Neil Young, who were widely believed to be bitter adversaries, but were in truth very good friends and mutual admirers..."
Street Survivors (original album cover)
Ronnie Van Zant wearing a Neil Young "Tonight's the Night" album cover t-shirt
As Fred Mills puts it in his book review of Lynyrd Skynyrd: Remembering The Free Birds Of Southern Rock by Gene Odom, "[Ronnie Van Zant] would just as soon go onstage wearing one of several Neil Young T-shirts that he owned in order to fuck with any yahoos in the crowd who missed the humor and irony of the “Sweet Home Alabama” lyrics."
As for Neil Young's reaction to all of this? One widely circulated theory during the 1970's was found in Neil's stunning response to Lynyrd Skynyrd with On The Beach's "Walk On."
- I hear some people been talkin' me down,
Bring up my name, pass it 'round.
They don't mention happy times
They do their thing, I'll do mine.
Little did we realize at the time the symbolism in "Walk On", but years later as On The Beach surfaces and makes its place with other classics, did some of Neil's meanings sink in. (The lyrics in "Walk On" have also been interpreted to refer to bandmates Crosby, Stills, & Nash. Others argue that the song is in response to press reviews of Young's Time Fades Away tour.)
It seems that whatever grudges Lynyrd Skynyrd had for Neil's music may have been resolved - if there ever was any feud to begin with. From an interview with Ronnie Van Zant:
- "We wrote Alabama as a joke. We didn't even think about it - the words just came out that way. We just laughed like hell, and said 'Ain't that funny'... We love Neil Young, we love his music..."
As for the rumor that Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded the Neil Young song "Powderfinger" (see for lyrics analysis), here's an interview in MOJO Magazine , where Young said:
- Young:Lynyrd Skynyrd almost ended up recording Powderfinger before my version came out. We sent them an early demo of it because they wanted to do one of my songs.
Interviewer Q. Surprising, that. After all, Lynyrd Skynyrd put you down by name on Sweet Home Alabama, their first hit single....
Young: Oh, they didn't really put me down! But then again, maybe they did! (laughs) But not in a way that matters. Shit, I think Sweet Home Alabama is a great song. I've actually performed it live a couple of times myself. "
Lynyrd Skynyrd's Ronnie VanZant Wearing Neil Young T-shirt
In addition to the song "Powderfinger", Young allegedly also gave the band the song “Sedan Delivery” and "Captain Kennedy" to record. From The Uncool, Cameron Crowe blogs:
Neil Young gave a tape to Joel Bernstein to give to me which I gave to Ronnie [Van Zant], that had three songs on it - "Captain Kennedy," "Sedan Delivery," and "Powderfinger" - before they'd come out. And he wanted to give them to Lynyrd Skynyrd if they wanted to do one of his songs. They didn't fit on Street Survivors.
Neil loved that band and said they reminded him of the Buffalo Springfield and they made him yearn for the days of the Buffalo Springfield. He loved Lynyrd Skynyrd and he loved being mentioned in the song.
Being a huge Neil Young fan, I sort of appointed myself as cheerleader for that love affair to happen and blossom. I think it was happening - Ronnie was wearing that [Neil Young] shirt on the album cover and on the road. I was really happy to be able to play a part in getting some new Neil songs into Ronnie's hands. I don't remember what he had to say about it, but he was a huge Neil Young fan.
It should also be noted that shortly after the band was involved in a fatal plane accident, Neil Young performed a rare live version of "Alabama" at Bicentennial Park, Miami, Florida on 11-12-1977 for Children's Hospital Charity with The Gone With The Wind Orchestra and he changed the lyric chorus from "Alabama" to "Sweet Home Alabama".
Recalling the concert tribute in an interview with the Boston Globe, Young said: "I just sang 'I hope you all will remember. I thought it was a cool thing."
In a interview on the Rockline radio program (November 23, 1981), when asked about "Sweet Home Alabama" and Lynyrd Skynyrd, Neil Young said: "Great band, great. I understand Ronnie once said that I'll be mellow about it [SHA], not care one way or other. He was right."
"Ronnie and Neil" by Drive-by Truckers - Asheville,NC, September 2007
Back to the Drive-by Truckers (a great band that's a cross between William Faulkner and Neil Young) song "Ronnie and Neil" and the implication that Neil Young was a pallbearer at Van Zant's funeral:
- "And Neil helped carry Ronnie in his casket to the ground
And to my way of thinking, us southern men need both of them around"
This is another Neil Young/Lynyrd Skynyrd "urban legend" which is debunked in an interesting essay in Tone and Groove. As for the rumor that Ronnie Van Zant was buried wearing a Neil Young t-shirt, again this seems to be another example of a myth to propogate the tragic legend.
Neil Young with Lynyrd Skynyrd/Jack Daniels Whiskey T-Shirt
Verona, Italy 7.9.1982 - Photo by Paolo Brillo on Flickr
From the book Freebirds: The Lynyrd Skynyrd Story by Marley Brant:
- "The presentation of the song "Sweet Home Alabama" in concert was accompanied by the unfurling of Skynyrd's traditional backdrop, a huge Confederate battle flag. The reaction of the audience was always the same: vigorous, fervent, and instantaneous. Neil Young's song "Southern Man" had offended many Southerners by seeming to accuse all people born in the south of being intolerant racists. Young's observations were obviously generalized and not accurate and Southerners were ecstatic when Skynyrd defended their honor by releasing "Sweet Home Alabama" with its direct references to Young's faux pas. The idea that the Southern man, or woman, didn't need Neil Young around to point out the problems of their society was overwhelmingly supported by Skynyrd fans.
"We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two," Ronnie told Rolling Stone magazine regarding the creation of the answer song. The band felt that Young's lyrical content was representative of the shortsighted "Yankee" belief that all Southern men should be held accountable for the verbalizations and actions of a racist minority.
While the rebuttal was heartfelt, Skynyrd held Neil Young in high regard for his musical achievements and they weren't intending to start a feud of any kind. "Neil is amazing, wonderful... a superstar," said Van Zant. "I showed the verse to Ed King and asked him what Neil might think. Ed said he'd dig it; he'd be laughing at it." Ed King says that the tune was not so much a direct attack on Young but just a good regional song.
The song was well received but immediately put a stigma on the band as rednecks. Producer Al Kooper added. "Hey, you have to be more careful when you write a song now. But I'll tell you something -- Neil Young loved it. That's true, he told me so to my face."
From Lynyrd Skynyrd's Second Helping Re-Master booklet:
- "The singer's mock attack on Neil Young and his apparent defense of Wallace branded Skynyrd with controversy which would continue for years. Young got the joke, however, responding by telegram and by letter to say he was proud to be the subject of Skynyrd's Southern anthem.'
Perhaps Van Zant sums it up best. 'We're not into politics, we don't have no education and Wallace don't know anything about rock n roll.'
Much as John Lennon's murder put an end to the 1960's love and peace spirit (albeit some twenty years later) or Kurt Cobain's death marked the end of the grunge era, Ronnie Van Zant's death ended a chapter in Southern Rock history.
The "faux feud" contretemps seem to provide endless fascination for Ronnie and Neil fans.
So what do you think? And why?
Lynyrd Skynyrd: Neil Young's Nemesis or Ally?
More on Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young.
NOTE: Sometimes we're asked about what the deal is with our fascination with Ronnie and Neil. The fact of the matter is that much of this is driven by the constant correspondence we receive on the subject. Hardly a day goes by without the subject rearing its pretty (or ugly) head. What follows are some of the recent letters received on the subject. Feel free to jump in!