Monday, March 10, 2014

Neil Young & Lynyrd Skynyrd Spat

A Joe Queenan Guardian article about the Alabama incident.

Revenge is Sweet Home Alabama

Joe Queenan on a Lynyrd Skynyrd song that told Neil Young where he could stick it. But is it a white supremacist anthem? 
A 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator, defying an anti-parade ordinance of Birmingham, Alabama, USA, America is attacked by a police dog on May 3, 1963
Home, sweet home: A 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator is attacked by a police dog in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 3, 1963. Photograph: Bill Hudson/AP
Sweet Home Alabama falls into that wonderful category of songs known on the continent as chansons de revanche or dissenlieder. These are songs written in retaliation for something flippant or defamatory enunciated in somebody else's song. The use of a song as revenge for insults, real or imagined, is quite common in the hip-hop world, where rappers routinely use their material to abuse other artists. But at the time Lynyrd Skynyrd released Sweet Home Alabama in 1974, the practice was relatively new.

Sweet Home Alabama was written in 1973 in response to Neil Young's repeatedly thumbing his nose at the South, and at Alabama in particular. The song made the band famous, particularly in Alabama, which had already appeared in several songs called Alabama Bound or I'm Alabama Bound, as well as in Kurt Weill's Alabama Song, later recorded by the Doors. The state also turned up in the 1934 jazz standard Stars Fell on Alabama, and Stephen Foster's 1847 classic Oh! Susanna! This is a lot of songs to be written about one of America's most obscure states.

Young got up the Skynyrdian nose because of his abrasive, heavy-handed Southern Man and the somewhat more delicate Alabama, both of which were vehemently critical of the American South for its Neanderthal treatment of African-Americans. Alabama was famous for its flamboyantly racist governor George Wallace, who once stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama in a staged, tawdry, farcical attempt to prevent two African-American students from entering; the event ended when federal marshals armed with guns told him to move. It also boasted the Birmingham police chief Bull Connor who unleashed German Shepherds on women and children, then blasted them with water cannons, during a 1963 civil-rights march. It was also the site of three epochal 1965 civil rights march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery, a turning point in American history when blase folks living in more enlightened regions of the US got to turn on their TVs and see the Alabama state police in action.

1974 was an odd year to release a song that appeared, on the surface, to support George Wallace and the white South in general. By the final year of Richard Nixon's term in office, explicit racism was going out of style in American popular culture. Skynyrd, several of whose original members perished in a 1977 plane crash, have long denied allegations that the song is a white supremacy anthem, insisting that the lyrics are more ambivalent. One defense of the tune is that Young, a Canadian, had no business poking his nose into the internal affairs of the sovereign state of Alabama, making the song less a defense of the South than a rebuke of meddling outsiders from the North, or, in Young's case, the Great North Woods. Anyway, by 1973, taking pot-shots at the South was shooting fish in a barrel.

Skynyrd, famous for its three-lead-guitar sound, also maintains that the "Boo, boo, boo" following the words "In Birmingham, they love the governor" is a subtle repudiation of Wallace, and that the line "Montgomery got the answer" is the band's way of signaling their support for the civil rights movement. If this is the case, then the song falls into the same class as Born in the USA, an uncompromisingly anti-American ditty whose lyrics have consistently been misunderstood by jingoistic Bruce Springsteen fans ever since the song's release in 1984. Springsteen may have muddied the waters by putting a gigantic American flag on the album's cover.

Though Sweet Home Alabama is the most famous example of the chansons de revanche genre, it is not without precedent. Barry McGuire's hoarse, apocalyptic 1965 single The Eve of Destruction prompted a pitiful response by an otherwise obscure band called the Spokesmen, who released The Dawn of Correction. The Spokesmen's lineup included David White, who co-wrote At the Hop while a member of the Fifties ensemble Danny & the Juniors. Merle Haggard's right-wing anthem Okie From Muskogee also triggered a satirical response in the Youngbloods' harmless Hippie from Olema. The Youngbloods were the first band I ever saw; the night of the concert a phalanx of Philadelphia bikers threw four heckling executives from the band's previous label down the stairs, apparently to persuade them to stop heckling. For a 16-year-old boy, it was quite an introduction to the raucous, wide-open, every-man-for-himself folk-rock demi-monde.

Though beloved to this day, Sweet Home Alabama is not Skynyrd's most famous song. That honor goes to Free Bird. For years, it has been impossible to attend a concert anywhere in the United States without hearing someone cry out "Free Bird!" Apparently, people think this is amusing.
The genre of which Sweet Home Alabama is a sterling example must not be confused with Songs of Pique. Sweet Home Alabama is a song that responds to another song, or, in this case, two other songs, and thus is part and parcel of an ongoing creative and cultural feud. Songs of Pique, by contrast, are songs written to get even with an ex-lover, a despised rival, or a former colleague, but without the target's concomitant artistic participation in the dust-up. Examples of this genre include Carly Simon's You're So Vain, widely believed to be directed at her ex-beau Warren Beatty; How Do You Sleep?, a 1971 clinker in which John Lennon rakes Paul McCartney over the coals, perhaps for writing Yesterday; and Ballad of a Thin Man, Bob Dylan's evisceration of a music critic who rubbed him the wrong way.

Ballad of a Thin Man appears on the 1965 LP Highway 61 Revisited, which also contains Dylan's first Top 40 hit Like a Rolling Stone. The recurring organ swells on Like a Rolling Stone are supplied by Al Kooper, who founded Blood, Sweat & Tears and co-wrote This Diamond Ring for Jerry Lewis's son, Gary, but who had rarely played the organ before meeting Dylan. Three writers share the credit for Sweet Home Alabama, none of them natives of the state. Al Kooper, a native of Brooklyn, produced the song.

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