See the old folks
Tied in white ropes
Hear the banjo
Don't it take you down home?
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Alabama welcomes you!
“Alabama” is a song off what is, perhaps, Neil Young’s best mostly-acoustic album, Harvest.
Although Young had said many of the same things – concerning institutionalized racism in the south – far better with the song “Southern Man” a few years earlier on After the Goldrush
- this state-titled protest song (of sorts) certainly touched a nerve with many southerners. None more so than with Lynyrd Skynyrd, who were eventually inspired to write the pro-Alabama classic rock standard “Sweet Home Alabama” in answer to Young.
Some, such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, took offense to Young’s scolding of the South with lines like “Alabama, you got / the weight on your shoulders / that's breaking your back / your Cadillac / has got a wheel in the ditch / and a wheel on the track.” This “weight,” of course, was the state’s history of black slavery. And after that, black and white segregation, which didn’t end - at least in the legal sense - until the ‘60s. Young’s song, however, was released in 1972, which was quite some time after Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement had done its job to get many of the unfair racial laws in Alabama overturned. Nevertheless, a 1972 Alabama redistricting plan, which provided renewed voters rights and made it so that thousands of Alabama citizens could get involved in the political system for the first time, revealed that the shedding of Alabama’s racist past was still a work-in-progress at the time. Perhaps it will always be a work-in-progress, as racism is many times an ingrained belief system.
What may give “Alabama” some of its unique appeal, and likely led to the strong reaction to it, is the perspective from which Neil Young sings it. “I'm from a new land / I come to you / And see all this ruin,” he sings at one point. When he claims to be “from a new land,” he’s referring to the fact that the singer/songwriter/guitarist was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Alabamans may have bristled at Young’s lyrical remarks because he was an outsider from another country - albeit a neighboring country - commenting and analyzing American culture and politics from afar. However, Young came off more as an insider when he sang, “You got the rest of the union to help you along.” Legend has it, by the way, that Young relocated to Los Angeles, California, in the 1960s by arriving there driving a converted hearse.
Segregation sign c 1931
Alabama became a state of the United States of America on December 14, 1819. However, Alabama also declared its secession in January 1861, when it joined the Confederate States of America, which preceded the Civil War. It shares a border with Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and Mississippi. It’s commonly referred to as the Heart of Dixie, and the “Cotton State.”
With an album titled Harvest Moon
(1992), which he recorded 20 years later, Young returned to similar sounds and styles first introduced on Harvest
. The record also featured many of the same participating musicians. Although this latter set included an anti-war song called “War of Man,” there was nothing quite as controversial as “Alabama” on it, as it displays an older, wiser, and (perhaps) a kinder and gentler Neil Young.
Over time, “Sweet Home Alabama” has become an undeniable classic rock anthem, whereas “Alabama” has been relatively forgotten. While the South may have lost the Civil War, it can count “Sweet Home Alabama” as a winner in the “rock song popularity wars,” for whatever that questionable honor may be worth.
~ Dan MacIntosh
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