Birmingham, Alabama

Southern Man by Neil Young

Southern man, better keep your head
Don't forget what your good book said Read full Lyrics
16th Street Baptist Church; the bomb was placed beneath the steps shown<br>(thanks, John Morse)16th Street Baptist Church; the bomb was placed beneath the steps shown
(thanks, John Morse)
In some of my other articles on songplaces.com, I’ve gone into some depth regarding American history as it pertains to the popular music of the day. Art imitates life and life imitates art. It’s an endless circle. Perhaps my most written about decade is the 1960s, and for good reason. The music scene surrounding the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam Conflict (including the psychedelic counter-culture and even Women’s Liberation Movement) contained some of the most powerful messages ever sung about; much, if not all of it, has stood the test of time, and this writer has no doubt it will continue to be popular for decades to come.

Of all the places that experienced the brutality of massive social upheaval during the 1960s, Alabama must have looked like the swollen face of the losing half of a boxing match. The centerpiece of the Civil Rights Movement in the South could be none other than the great city of Birmingham (not to slight Montgomery and Rosa Parks’ bus stunt), home of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four black girls were killed when a bomb went off during a service.

The bombings ran rampant in ‘Bombingham’ and inspired countless troubadours to tell the tale (John Coltrane’s "Alabama" and Dudley Randall’s "Ballad of Birmingham" to name a couple). The city also served as a hub for Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference activities (King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail was written while he was imprisoned for his civil disobedience, having taken part in a non-violent protest and exercising his First Amendment rights).
Birmingham skyline at night<br>(thanks, Amcannally)Birmingham skyline at night
(thanks, Amcannally)
Years later, while many artists had turned their attention overseas to the exploitation and atrocities occurring in Southeast Asia, Neil Young still had something to say about the American South, and if you’re Neil Young, you don’t keep your feelings bottled up at all. A Canadian-born folk musician, Young moved to California in 1966 where he co-founded Buffalo Springfield and worked with such prominent artists as Joni Mitchell and Stephen Stills (with whom he later formed the super group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in 1969).

He’s known for pouring his heart out through his lyrics, ripping his vocal cords and guitar strings to shreds, and his use of a falsetto, or silver tenor, vocal range. He accompanies himself on several overdubbed instruments (piano, harmonica, and others), but is known for his guitar work, both electric and acoustic. His influence has earned him the moniker Godfather of Grunge.

Following his stint with CSN&Y, 1970 saw the release of his third studio album, After the Gold Rush. Some tracks were recorded with his backup band, Crazy Horse, and even Stills and CSN&Y bassist Greg Reeves appear on a few cuts. But it was the fourth cut on this awesome album where listeners will find "Southern Man." This angry anthem is 50 percent appeal and 50 percent warning to the white majority in the Deep South of the United States. Oftentimes reaching that quintessential voice cracking, Young sings passionately of extreme hatred and racism: I saw cotton and I saw black. Tall white mansions and little shacks. Southern Man, when will you pay them back? The lyrics paint a vivid picture of slavery and even mentions burning crosses.

Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t allow Young’s chastisement to go on without consequence. Later that year they wrote, recorded, and released a response record that has since become famous (or infamous) as a southern hard-rock bar brawling anthem, particularly if you’re from the South. "Sweet Home Alabama" not only seems to contradict Young’s opinions about the South, but also mentions the Canadian rocker by name. Twice.
~ Justin Novelli
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