Friday, July 21, 2006

Native Son's Take on "Sweet Home, Alabama"

In several venues I've seen confusion and misunderstanding surrounding the meaning and intent of this song, and I hereby propose to shed one tiny sliver of light on the situation. (This site will point you to lots of discussion on the song.) Now, I don't really follow LynSkyn, and I understand that they have at times really milked the Southern redneck thing, performing in front of a giant confederate battle flag and the like, but I'm not here to defend what they may have become, but the sentiments stated in the song.

Neil Young and "Southern Man"

Clearly the song is a direct response in part to "Southern Man," with its lyrics, in part:

Southern man
better keep your head
Don't forget
what your good book said
Southern change
gonna come at last
Now your crosses
are burning fast
Southern man

Clearly this implies a condemnation of all Southern whites as being complicit in racism. It is the rejection of this blanket condemnation that is the centerpiece of the song. What I've not seen pointed out elsewhere is the inherent racism in saying "Southern man" to refer only to whites. Are male African-Americans in the South not also Southern men? Small wonder that Southern Man don't need him (Neil Young) around, anyhow.

In Birmingham They Love the Governor

This line really stands as the rosetta stone, the key to understanding the song's somewhat nuanced message. It's a pity that so few understand it. I think it's very easy for listeners, inevitably familiar with the ubiquitous images of police dogs and fire hoses, to believe this is a true reflection of the city's inherent racism. Having grown up around Birmingham, I can tell you that local lore has it that Wallace was not loved here, and that this lack of love was thoroughly requited. It's hard to say what forms the basis for this local lore. It pains me to do it, but maybe we could examine some actual data! This is cut-n-pasted from a spreadsheet available at the Alabama Secretary of State's site, with my editorial commentary in parentheses. (click to biggify.)

These are the election results from Jefferson County (composed mainly of Birmingham and its suburbs) for the votes that determined the Alabama governorship in those days: the Democratic primary or its runoff. Note that in every year except 1974, Jefferson County voted against George C. (I suppose the sympathy factor may have been at a peak then following his shooting in 1972.) Even in 1982, when Wallace won with the support of the black community statewide, he still lost JeffCo to McMillan. How could this be? Well, certainly the black community, concentrated in Birmingham, had no love for him, but IIRC even the suburban whites saw him as a redneck race-baiter who would not help to bring the state forward. Suffice it to say that Jefferson County's lack of support for the man from Clio was real and legendary. Also universally acknowledged (but much more difficult to substantiate) was Wallace's animus towards Birmingham. It was no accident, we were always told, that all the interstates, then under development statewide, stopped dead at the Jefferson County line. So when Birminghamians of a certain age hear, " In Birmingham they love the governor," it's an inside joke, with the point that not everybody in Alabama stood for segregation. I really don't have anything to say about the "Boo! Boo! Boo!" except that I always thought they said "Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!" Maybe sort of a verbal sarcasm smiley.

Now we all did what we could do

Presumably by opposing Wallace. But who is "we?" I think this means the nonracist white population, but I could be wrong.

Watergate does not bother me

Of course not. The singer is not guilty of any wrongdoing, even if it's done by his elected official. Similarly there's no collective guilt for Alabamians stemming from the misdeeds of either Wallace or the racists among them.

Does your Conscience Bother You?

Let he who is without sin be the first to cast a stone, clean your own doorstep, yadda yadda ya.

And the Governor's True

This strikes me as a throw-away line. Note that it falls in the space where ther's a rest in the other choruses. Once we've established that the song's approach to GCW is tongue-in-cheek, it's easy to read this with some irony, i.e., the governor's true to his segregationist ways. The tragedy is that before Wallace lost in '58 to a blatant race-baiter, he was one of the more progressive Democratic judges in the state. Only after the attempted assassination in '72 and finally being out of office did he return to his original roots and ultimately regain the governorship in '82, as mentioned with the support of a remarkably different coalition.

Montgomery's got the Answer

Well, sure! Put it this way: there's a reason the Alabama legislature meets atop Goat Hill. To show how little I underestand this line, I originally thought it was "My, my, my beGONia!" (years before "My Bologna") I would doubt that state government has the answer to anything, but apparently there's another way to interpret this line. Wikipedia reports that a band member said this was a reference to the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march of ?1963; i.e., Montgomery received an answer.

To summarize, then, the message of this song is that it's not inherently racist to love Alabama, and that facile criticism from outsiders (or even, heaven forbid, Canadians) is likely to be less than completely constructive. In no way is this a paean to bigotry, or some similar crap.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent post.