Neil Young v. Lynyrd Skynyrd 2020: “Southern Man” Redux

What happens to a dream deferred?

“Harlem,” Langston Hughes

Image for post
Image for post
The Neil Young v. Lynyrd Skynyrd feud is as much a debate as anything.

My empty-headed adolescence spanned the 1970s — I turned 18 and graduated high school in 1979 — in rural upstate South Carolina, only about 25 minutes away from where I live now.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird” were persistent background music on the radio and in dance clubs well into my college life. I never owned a Lynyrd Skynyrd album, but I knew every word to both songs and gleefully (and mindlessly) sang along to them in my car or holding a long-neck Budweiser on 25-cent beer night at O’Sullivan’s.

I was a very conflicted, insecure, and anxious-to-near-paralysis teenager, and my musical tastes reflected the jumble of the mindlessness (Tom Petty, Eagles) with my late-to-develop serious interest in music that I didn’t just know the lyrics, but began to think about their implications (Parliament, Pink Floyd).

My deep and careful affection for Neil Young did not develop until the 1980s. But like most people, I was always aware of the so-called feud between Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The songs that are permanently intertwined are Young’s “Southern Man” and “Alabama” (which Young has distanced himself from in moments of self-criticism) that spurred Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” with the infamous lines:

Well I heard Mr. Young sing about her (Southern man)
Well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow

And that band’s iconic single cover art also sent a pretty strong symbolic message:

Image for post
Image for post

While the band’s relationship with the Confederate Flag is complicated, Lynyrd Skynyrd as a band and MCA Records were certainly intentional about fostering a strong relationship with some of the worst realities about Southern pride.

Young’s “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” of course, took square aim at those Southern sins, prompting (as some have tried to clarify) Lynyrd Skynyrd to write “Sweet Home Alabama” as a rebuttal anthem along the lines of “Not all Southerners.”

Young has noted that his songs may have painted with too broad a brush, but Lynyrd Skynyrd’s revisionist explanations stretch credulity.

Both the tension and controversy surrounding Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd were grounded in a sort of regionalized ideological divide that remains today — Young as the liberal Canadian and Lynyrd Skynyrd as the conservative Southerners.

I was born and raised in the racist, redneck Southern culture that embraced and celebrated Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Confederate Flag. Both are steeped in a sort of jumbled logic about tradition and pride that refuses to acknowledge the harsh realities of racism that created the South but also lingers in the South and its traditions (such as the Confederate Flag and idealized mythologies about Dixie and the Lost Cause whitewashing of the Civil War).

It took a great deal of critical introspection for me to slay that past, deconstruct and then reject it, and it took too much time for that process, a transition occurring while I was an undergraduate (a racial awakening overlapping with many nights at O’Sullivan’s singing along to “Free Bird” and holding a long-neck Budweiser).

In Young, the Self I constructed out of the shell that chose to walk away from my racist upbringing found the music and lyrics that resonated with the person I wanted to become.

Recently, I saw a post on social media asking people to choose between Neil Young or Lynyrd Skynyrd. At first, it seemed out of place in 2020.

Like others who replied, my first thought was there is no choice here; it is Young because of the many problems surrounding Lynyrd Skynyrd, including “Sweet Home Alabama” and their embracing the Confederate Flag.

Over five decades, however, there really is nothing simple about that choice because it is 2020.

The Southern-apologist strategy is alive and well in 2020 even as states have taken more aggressive approaches to renaming buildings and removing statues honoring Civil War figures who unequivocally were racists and slavery enablers.

The jumbled history of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the band’s relationship with both the Old South and the New South are an aging quilt, but the threads of that quilt are being disturbingly re-spun in support for Trump by reinvigorated white nationalists in the U.S.

And while conservatives have long clung to “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird” as right-wing anthems, Republicans have also co-opted Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” — seemingly (mis)understood with the same sort of empty-headedness I practiced as a redneck singing along to “Sweet Home Alabama” in the 1970s.

History has been far more kind to Young’s efforts at social consciousness through his music than to Lynyrd Skynyrd regardless of to what degree you backward (re)construct their messages about the South and its iconography (people claim, for example, the “Boo! Boo! Boo!” following “In Birmingham they love the governor” as both rejecting and endorsing infamous racist George Wallace).

There is an irony to asking people to choose between Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd — the former a flawed but earnest choice and the latter a tarnished if not irreparably stained choice.

There was never room for the Confederate Flag, and “Not all Southerners” is a coward’s plea against the historical and lingering systemic racism that plagues not just the South but the entire U.S.A.

But 2020 has proven James Baldwin’s edict: “the time is always now.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd, the original band, and the reconstructed Lynyrd Skynyrd as well as their fans are real-life examples of the great failure of the South, clinging to the old ways simply because they are the old ways.

So much of literature has warned about the folly of pride that it feels cliche, but “Proud to be a Southerner” and “Proud to be an American” both fall flat against the “rigid refusal” to acknowledge our sins past and current.

Now, Young recognizes his warning “Southern change gonna come at last” ( applies to the entire country, not just the region he targeted:

Young posted a 2019 performance of the song on his Archives Wednesday, writing: “Here’s me as an old guy singin’ his 50-year-old song that was written after countless years of racism in the USA. And look at us today! This has been going on for way too long. It’s not just ‘Southern Man’ now. It’s everywhere across the USA. It’s time for real change, new laws, new rules for policing.”

It’s 2020 and there is no credible way to justify Lynyrd Skynyrd, just as there is no credible way to justify Trump.

It’s 2020 and there really is no choice, but it certainly is time to make the choice in ways other than mere words or simply clinging to something that should have never been held dear to begin with.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store