In his memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, Neil Young looks back at an abundant and fascinating life. There’s a lot of water under his bridge, but he acknowledges there are still matters worth revisiting or at least looking at differently. For one, he confesses to a revisionist view of his ’72 recording, “Alabama.”
My own song, “Alabama,” richly deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record. I don’t like my words when I listen to it today. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue.
He also recalls performing the Lynyrd Skynyrd song in question, “Sweet Home Alabama,” at a concert in Miami. He says that it “must be the only thing I’ve ever done that I didn’t record.” That’s too bad. “Sweet Home Alabama,” no matter how one feels about its reference to Young’s “Alabama,” is a great song. And hearing Young before a live audience singing, “I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow” must’ve been a great kick. Yet hearing Young’s recording of “Alabama” is still instructive. Anyone with a knowledge of 20th Century American history, especially as it relates to the treatment of the nation’s black citizens, knows there’s nothing to misconstrue. Young’s words sounded fully thought out in 1972 and they still do 41 years later.
Young’s “Alabama” does point some accusatory fingers. The time and events demanded as much. Unlike many black or white recording artists of the time, however, Young was at a safe remove. At his ranch in Northern California, or enjoying the festive vibe in Topanga, Young was far from the hatred and violence directed at those seeking equality in the southern American states, particularly Alabama. And in those days, as it was for much of two decades, Alabama was personified by George Wallace.
At every opportunity, voters in Alabama returned Wallace to the Governor’s office. Due to Alabama’s constitution, he was unable to succeed himself upon the completion of his first term in January ’67. No problem. He ran his wife, the political plebe (that’s putting it mildly), Lurleen Wallace. She won the general election on November 8, 1966 with 63.4 percent of the vote. With that election out of the way, George Wallace was now certain of being the state’s de facto Governor for the next four years. He could also build upon his national stature and follow up on his short-lived, yet boisterous, run for the White House conducted in ’64.
In her second year as Governor, Lurleen died of cancer. All of a sudden George Wallace wasn’t able to work the state government behind the scenes. But it didn’t stop him from running for President of the United States in ’68 as an independent. He ran an ugly and scary campaign, sowing more discord in a time when the country was already severely divided.
Much of the division throughout America, particularly in the Southern states, involved race. Too often, the focal point of discord was in Alabama. Wallace, after a losing run for Governor in ’58 as a moderate on the race issue, said he’d “never be outnigguhed again.” He lived up to his word in ’62, and then presided over Alabama as its black people lived in terror.
The Event Of The Season . . . A month after Wallace was first elected Governor, Neil Young, in Winnipeg, more than 1300 miles north of Montgomery, Alabama, put together his first band, The Squires. Just 17 years-old, Young was focused on music. It would be his career and his life. As for all young people with their eyes on a prize, the clamor of the outside world was hardly front and center.
A guy in Young’s shoes, actually, seemed quite fortunate to many young American men. Young was living in his native Canada, away from the racial strife in the US and its involvement in the Vietnam War. Canada was a destination for the 20,000 to 30,000 draft-age American men avoiding military service during the Vietnam years. As with race, the issue of Vietnam consumed Americans. The country that couldn’t shake off one yoke took on another.
The fear and defiance felt by young Americans made the emerging rock scene even edgier. It was already perceived as rebellious music, but with so many of its participants and fans a part of the country’s maelstrom, rock music symbolized the dissatisfaction with the established order. Or at least it seemed that way. As with most everyone, the rock and rollers had to deal with their own front and center. They were looking for the next break and yearning to feel free — that’s free from want as well as free from leaders who’d send them overseas and bring them back in boxes. This was a lot for most young people to absorb. It wasn’t time to die. It was time to embrace the fullness of life and enjoy its pleasures, such as the music gifted young people like Neil Young were creating.
But in Alabama, where so many of America’s greatest musicians were born and raised, Governor George Wallace was creating hardships. School kids in Montgomery, Birmingham, Anniston or any other Alabama town would recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the American Flag as leaders, like Wallace, who their parents put in power, made a joke of “liberty and justice for all.”
Consider the body count in Alabama. Four little black girls killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963, less than 8 months after Wallace was sworn in as Governor, pledging to Alabamians, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Segregation meant keeping black folks down. In May of that year Wallace watched as Birmingham, his state’s biggest city, did its best to deliver on the Governor’s pledge. Birmingham’s police sicced dogs on protesters demanding equality. Its Public Safety Commissioner, Bull Connor, demanded those marching peacefully be blasted with water from city fire hoses. Children were hurt then too, but Alabamians in Wallace’s camp couldn’t be bothered. This pursuit of liberty and justice for all was a damned nuisance.
Wallace surely wouldn’t allow dead children to take him off his game. Five days after the bombing, he appeared on the Today show and took the offensive, stating the “Supreme Court, the Kennedy administration and the civil rights agitators are more to blame for this dastardly crime than anyone else.”
There’s A World You’re Living In . . . It was difficult for sympathetic people outside the South to grasp the mean spirit motivating Wallace and his supporters. Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia were part of the nation, but to millions of Americans, the states seemed to be part of a whole other country. And besides, there were other events seizing the hearts and minds in the U.S. at the time. In November ’63, President Kennedy was assassinated. The next year young Americans would celebrate the Beatles. Their emergence took minds off the tragedy in Dallas and the ugliness fellow citizens conjure. The Beatles not only restored spirits. In time their music and world view awakened senses to the promise liberty offered. That meant giving thought to the world outside — along with the music on the stereo.
Rock composers, as had their folk music peers, began to take interest in the notion of liberty and justice for all. They also conveyed their anger over the war in Vietnam. As America’s war over the war peaked in May ’70 with the Kent State murders, Neil Young was moved to write his weighty song of protest, “Ohio.” He called on his partners, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash to get to the studio post-haste. The song was alive in Young’s head and its vitality was perceived by the star musicians as they made their classic recording. “Ohio” is all at once a vibrant and angry song. It so resonates that it’s hard to hear the state’s name ever mentioned without “Four dead in Ohio” ringing between the ears. Who knew how informed Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, was about the war? Was he reading The Nation and listening intently to politicians like George McGovern and Frank Church? Maybe not, but it was obvious he gleaned what was truly and immediately wrong. Such distress guided him when he wrote “Alabama,” even if he now considers it “not fully thought-out.”
Broke It Down The Middle . . . Returning as Governor after a vile race-baiting campaign against Albert Brewer in 1970*, Wallace again aimed high. In ’72 he would make his third run for the Presidency, this time seeking the Democratic nomination. Though he would tone down the racist rhetoric, what happened at Kent State hardly fazed George Wallace. The protesters, admired and honored by Young, were beneath Wallace’s contempt. He had often raged against the long-hairs and “anarchists” who protested the war, once joking about running one over in a presidential limo. (Southern conservatives weren’t alone in their hatred of anti-war protesters. On the day before the Kent State murders, Ohio Governor James Rhodes said of them, “They’re worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people we harbor in America.”)
Neil Young’s Harvest album was released in February ’72, just as the Democratic presidential primary season was getting under way. George Wallace seemed a contender. Even the renowned liberal, Hubert Humphrey, who gave a brave speech on civil rights at the ’48 Democratic convention, thought of making Wallace his running mate should he gain the nomination that year. Wallace’s show was now playing better in the Northern states. He wore stylish suits and his new wife was easy on the eyes. He was getting peoples’ attention. “Send Them A Message” was his campaign slogan that year. His approach was one that Carter, Reagan and even Clinton would later borrow from. People with a sense of history weren’t convinced, however. Even though it was a milder Wallace on the stump, one couldn’t forget the messages he had sent out before.
I Come To You And. . . . Harvest, which soared to number one on the Billboard chart, had the hits, “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man,” making Neil Young a rock star of the first order. Mostly recorded in Nashville, Harvest is a strong album, one listened to all the way through now just as it was in ’72. Even the more conservative of the customers in a suburban Atlanta record department were hardly bothered by “Alabama.” The decent young conservatives weren’t pleased their region of the country was being criticized, but they had followed the news and remembered a similar perspective on “Southern Man,” from Young’s previous album, After the Gold Rush. They figured Neil Young got it right.
Randy Newman didn’t see it that way. He told Young biographer Jimmy McDonough that both “Southern Man” and “Alabama” are a “little misguided.” Newman, though an admirer of Young, said, “It’s too easy a target. I don’t think he knows enough about it. Neil’s Big Issue things — ‘Ohio,’ or where he’s pissed off about people selling his songs — I don’t like as well. It’s not his best stuff.” Newman’s points are well taken — to a degree. After all, Newman is among the best-read of rock composers. Newman cited T. Harry Williams’ biography, Huey Long, as inspiration for Good Old Boys, his ’74 album that reflected on the real life politicians as well as the hopes and dreams south of the Mason-Dixon line. However, while Newman can hold his own at any history roundtable, Young, like many great artists, has displayed a gut instinct about when and where justice goes missing.
In “Alabama,” Young surveys the “ruin” of a state defined by the violence it visited upon fellow Americans. The ruin was spread across the state: Birmingham, in ’65, with its city-sanctioned attacks on protesters, young and old; Anniston, where the Freedom Riders were beaten in ’61; the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where civil rights marchers were attacked by tear gas and billy-club wielding lawmen in ’65, and Birmingham again the same year, with the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. All these horrors occurred in the decade before Neil Young recorded “Alabama.”
Neil Young calls out to Alabamians in his song, “Can I see you and shake your hand? Make friends down in Alabama.” He notes Alabama has gotten “the spare change” but it has “the rest of the union to help you along.” Yes, “Alabama” has its share of condemnation, but it’s also a plea for reconciliation. Even George Wallace, in a very painful but liberating moment, finally admitted he was wrong. In 1985, Joseph Lowery, a long-time civil rights leader and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, took Wallace’s remorse seriously. He went to Alabama and shook Wallace’s hand.
*Wallace supporters claimed “Blacks Vow To Take Over Alabama” in a racist flyer distributed by the thousands. The flyer’s picture of one little white girl at the beach surrounded by seven little black boys ran with the caption, “This Could Be Alabama Four Years from Now! Do You Want It?” Jimmy Carter later referred to Wallace’s ’70 campaign as “one of the most racist campaigns in southern political history.” Carter may have thought that to be true even at the time but it didn’t stop him from being deferential to Wallace as he was running for governor in neighboring Georgia that same year. A future Like the Dew story will focus on the early Carter campaigns with the usual mix of southern politicos along with Peter, Paul and Mary.
Author’s Note: Recommended reading and helpful in completing this story are the books Shakey by Jimmy McDonough, George Wallace, American Populist by Stephen Lesher, The Politics of Rage by Dan T. Carter, and The Making of the President, 1972 by Theodore White.