When Laura decided to study Russian in ninth grade, she pictured travelling to the land of Ivan the Terrible: Passionate, dangerous, alive. But when she actually travels to Russia to spend a semester, Laura finds it bleak and unfriendly. Except for the boy, Alyosha. This boy shows her the Russia beneath the surface, where real teens party with their friends. Certain musical groups, or particular songs are viewed as anti-government and forbidden. Oddly, singer/songwriter Neil Young is okay. It’s because he sings a song that criticizes the American South, they explain. That song is “Southern Man,”released in 1970. Here’s a sampling of lyrics.
your hair is golden brown
I’ve seen your black man
Swear by God
I’m gonna cut him down!
I heard screamin’
and bullwhips cracking
How long? How long?
Listen to a clip of “Southern Man” here.
Four years later, a band named Lynyrd Skynyrd, originally formed in Jacksonville, Florida, had a response for Young. In “Sweet Home Alabama,” lead singer and songwriter Ronnie Van Zant writes, “Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her/Well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down/Well, I hope Neil Young will remember/A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.”
Listen to “Sweet Home Alabama” here.
There was no animosity between Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd. In a recent Rolling Stones article, journalist Andy Green quotes Van Zant: “We didn’t even think about it. The words just came out that way. We just laughed like hell and said, ‘Ain’t that funny.’ We love Neil Young. We love his music.” As for Young, “I’m proud to have my name in a song like theirs.” (Ballinger, Lee. (2002 ©1999). Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History).
In 1977, three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, including Ronnie Van Zant, were killed in a plane crash. Below is the audio from a Neil Young concert, performed shortly after the accident. Young sings his own song, “Alabama,” and then moves into “Sweet Home Alabama” near the end.
Diane Colson, reading an advance reader’s copy of Lauren Oliver’s Vanishing Girls.