Songs of 74: Sweet Home Alabama / Lynyrd Skynyrd

This year Radioinfo will take you back 50 years to the songs that were released in 1974. It was a mighty fine year for music.

I watched the quirky US film Jules this week where, if I told you the plot, I’d probably put you off like leading man Ben Kingsley does, when he tries to do the same at town meetings.

I recommend it. There’s a scene where Jane Curtin’s character Joyce revisits her youth as a singer and regales Kingsley, and the alien they’ve called Jules, with her version of Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd while somewhere nearby a baddie’s head explodes.

It was hearing Free Bird again that inspired this week’s song choice, Sweet Home Alabama.

We all know it. Most Australian classic hits and rock stations would have it in high rotation and yet it was never released in this country as a single. I don’t think the 1974 album ’Second Helping’, from which Sweet Home Alabama comes, was either.

Sweet Home Alabama has gone onto to become not just Lynyrd Skynyrd’s signature song but so iconic it was the plot starter and name of a Reece Witherspoon film plus used in Con Air where Steve Buscemi uses it to define irony.

There is no doubt it is simply a great track, from the starting riff created and played by Ed King, to the message that no outsider is allowed to diss where you live.

For the record none of the song’s three writers, Gary Rossington, Ronnie Van Zant or King were from Alabama. You are probably aware that the lyrics lay into Neil Young and his songs Southern Man and Alabama. Young is normally one to not take any notice of criticism of his work but in this instance he not only reflected that the band was correct in how his songs did seem accusatory and condescending towards the people of the south’s role in slavery, and now is known to sing Sweet Home Alabama in concert himself.

Another reason for the ongoing legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and their music, is that just after finishing a gig in South Carolina in October 1977 they boarded a chartered plane to get to their next one in Baton Rouge. It ran out of fuel near the end of the flight. Six people including lead vocalist Van Zandt were killed, with everyone else sustaining significant injuries. They had released their fifth album, the eerily named ‘Street Survivors’, just three days before.

The implications for all the plane crash survivors were complex but they would return to touring and music with Rossington, the last of the original lineup up, dying in March 2023. Just before he died he recorded a slide guitar part for a version of Free Bird that was included on Dolly Parton’s 2023 album ‘Rockstar’. She also incorporated Ronnie Van Zant’s original vocals with the permission of his widow.

I have never managed to get a Lynyrd Skynyrd album or single. This image of the maxi single is from Robert Dimery’s great book, 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die.

By Jen Seyderhelm – Radioinfo Writer, Editor and Music Trivia Buff.

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