Kennedy: 'Home' is where the song is

Kennedy: 'Home' is where the song is

January 14th, 2018 by Mark Kennedy in Opinion Columns

Remember the old television game show "Name That Tune"?

In the 1970s and '80s, contestants on the show could win up to $100,000 by naming songs based on just a few notes.

Well, there's one song that most people in the South can name in just four notes: "Sweet Home Alabama." It might be one of the world's most recognizable introductory guitar riffs: "Dum-Dum-DEE-Dum."

Turn it up!

Officially, "Sweet Home Alabama" only rose to No. 8 on the pop chart in 1974, but in certain places — namely Tuscaloosa, Ala. — it rivals "Amazing Grace" on the list of all-time hits.

Mark Kennedy

Mark Kennedy

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

I'd say it got sung a few times in Alabama last week as the University of Alabama Crimson Tide notched yet another football national championship.

When I was finishing up high school in the mid-1970s, the Southern rock anthem played in a continuous loop on the jukebox in the lunchroom of my high school in Columbia, Tenn. I can still hear the stylus popping and crackling on that old, worn, 45-rpm record.

Now, when "Sweet Home" comes on the radio, I find it hard to ignore Ronnie Van Zant imploring me to "turn it up" during that opening guitar riff. (Although some say Lynyrd Skynyrd's frontman was not talking to us, the audience, but was simply telling the soundman to turn up his headphones.)

I remember in high school being a little confused about the lyrics. I wasn't sure who Neil Young was or why he was name-checked in the song. ("Sweet Home Alabama" was written in response to Young's songs "Alabama" and "Southern Man.")

Still, it was clear enough in the lyrics to "Sweet Home Alabama" that Southerners were being asked to take sides in what would come to be called the "culture wars." I picked up from context that some thought the South, our home, was under attack and it was time to circle the wagons.

Later, I would come to the conclusion that, yes, Watergate did bother me and that George Wallace (or simply, "the Gov'na," in "Sweet Home") was not a politician I admired. So there's that.

I find it interesting that "Sweet Home Alabama" has become the de facto theme song of the University of Alabama football team. Every time I hear young people on TV chanting the words, I wonder if they know Neil Young from Neil Armstrong. Also, I am quite sure that many of them think that the phrase "Roll, Tide, Roll" is part of the original lyrics. It's not.

But let's not overanalyze. Even the song's author, Van Zant, later hinted that the politics of the song were overblown and that it was never even meant to be released as a single.

No, the enduring legacy of "Sweet Home Alabama" is a reminder that "home" is not just a place; it's a shared heritage, common traditions — even flawed ones. In our fractured culture, all it takes is a song and a sports team to get us bowed up.

And if you think it's just a Southern thing, then you never heard the baseball fans on the South Side of Chicago at Comiskey Park sing "Sweet Home Chicago," which was first recorded by blues legend Robert Johnson all the way back in 1936.

Heck, dig into the lyrics of "Rocky Top," Tennessee's football anthem, and you run into this line, "Rocky Top, you'll always be home sweet home to me."

More "home" homage and another "sweet home" to boot. At the end of the day, most of us are tied to a place. For most of us, thoughts of home pick us up when we're feeling blue.

I know it works for me.

Now, how 'bout you?

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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