While cruising around Amazon one day, I was recommended this ebook by Jonathan Bernstein. Jonathan has written for Rolling Stone, Oxford American, American Songwriter, and other fine publications. His new book is a focused study of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” examining the cultural and musical impact of the song. It’s a deep-dive well worth the read.”
Jonathan took a few minutes to tell us a little more about the book,
Music Tomes: What drew you to the story of “Sweet Home Alabama”?
Jonathan Bernstein: Well in a certain sense, the song is completely over-discussed. There have been countless debates about whether or not the song comes out in support of Governor Wallace, and whether or not the song was, and is, racist, as if any of those questions are answerable. But what fascinated me most about “Sweet Home Alabama” was the fact that such an iconic, overplayed song has for the most part only ever been talked about in this one way, this either/or, liberal/democrat, North/South sort of dead-end argumentative way.
It seemed like there was so much more to the song that hadn’t really been addressed. I had so many questions that I wanted to explore: Where does “Sweet Home Alabama” fit in a larger historical context of American popular music? Why are people all over the world making their own cover versions of the song? It felt like those questions were begging to be explored.
MT: You talk a little about Merry Clayton in the book and her reaction to the song. After the part about the Governor, the singers sing “Boo, Boo, Boo.” What does that add to the ambiguity of the lyrics?
JB: Merry Clayton’s presence adds such an important layer of confusion and ambiguity to the song. Her ambivalence towards singing in the song is such a great metaphor for the song’s own inner-conflict, and the background singer’s “boo, boo, boo” line is probably responsible for more debate than any other aspect of the song. I love that those boos exist, and I love how unexplained they are. Are they booing Gov. Wallce? Are they booing the people who support Gov. Wallace? Are they mocking people who boo Gov. Wallace? I have no idea!
Since my book came out, I’ve read a comment from someone saying that Gary Rossington (Skynyrd’s guitarist) once said in an interview that the line was supposed to be “and America says Boo, Boo, Boo!” I have no idea if that’s true, nor do I really care, but it’s a great example of how eager people are to either dismiss, or make a huge point of, those boo’s, depending on their politics.
MT: Why do you think the song has resonated with people across the world, even to the point of them adapting it to their own uses?
JB: I found that internationally, “Sweet Home Alabama” is often used as a stand-in for the idea of America, almost as a Hollywood version of Americana. I’ve read reports of the song being played all over the world, in places you’d never expect for it to show up. I think the song sparks a lot of curiosity about the United States, and the American South for those who’ve never really lived in America, and a whole lot of homesickness and nostalgia for those who have.
On a structural level, the song itself really lends itself to adaptation. You have the highly specific, geographical verses mixed with a relatively vague chorus about missing your homeland. “Alabama” itself isn’t so important; that word is really set up well to serve as a placeholder for the city/country/state of your choice, and it’s easy enough to fill in your own appropriate, geographically-relevant verses.
MT: This piece is published by a digital publisher who is specializing in long-form journalism published as small ebooks. Do you see a future for long-form music journalism in this model?
JB: It remains to be seen, but yeah, I do. A lot of people still have a hard time being convinced to pay to read something on the internet, but I think that’s going to change. You have to assume that in ten or twenty years, there are going to be considerably less physical books about music being published, but there’s still going to be an audience that wants to read the type of lengthy, involved music writing that wouldn’t necessarily be published by big online publications. Paying a few bucks on a piece of writing that takes an hour or two to read seems like a logical mid-point between three hundred page music biographies and magazine music writing. There are plenty of stories and subjects that need more than just a couple pages in Rolling Stone or Pitchfork, but don’t necessarily warrant being drawn out into a full-length book. I think you’ll see a lot more publishers, big and small, like the New New South (which published my E-book) sprouting up in the next few years.
MT: What are you currently working on?
JB: Right now I’m happily just focusing on more more shorter term pieces, so I think I’ll be sticking to things like reviews, interviews, and profiles for a while, until I hopefully come up with another bigger project.
MT: Can you tell us some of your favorite music tomes?
JB: Sure- there are a few great books on single songs that definitely helped me write my E-book on “Sweet Home Alabama.” Jody Rosen wrote a fantastic one about “White Christmas,” and Greil Marcus has a really fascinating exploration of “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan.
A few other of my favorite music books I’ve read lately have been Turn Around Bright Eyes, by Rob Sheffield, which is a really entertaining book about karaoke, and Blues People, by the late Amiri Baraka, which traces the cultural history of African-American music from 17th century slave chants to 1950′s rhythm and blues. Out of the Vinyl Deeps, a collection of Ellen Willis’ incredible music writing, has also been a mainstay lately.
Win a copy of Sweet Home Everywhere! Thanks to Jonathan and New New South we have a copy for one of you fine readers. To enter to win, just share this article on Facebook or Twitter and we will randomly select one of those shares! Hashtag your entry #sweethomemusictomes. We’ll announce the winner on Wednesday, July 23.