Old timers may recall when the “national anthem” of the Confederacy “Dixie” was played. Many football fans sang along as the University of Alabama‘s Million Dollar Band played the iconic song. “I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten.”
The song “Dixie” was written in the 1850s for blackface minstrel shows. According to the History Collection:
With its beginnings in theater, the story of “Dixie” starts with a song. By the mid-nineteenth century, minstrel shows – a variety show that included singing and dancing – were popular entertainments that ridiculed African slaves. Using skits that depicted Africans as lazy and good-natured, minstrel shows introduced “blackface” characters played by white actors in black makeup. They perpetuated the “dumb Negro” stereotype, beginning with the “Jim Crow” character in the 1830s. Initially appearing once or twice within a given performance, “blackface” caricatures soon became the center of the minstrelsy.
Lewis Bolling wrote an account of the celebration that took place after the University of Alabama football team’s 1926 victory at the Rose Bowl. He described how the Million Dollar Band marched down Greensboro Avenue. A speaker at the event bragged that the team was unbeatable when the band played “Dixie.”
A Georgia newspaper proclaimed the victory the “greatest victory for the South since the Battle of Bull Run,” referring to the first major victory for the Confederacy in the American Civil War.
The lyrics of team’s fight song “Yea Alabama” refer to the 1926 Rose Bowl victory. “Remember the Rose Bowl/We’ll win then/So roll on to victory/Hit your stride/You’re Dixie’s football pride/Crimson Tide Roll Tide, Roll Tide.”
It’s been many years since the strains of “Dixie” have wafted over the bleachers in Bryant Denny Stadium. In recent years fans have sung along with the country song “Dixieland Delight.” Its lyrics include a reference to “A little turtle dovin’ on a Mason Dixon night.” Student fans, many of whom come from areas in the United States outside of Dixieland, are enamored of the song which somehow “fits” their lives.
But more than “Dixieland Delight” and perhaps even “Yea Alabama,” the song that now seems synonymous with Alabama Football was written in the middle of a Florida swamp in a shack by a group of stoned rockers named Lynyrd Skynyrd. One of the song’s composers Ronnie Van Zant once said, “Everybody thinks we’re a bunch of drunken rednecks … and that’s correct.”
“Sweet Home Alabama” is indelibly tied to Alabama football games where it is frequently played. Even in the pregame spots by television networks it is often featured. It has a catchy tune but in a way the song may have more racist overtones than even “Dixie.” To be fair the musicians may have been so out of it that the lyrics they cobbled together may have not have been intended as racist.
“Sweet Home Alabama” refers to the 1970 song “Southern Man” by Neil Young about the lynchings of blacks that took place in Alabama and other parts of the South. “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.”
The song also seems to side with Alabama’s former segregationist governor George Wallace. “In Birmingham, they love the governor (boo! boo! boo!)/ Now we all did what we could do.” The lyrics of “Home Sweet Alabama” say “the skies are so blue and the governor’s true.”
Young has recently said, “It’s not just ‘Southern Man’ now. It’s everywhere across the USA. It’s time for real change.”
For “Sweet Home Alabama” to remain as the song most readily associated with Alabama football after the national unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd would seem to fly in the face of sentiments expressed by its football coach and players.
In Alabama the skies aren’t always blue and football fans aren’t all white. To ban “Sweet Home Alabama” from Bryant Denny Stadium might well be a good way to show that black lives matter.