Neil Young – Southern Man

A few days ago this song has come up in conversation with a friend of mine. We talked about it and then my friend Dave from A Sound Day posted about it a few days later.

I love the power of the song and I’ve learned it on guitar but as a southern person… I think Neil generalized too much. Even Neil thinks that now. His quote on the song now is “I don’t like my words when I listen to it. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue.” Are there people like that in the world? Certainly but they are not all located in the south.

Lynyrd Skynyrd replied to this song with their biggest hit Sweet Home Alabama. Neil was quite happy with “Sweet Home Alabama.” He said, “They play like they mean it, I’m proud to have my name in a song like theirs.”

Young is mentioned in the line “I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” Lynyrd Skynyrd were big fans of Young. “Sweet Home Alabama” was meant as a good-natured answer to this, explaining the good things about Alabama. Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zandt often wore Neil Young T-shirts while performing and he was thinking of covering a Young song called Powderfinger before his death in the crash.

The song was on “After the Gold Rush” released in 1970.

Neil Young: “Oh, they didn’t really put me down! But then again, maybe they did! (laughs) But not in a way that matters. S–t, I think ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ is a great song. I’ve actually performed it live a couple of times myself.”

From Songfacts

In the liner notes for his greatest hits album Decade, Young wrote: “This song could have been written on a civil rights march after stopping off to watch Gone With The Wind at a local theater.”

Young was backed by his band Crazy Horse on this track:

Danny Whitten – guitar
Jack Nitzsche – piano
Nils Lofgren – guitar
Billy Talbot – bass
Ralph Molina – drums

Nils Lofgren, a guitarist by trade, played piano on this song, an instrument he never played before After The Gold Rush. Young tasked Lofgren with playing piano as a “special trial,” according to Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey.

In trying to get the piano down, Lofgren tapped into his background with accordion. “I used to be an accordion player, and accordion’s all ‘oompah oompah,'” he said. “So I started doin’ the accordion thing on piano.”

To Lofgren’s surprise, Young loved it.

“That’s the sound I was looking for,” Young said. “I didn’t want to hear a bunch of f–kin’ licks. I don’t like musicians playing licks.”

Director Jonathan Demme first cut the opening sequence of his movie Philadelphia to this song in an effort to get Young to write a song like it for the film. Young gave him “Philadelphia,” which he used over the end. Bruce Springsteen’s contribution, “Streets Of Philadelphia,” was used over the open.

Young was married to his first wife, Susan Acevedo, when he wrote this song in his Topanga Canyon studio. They were not getting along, and Young’s foul mood translated into this track, which he described as “an angry song.”

Randy Newman felt that “Southern Man” was one of Young’s least interesting songs. “‘Southern Man,’ ‘Alabama’ are a little misguided,” he said. “It’s too easy a target. I don’t think he knows enough about it.”

During a filmed performance of this song at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, Crazy Horse’s Billy Talbot and Frank “Poncho” Sampredro dropped acid. “I can vividly remember ‘Southern Man,'” Sampredro’s said in Shakey. “It was wildly out of control – fast, slow, up, down, everywhere. At the end we were singing, I had my eyes closed and I hear this little tiny voice and I turn around and it was just me. Everybody else had quit even playing.”

Southern Man

Southern man, better keep your head.
Don’t forget what your good book said.
Southern change gonna come at last.
Now your crosses are burning fast.

Southern man.

I saw cotton and I saw black.
Tall white mansions and little shacks.
Southern man, when will you pay them back?

I heard screamin’ and bullwhips cracking.
How long? How long?

Southern man, better keep your head.
Don’t forget what your good book said.
Southern change gonna come at last.
Now your crosses are burning fast.

Southern man.

Lily Belle, your hair is golden brown.
I’ve seen your black man comin’ round.
Swear by God, I’m gonna cut him down!

I heard screamin’ and bullwhips cracking.
How long? How long?

Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

60 thoughts on “Neil Young – Southern Man”

  1. Hi Max! Hope you’re well. I think you know I’m no huge fan of Neil Young, especially when he plays electric.
    Have you seen /heard the video with George Harrison talking to Bob Geldof?
    George admits he doesn’t like Neil Young … and I’m pretty sure the video he’s referring to is when he, Clapton, Neil Young and a bunch of others played “My Back Pages” live.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Neil is a sloppy guitar player and that is why many like him and many don’t….No I I’ll look that one up…I do remember that concert though. I had the uncut satellite feed on vhs for the longest.
      Hope you are well Eden.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. George was nice about it a little later on saying he was a nice guy but he just didn’t like him musically… and I like that. They are two totally different guitarists. George a more refined and Neil more punkish.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I don’t see a thing wrong with this song. although it only mentions the worst parts about the South. Neil says, “Southern change gonna come at last” and I think that is happening now with The Dixie Chicks changing their name to The Chicks and Lady Antebellum changing their name to Lady A, so it seems that Neil was prophetic. No one ever mentioned anything about the crosses burning, the little shacks and bullwhips cracking and I for one am glad that Neil pointed out this injustice in his song. The guy who swears to kill Lily Belle’s lover just because he was black is horrific. Shakey is Jimmy McDonough’s biography of Neil Young, but I never read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I grew up in the seventies…did I see more racism than you did in the north? I don’t guess we will know but I did NOT see it all the time whatsoever. Unlike the tv shows that showed every bigot as a southerner…it just wasn’t and isn’t so…at least not where I grew up and lived. Yes I’ve known bigots…don’t get me wrong… but I’m sure we all have…north, south, east, and west.
      Even Neil doesn’t like the wording of it either…because it can be misconstrued. I just don’t like being generalized. I’m not a sensitive person but I didn’t like being lumped in with bad people…like Phil commented…there were injustices in the north also….Like I said…I’ve played this song many times…but I do get some people’s backlash.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I love the song and I love the message in it and I am aware that all Southerners are not bad people, but some were and I am happy that Neil had the courage to say something about this.


      2. Well said, Max. I’ve grown weary of the automatic prejudice of being Southern. I don’t like this song, honestly and was rather amused at Lynyrd Skynyrd’s response, even if there was friendliness between the two.

        Race relations are worse, now, than they were twenty, thirty years ago. You can thank media for that s***.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yea my point in this was that….don’t group me in with bigots just because I’m southern…what I got from some was like I was denying his other messages…no I just meant don’t generalize


    2. “The guy who swears to kill Lily Belle’s lover” is a fictitious character. It might be better to visit the south than to take a pop song as gospel, and that’s the whole point of listeners and NY himself being critical of this song. To the idea that Neil Young was brave because “some people” in the south were “like that”, let’s imagine a hypothetical song called “Northern Man” where in stead of “stone white mansions and little shacks” we have the line, “carpet bombing in Vietnam.” Point is that labeling a whole population based on geographic location with a negative label is immature and short sighted. And most of the people who find fault with the song here are generous and even fond of NY, it seems to me the folks who are pushing back here are having the real difficulty.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the shoutout, Max! It’s an interesting song. It’s a great record, really one of his more listenable and he makes some good social commentary in his lyrics. But as he himself noted – often- later on, it shouldn’t have been taken to be a picture of EVERY Southern man, just a critiquing of some of the problems from that part of the world. Kinda rich Randy Newman criticizing it when he offended half the nation with his equally-misconstrued song ‘Short People.”!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Dave I don’t mean to pick on (another) Canadian (band) but that song, “American Woman” really ticked me off when it came out and it still does. Looking at Southern Man as slamming on all southern people (Max, TN seems more like a middle ground of the US instead of the Deep South, but that’s just my view) I can why those who are southerners would be offended by it. I could say, yes, some are like that and some are not, but when I try to use that logic on “American Woman” it doesn’t fly. Neil was calling out a whole region of our nation and he has to own it.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks Lisa I appreciate it. I never thought of that but I see your point! Those darn Canadians! lol.
        I know there are/were/will always be bad people…and I knew some stereotypical bigots…but I knew many more good people.

        I totally don’t like being labeled…good or bad. If someone is going to label me…I want to do it. I still like the song though…it’s powerful… I’m glad he has said he doesn’t like the lyrics now.


      2. I think what he meant was …grouping “southern man” as one body…the generalizing of people from that region…when he said misconstrued that is the only thing I can think of…

        Bailey has been talking to a German girl for months…and she said people always think of Nazis when she says she is from Germany…not calling her one… but that is what always comes up… I guess everyone gets grouped.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. I see what you mean when you put it like that.
        I’ve been watching a lot of foreign movies lately, some from Germany, from the perspective of those German citizens who were dead set against what the Nazis were doing. I can see where she would get discouraged by being lumped in with the bad ones.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. And I love the song…I just know why some people got upset over it….unlike Short People he didn’t offer a bridge saying basically everyone was the same…he was firing on all cylinders.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. to Lisa, I’d say yes, “American woman” is my absolute least favorite Guess Who single, or song that I’ve heard by them, and the Lenny K version makes me cringe , I think to myself ‘did someone pick that out of his garbage can?” because he’s quite talented all in all.
        Like you say Max, people tend to get stereotyped. ‘southern Man’ was heavy-handed but a good little rocker and if he and Lynyrd S could reconcile, so should the rest . I sometimes think the reason we Canadians usually are received well is because most of us aren’t bombastic and are able to laugh at ourselves. I think one of the funniest ‘King of the Hills’ was the one where the Canadian family move in with their Moosehead beer and Canadian-built lawn mower and the thing that makes me laugh consistently (the only thing really) in ‘How I Met Your mother” is when Robin goes off on a Canadian tangent (“Oh, Bruce Springsteen…he’s OK> He’s sort of like the American version of Bryan Adams”)

        Liked by 2 people

      2. When I think of Canadians I think of really well mannered people…the Canadians I have known in real life do not like conflicts and like you said…are not bombastic.

        What makes American Woman a song to be remembered is not the chorus…it’s that guitar! That long sustain on guitar…that is what makes it go.

        I should have worded the post better…I do like the song…my thing is…I know why people did take it the wrong way.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I think I also didn’t really state my point that well about us Canucks, it was rather that people shouldn’t be so quick to take offense… Neil sings a song slagging A “Southern Man” and there are still people , some not even from there, being offended by it 40 years later….lighten up people!
        I do remember reading about Lenny’s take on “American Woman” and he did say he couldn’t get his guitar to sound like Randy Bachman’s effects so he had to simplify it , and it would seem, this time simpler wasn’t better.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. You know how this came up? I had a friend asking why did Ronnie Van Zant got so upset that he wrote that song? He was upset at first…well one thing led to another and we actually paid attention to the words…and then it was like well yea… Whips Cracking etc…I see…I don’t know why it took me so long….and then right after you posted it so that re-enforced it lol.

        I don’t care…do I think he generalized? Yes…do I get mad about it now? No of course not….only a few older things make me still upset…McCarthyism is one of them….but not much.

        My ex-fiancé married a Canadian btw…him and I use to talk all of the time…great guy.

        Yea it’s the guitar that really makes it.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Not a fan of the tune, but he did call out what he saw as southern injustice, a hundred and fifty years later. Problem is there is just as much northern injustice that he could have wrote about. He should try his hand at a new tune about today. He is a bit sloppy on guitar sometimes, but is still a great musician, especially when paired with Stills.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love his lead playing…it is sloppy I will admit. You nailed it…him and Stills really work together well.
      Yea I hope I didn’t come off as a overly sensitive person on this…I actually like the song but I can see why people don’t like being grouped as these bad people.


  5. The song was actually written for very trivial reasons: Neil Young was annoyed when he was rudely pushed out of a bar in Alabama by two ruffnecks in 1969 because he had long hair, and so the idea for the song came to him.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The funny thing is…I like the song a lot. I’ve played the song before and I like it…it’s powerful…I just see why some people would not like being grouped like that…it spawned another good song also…wore out as SHA might be.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I love Neil Young and his music, including his guitar-playing, despite what my hero, Geo, said about his playing. Neil has a rep as a loose cannon so when he came out with “Southern Man” in his youth and arrogance was not concerned about accountability. I *am* glad he pointed out what many have never had the courage to point out in music (if you’re Billie Holiday and sing about ‘Strange Fruit’ that’s ok as her ancestors were/are the oppressed) what is our national shame, and not just in The South, but everywhere.

    I’m reading a book right now by Charles Blow, called, “The Devil You Know,” where he talks about the two great black migrations from south to north. He suggests that the lynchings in the south have been replaced by the police brutality and mass incarceration of the north. He has many many stats from many sources that suggest the WORST place of current police violence against citizens of color is in the West and in Texas. He also talks about the horrible practices that were visited in northern “destination cities” for blacks, including Chicago. Housing covenants that excluded blacks from all but a few constrained neighborhoods (like in Europe with their ghettos and gulags) is probably the worst along with the police brutality.

    Sorry to go on and on about it, but I am VERY glad you opened the song up for discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It should never come into play…we should be completely equal…or in other words…what is that name? Oh yea… Humans! That is what we are and no matter our race, gender, rich , poor etc…equality. Doctor Martin Luther King preached that and I totally agree.

      Never be sorry about going on and on…that is what comments are for…I usually don’t dive into anything like this but I always wondered…what’s the big deal? Why did Lynyrd Skynyrd write SHA? Well…It hit me…well Van Zant didn’t like being labeled as a person who would do those things…I don’t either. I have nothing against pointing the bad things out at all…just narrow the subject down…but again…I would never lose sleep over the song. I know though why people do get upset….like I’ve said…I’ve played it.

      I know the song Strange Fruit…I almost covered it before. We need to be all equal…I try and I’ve taught Bailey to treat people the same…whoever they might be.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Funny that this came up in a totally unrelated search result as I was thinking about this in the shower this morning. Actually thinking about Alabama vs Sweet Home Alabama. Sweet Home Alabama referencing “Southern Man” so there you go. I always loved all three of these songs. But what I was thinking about from a critical perspective is the imagery in Alabama. “Your Cadillac has one wheel in the ditch and a wheel on the track.” It struck me that Cadillacs aren’t really an Alabama car, anyway they were manufactured up north, in Detroit, a city with racial and social issues of its own. Then it further struck me that “a wheel in the ditch and a wheel on the track” perfectly describes Neil’s vocal abilities, but “You’ve got the rest of the Union to help you along.” Well Neil has the rest of CSNY to help him along. 🙂 Southern Man is a great song, if it was perhaps a cheap shot at Southerners in general, but Alabama, as much as I like it, is a bit of a downer compared to the lively imagery of Sweet Home Alabama, and Skynyrd show their class in referring to Neil as “Mr. Young” and refraining from any personal attacks. Peace. V

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Yea I usually don’t say anything like I did today…personally I like the song and I’ve played it before in bands…but I do see why some people got offended by being lumped together with the bigots.

      Love your analogy on the Cadillacs! That is great!

      Alabama is long and tedious! I travel through it to get to Florida. I live in Nashville TN. I have nothing against it but no I wouldn’t live there…I do like Huntsville though.

      I was going to post about the song Alabama and I could have tied Sweet Home Alabama in there also.

      The great thing is as you said…we got two great songs out of this…Southern Man and Sweet Home Alabama.


    1. I love the song! I should have kept my mouth shut Christian but the reason I said something is…I know people…good people that felt grouped with this song…I get it…but I tell them…don’t take it personally.
      I LOVE playing the song on guitar.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I totally get where you’re coming from. You can find that shit everywhere. I’m a Canadian (among other things) and people are always giving me the gears. Hey maybe Neil got bit by someone down there when he was a kid.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yea and it didn’t affect me liking the song at all or Neil…he will always be one of my favorites…it’s just damn Neil…chill a little.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. That is me! Peace love and understanding…
        CB I’ll be over soon so start firing the grill up lol. I was coming today but work intervened.

        Liked by 1 person

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