The song is bathed in controversy – everyone knows the shot at Neil Young, but even Young himself has admitted he sort of deserved it. Everyone knows the background singers go “boo boo boo” after the line “in Birmingham we love the governor.” In a 1975 interview, singer and lyricist Ronnie Van Zant said the line was misunderstood and that it was a criticism of Wallace… “the general public didn’t notice the words Boo! Boo! Boo! after the line.” The fact that Birmingham is not the capital of Alabama is also indicative of the lyrical take on the racial turmoil in the 1960s in Birmingham. Incidentally, one of the session singers who sang background on this track is Merry Clayton who appears prominently in our Gimme Shelter Did You Hear That? piece.

 

Everyone also knows that the “turn it up” in the intro is Van Zant telling the recording engineer to give him more volume in his headphones, but that is Ed King counting the song off, not Van Zant. Speaking of Ed King, the blistering guitar solo he plays between the second and third verse is actually played in a really inventive key that befuddled producer Al Kooper who thought it was wrong in spite of how great it sounded. The song is in G and King plays the solo in pentatonic E minor which brilliantly translates to the G pentatonic scale in this song’s progression. A little Inside Baseball-ish but kind of cool.

 

But there are two really subtle things most people think they know about the song, but they’ve gotten some bad info…

 

On the third beat after the line “well I heard Mr. Young sing about her,” you can hear someone sing “Southern Man” and most people assume it’s a sample of Neil Young singing the title of his song, it’s not, it’s just producer Al Kooper singing the line.

 

During Billy Powell’s rollicking honky-tonk piano solo on the outro Van Zant does not say “My doughnuts! Goddamn!” chastising his bandmates for eating the box of doughnuts he brought to the studio for himself to snack on. According to producer Kooper he says, “Montgomery’s got the answer,” which may have been another sarcastic shot at Wallace.

 

The Swampers the song references are an homage to the Muscle Shoals rhythm section who founded Muscle Shoals Sound Studios after leaving FAME studios a few blocks uptown. Check out our ListenCAREfully video for more information on the Muscle Shoals sound and the Swampers.

 

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