Americana by Neil Young

2012

When I was small, my parents would sing nursery rhymes to me and encourage me to sing along with them. For example,

Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full;
One for the master,
And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane

There has been some controversy over this nursery rhyme and possible misunderstandings of the significance of the colour of the wool. Some historians have pointed out that black wool was more valuable than the more common white since it could be made into dark cloth without dyeing. On the other hand, calling someone “the black sheep of the family” is a negative comment and is one of many ways in which the white lexicon insults people with darker skin colour. It’s possible that the rhyme represents frustration of the wool tax of 1275 which lasted for two centuries. In the original version of the song, printed in 1744, the three bags were distributed differently.

Bah, Bah, a black Sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes old mate I have
Three bags full,
Two for my master,
One for my dame,
None for the little boy
That cries in the lane

Another nursery rhyme that was sung to me is Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

There is confusion about the term “humpty-dumpty” because it has two meanings. In the 17th century the term was used for a drink of brandy boiled with ale but in the 18th century it was used to describe a short, clumsy person. One theory is that Humpty-Dumpty was Richard III, who was a hunchback and defeated at Bosworth Field in 1485. In 1996, the Colchester tourist board claimed that, in 1648, a large cannon was given the name Humpty Dumpty and was used to defend Colchester from Roundheads attacking the city. A lucky shot caused the cannon to tumble to the ground and the Cavaliers (the Royalists – consisting of the King’s men) couldn’t repair the cannon because it was so heavy. The first indication that Humpty Dumpty was, in fact, an egg, comes in “Through The Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll, published in 1871.

Neil Young has recorded 18 albums with Crazy Horse. The first guitarist was Danny Whitten, who died in 1972 of a drug overdose. Frank Sampedro became the guitarist for the next 40 years until Nils Lofgren took over for “Colorado” (2019) and “Barn” (2021). Billy Talbot (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums) have been members of the band since the formation of the band in 1968.

Neil Young released two albums with Crazy Horse in 2012: “Americana” in June and “Psychedelic Pill” in October. The latter is nearly 90 minutes long and contains nine original songs, including “Driftin’ Back”, which is 27 minutes long. The recording of these albums took place at the same time in October/November 2011.

The chemistry between the four members of Neil Young and Crazy Horse has never been better than on this album. Most of the songs were completed in three takes and the spontaneity that they rely on makes the album alive with huge depth. “I’ve played with a lot of bands and they are all unique but Crazy Horse is completely in another class because of its roughness. The chemical thing, the groove, the fun we have, how emotional we are about it and how much it means to us makes it all real. There’s no other way to put it.”

In 1964 Neil Young went to see a band called The Thorns in Ontario. The lead singer was Tim Rose and he had arranged “Oh Susannah”. Neil Young copied the arrangement but his band, The Squires, had a drummer and The Thorns did not and the sound they made was at the vanguard of folk-rock. He loved the idea of re-arranging traditional American folk songs so much that The Squires played four other arrangements of old songs. All of these arrangements appear on “Americana”.

Neil Young described every song on this album as “dark” and he liked the idea of singing songs that kindergarten children sung but reinserting the original lyrics. “These are the songs that kids grew up with but they were missing all their fighting ingredients.” We should just be thankful that there’s no “Baa Baa Black Sheep” or “Humpty Dumpty” on this album. Although, his version of “God Save The Queen” is a tough listen.

Oh Susannah

Stephen Foster was born in 1826 and has been described as “the father of American music”. He wrote over 200 songs including “Camptown Races”, “Hard Times Come Again No More”, “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Oh! Susannah”, which tells the story of a man going from Alabama to New Orleans in search of Susannah, whilst carrying a banjo. A song called “Rose Of Alabama”, written by Silas S. Steele and published a year earlier, tells the story of a man travelling from Mississippi to Alabama, also with a banjo. The song contains a nonsense element such as “It rained all night the day I left. The weather it was dry. The sun so hot I froze to death.” There are four verses to the song and the second and fourth verses are normally omitted due to their racist nature. Neil Young’s version starts in a very ramshackle way with random drumming and electric guitar before the rest of the band kick in to play the melody. A choir of teenagers from a school in Los Angeles sing the chorus as Neil Young belts out verses two and four in half sections and in a random order. The way he sings banjo is wonderful, spelling out b-a-n-j-o in the same way that Van Morrison spelt out G-l-o-r-i-a. This is a thrilling, rollicking, mid-tempo version of the song. Crazy Horse have never sounded more like the bar band you dream of encountering as you wander around a small American town in Louisiana or Mississippi or Alabama….

Clementine

The song is sung by a man whose lover (or daughter), Clementine, accidentally falls into a cascade of brine and drowns. Neil Young describes “Clementine” as a “dark epic” and he took particular pleasure at inserting original lyrics such as “In my dreams she still does haunt me, robed in garments soaked in brine. Though in life I used to hug her, in death I draw the line.” In the last verse, the singer kisses Clementine’s little sister. This act takes on a different significance depending on whether or not the song is sung by Clementine’s father or lover.

Tom Dula (sometimes called “Tom Dooley”)

The song is based on the 1866 murder of a woman named Laura Foster, who was stabbed to death with a knife in North Carolina. Tom Dula, a confederate soldier, had been Laura Foster’s lover and was the father of her unborn child. He was convicted of her murder and hanged on May 1st 1868. Neil Young’s version is over eight minutes long and is ragged, insistent and dark. It features great guitar and an amazing lead vocal which reminds me of the emotional performances on “Tonight’s The Night”. Neil Young first sung this song with The Squires in 1964.

Gallows Pole

This song is delivered in a jolly upbeat style with lovely harmonies from the Americana choir. The story is not quite so sunny. A woman is about to be hanged and begs the hangman to wait for her father (verse one), mother (verse two) or lover (verse three) to bring silver and gold to save her. Her father and mother bring nothing but her lover rescues her.

Get A Job

The Silhouettes were an American doo wop group who took “Get A Job” to Number One in the US Charts in 1958. The revival group, Sha Na Na, took their name from the “lyrics” of this song and performed it at Woodstock in 1969.

Travel On

“Travel On” was written by country singer, Billy Grammer, who took this song into the National and Country USA charts in 1959. At over six minutes long, this song could easily have been included on “Ragged Glory”, possibly Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s finest album.

High Flyin’ Bird

“High Flyin’ Bird” was first sung by Judy Henske in 1963. (She later went on to record the great “Farewell Aldebaran” with Jerry Yester (ex Loving Spoonful and producer of “Happy/Sad” by Tim Buckley)). Richie Havens performed the song at Woodstock and Jefferson Airplane recorded a version in 1965. When Noel Gallagher heard the latter version, he had the name for his post-Oasis band. The song was written by Billy Edd Wheeler, who also co-wrote “Jackson”, (with Jerry Lieber) – a song made famous by Johnny Cash. Neil Young first sung this song with The Squires in 1964.

Jesus’ Chariot

One interpretation of this song is that it describes the end times, the return of Christ. The song is better known as “She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain”.

This Land Is Your Land

Neil Young said “This is a protest song. It’s not so much a celebration of the geographical attributes of countries as it is a protest against the political, cultural and social systems of the countries.”

Wayfarin’ Stranger

The song was first published in 1858. The lyrics have sometimes been called The Libby Prison Hymn because the words were inscribed on a wall in Libby Prison by a dying Union soldier in the Confederate War. It became popular in the USA thanks to Burl Ives’ version from 1944. Neil Young sings this song quietly and Crazy Horse’s involvement is minimal.

God Save The Queen

Neil Young sung the British National Anthem every morning in school and felt the song would fit in with the album’s concept. Pre-Declaration of Independence, this song was sung by British settlers in the same way that African-American gospel songs were sung so that it became part of the country’s musical heritage. He sings all three verses of the song and particularly likes the second verse: “O Lord, our God, arise, scatter her enemies and make them fall. Confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks, on thee our hopes we fix: God save the Queen.”

Neil Young says that “If you listen to your inner voice, whether it’s music or life or a relationship, your soul will tell you what to do. It’s a very simple thing.” This is a perceptive commentary on how he is so mercurial, why he changes his musical style so often and why some things work and some things don’t. “I’m pretty selfish. Music demands that you play for the music, so that’s what I try to do.

Most of the Neil Young quotes here are taken from a really interesting “Front Row” programme https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02rgr0m

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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