Neil Young’s 15 Greatest Protest Songs
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Folk singer-songwriter Neil Young has always been vocal about his views and opinions towards US politicians and American police forces and have been an environmentalist in support of the green movement. We list down 15 protest songs by Young that expresses his stance on every issue behind the song, take a look below.
Young wrote this song in response to the Kent State shootings that took place on May 4, 1970. The event happened when a US National Guard was called in to stop a non-violence protest taken place at Kent State University, but ended shooting four unarmed students. The song came to Young after reading the story in the issue of Life magazine with the headline “Tragedy At Kent” and with a cover photo of a wounded student lying on the ground. His bandmate David Crosby recalled:
“He was silent for a long time, then picked up his guitar and 20 minutes later had this song.”
/ Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming / We’re finally on our own / This summer I hear the drumming / Four dead in Ohio /
2. “After the Gold Rush”
/ Look at mother nature on the run in the nineteen seventies /
This song is widely known to be about environmentalism. It is structured to take listeners through time. The first verse is set in the Middle Ages, the second is in the time it was written in, and the third is in the future. In 1992, Young explained:
“[It’s] about three times in history: There’s a Robin Hood scene, there’s a fire scene in the present and there’s the future… the air is yellow and red, ships are leaving, certain people can go and certain people can’t… I think it’s going to happen.”
3. “Southern Man”
This song is about racism in the American South, with references to slavery and the American white supremacist terrorist and hate group Ku Klux Klan or KKK. Young clarified that the song was more about the civil rights movement than the South in particular because many Southern people didn’t appreciate the generalization. In his 2012 biography Waging Heavy Peace, Young apologized for the song, writing:
“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.”
/ I saw cotton and I saw black / Tall white mansions and little shacks / Southern man, when will you pay them back? /
This song is also about racism and was a combined effort when Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” in response to Young’s “Southern Man.” Young said that “Alabama” was never meant to be specific to the state, he simply wanted a Southern state that seemed to fit what he had to say. He explained:
“Actually, the song is more about a personal thing than it is about a state. And I’m just using that name and that state to hide whatever it is I have to hide… I don’t know what that means.”
/ Shelter me from the powder and the finger / Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger /
The song’s title is directly referenced in this line and can be read as a critique of the prevalence of violence in American society. Young told the New Musical Express:
“Those songs are like a landscape, I don’t think with those songs – I get myself to a certain place, open up and they just come to me.”
Young offered this song to Lynyrd Skynyrd, but they never recorded it. Young then decided to record it himself and included it on his Rust Never Sleeps album. An Australian rock band, Powderfinger got their name from this song.
6. “Hippie Dream”
The song is about David Crosby, who Young played with as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Young wrote this song in the mid-’80s when Crosby was struggling with drug addiction.
The line, “But the wooden ships / Were just a hippie dream” references the Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Wooden Ships.”
7. “Long Walk Home”
This one is from his 1987 album Life. The song empathizes with troops under deployment along with providing pointed critiques on American foreign policy.
/ From Vietnam to old Beirut / If we are searching for the truth / Why do we feel that double-edged blade / Cutting through our hand /
8. “This Note’s For You”
This song is Young’s critique to artists who “sell out” and allow their songs to be used in commercials, something he has never done. The title is a play on Budweiser’s acclaimed ad campaign, “This Bud’s For You.” In addition to Bud, Young mentions Coke, Pepsi and Miller in the lyrics. The video is a parody of various ad campaigns. Despite the fact that the video was initially banned from rotation, it ended up winning an MTV Video Award for best music video.
9. “Rockin’ In The Free World”
This was inspired by the political changes going on during George Bush presidential administration. Some of the lyrics mock Bush’s campaign speeches:
/ We got a thousand points of light / For the homeless man / We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand /
10. “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)”
This track from the 1990 album Ragged Glory addresses human’s relationship with Mother Earth.
/ How long can you / Give and not receive / And feed this world / Ruled by greed /
11. “Crime In City (Live)”
/When a voice loud and clear / Said, Come on out / With your hands up / Or we’ll blow you out of here/
The lyrics explore themes such as media sensationalism, capitalistic greed and senseless violence. The song originally appeared on Freedom, while this live version appears on the 1991 live album Weld.
12. “Restless Consumer”
/ How do you pay for war / And leave us dyin’? / When you could do so much more / You’re not even tryin’ /
This song links capitalistic greed with senseless human suffering and wars and was heavily critical of Bush Jr.’s administration. From one of Young’s most political albums, 2006 Living With War.
13. “Fork In The Road”
The title track of his 2009 album which was inspired by his 1959 Lincoln Continental that has been modified to run on alternative energy. The album heavily deals with environmental themes and discusses the importance of transitioning into a green-based economy. It also addresses government bailouts of big corporations,
/ There’s a bailout coming but it’s not for you / It’s for all those creeps hiding what they do /
Young told Rolling Stone:
“My life’s at a point where I’d rather get rid of my material things and turn them into money to do the LincVolt.”
14. “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop”
This track off the 2015 album The Monsanto Years criticizes Starbucks for its alleged involvement with agrochemical company Monsanto and its use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Young wrote on his website:
“Still no latte’s for me folks. I am not going to support a company that actively tries to defeat the will of the people by fighting their right to know what is in the food they eat.
“Contrary to the misleading information coming from Starbucks, the coffee company is in alliance with other Food Giants, including Monsanto, in suing the state of Vermont to overturn the GMO labeling laws voted for by the people.”
15. “Children of Destiny”
This song that seems to be an anthem of hope and resistance appears on Young’s 2017 album The Visitor. It is about trying to take a stand now in order to protect the planet for the sake of future generations.
/ Stand up for what you believe / Resist the powers that be / Preserve the ways of democracy / So the children can be free / The children of destiny /