O'er the land of the free...
July 14, 2012 3:54 PM   Subscribe

The latest record from Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Americana (released June 5, 2012), is a surprising collection of grungy covers of classic American folk songs, many of which are better known for their contemporary use as children's songs or camp songs. Of the record, Neil Young said:
Every one of these songs has verses that have been ignored. And those are the key verses, those are the things that make these songs live. They’re a little heavy for kindergarteners to be singing. The originals are much darker, there’s more protest in them...[cite]
Nevertheless, many of NY&CH's renditions skip some of the juicier bits from the history of these songs' performance. Read on for a listing of tracks with some of their darkest verses.

1. Oh, Susannah!

Oh, Susannah! was originally written by Stephen Foster in 1847, and featured in blackface minstrel shows. The song contains deeply racist undertones, especially when one of the original, appalling verses is included:
I jump'd aboard the telegraph and trabbled down de ribber,
De lectrick fluid magnified, and kill'd five hundred Nigga.
De bulgine bust and de hoss ran off, I really thought I'd die;
I shut my eyes to hold my bref--Susanna don't you cry. [cite]
Neil Young mercifully leaves this verse out as well, but he does include the one referencing buckwheat cake, which in the context of a minstrel show would have been a cultural mark of a Southerner, and possibly an indication that Susanna had already married (though I can't find confirmation of that):
Buckwheat cake was in her mouth
The tear was in her eye
Says I'm comin' from the South
Susannah don't you cry
2. Oh My Darling, Clementine!

A rather dark song about a miner's daughter (Clementine) dying by drowning in a mining accident. The original verse referring to Clementine's sister is considered morally questionable and usually omitted:
How I missed her! How I missed her,
How I missed my Clementine,
So I kissed her little sister,
I forgot my Clementine
3. Tom Dula ("Tom Dooley")

A song about the murder of Laurie Foster, for which Tom Dula was hung, based on a poem by Thomas Land. (This hard to read presentation PDF contains a lot of historical context once you get past the bullets). The song was made famous in recent times in a stripped-down, 3-verse version by the Kingston Trio. Neil Young's version here doesn't add much more. However, Doc Watson's version is more expansive, including the following macabre lyrics:
You took her on the hillside
For to make her your wife;
You took her on the hillside,
And ther you took her life.

You dug the grave four feet long
And you dug it three feet deep;
You rolled the cold clay over her
And tromped it with your feet.
and Dula's plead of innocence:
"Trouble, oh it's trouble
A-rollin' through my breast;
As long as I'm a-livin', boys,
They ain't a-gonna let me rest.

I know they're gonna hang me,
Tomorrow I'll be dead,
Though I never even harmed a hair
On poor little Laurie's head."
4. Gallows Pole

A ballad about someone condemned to the gallows, who needed a silver or gold bribe or ransom to be freed. The song is arranged as a "zipper song" which swaps in the Father, Mother, Son, Wife and Friends as potential bringers of the needed lucre. Neil Young's rendition is fairly straightforward and tame, as compared to Led Zeppelin's:
Hangman, hangman, turn your head awhile,
I think I see my sister coming, riding a many mile, mile, mile.
Sister, I implore you, take him by the hand,
Take him to some shady bower, save me from the wrath of this man,
Please take him, save me from the wrath of this man, man.

...

Oh, yes, you got a fine sister, She warmed my blood from cold,
Brought my blood to boiling hot To keep you from the Gallows Pole,
Your brother brought me silver, Your sister warmed my soul,
But now I laugh and pull so hard And see you swinging on the Gallows Pole
5. Get a Job

A doo-wop song from the 1950's originally by the Silhouettes. Richard Lewis, who wrote the lyrics, said: "When I was in the service in the early 1950s and didn't come home and go to work my mother said 'Get a job' and basically that's where the song came from." [cite] Neil Young's version doesn't stray lyrically from the original.

6. Travel On

A traditional folk song, played by many including the Kingston Trio. General wanderlust/vagabond/rolling stone type song, but with a moment of war protest:
Poppa writes to Johnny but Johnny can't come home
Johnny can't come home, Johnny can't come home
Poppa writes to Johnny but Johnny can't come home
'Cause he's been in the war too long.
Other renditions of the song (such as Billy Grammer's) swap in "Chain gang" for "war".

7. High Flyin' Bird

Originally by Billy Edd Wheeler, popularized by Jefferson Airplane, Richie Havens, and more. This is a very dark song, talking about death as the only path to freedom, and particularly referencing the pain of a man (or woman) who is stuck in a mine, and must die to see the light. Neil Young's take:
Lord, look at me here,
I'm rooted like a tree here,
Got those sit-down, can't fly
Oh Lord, I'm gonna die blues.

Well, I once knew a man, he worked in a mine
Well, he never saw the sun but then he never stopped tryin'
And then one day that old man he up and he died,
yeah he up and he died, he up and he died.
Well, he wanted to fly and the only way to fly was to die,
Lord I'm gonna die, Lord I'm gonna die, Lord I'm gonna die.
8. Jesus' Chariot (She'll be Coming Round the Mountain)

According to Wikipdia, the "she" from the original negro spiritual refers to the chariot, which was to be piloted by Jesus in the Second Coming, followed by the Rapture. The original spiritual speaks about the chariot being loaded with bright angels, running level and steady, and taking us to the portals of the rapture, as opposed to the children's version which occasionally includes whimsical things like "She'll be wearing pink pajamas when she comes." Neil Young's rendition:
She'll be comin' round the mountain when she comes ...
She'll be drivin' six white horses when she comes ...
We'll all go out to meet her when she comes ...
We'll kill the big red rooster when she comes ...
She will take us to the Portals when she comes ...
We'll all sing Halleluiah when she comes ...
Neil Young talks about the lyrical choices in a interview with Fresh Air.

9. This Land is Your Land

Written by Woody Guthry in 1940, this song already has some notoriety as a protest song. Some of the early recordings (as well as Neil Young's rendition) contain verses not commonly found in camp singalongs that much more explicitly states the song's subversion of private property:
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple, I saw my people
By the relief office, I'd seen my people
As they stood hungry, I stood there askin'
If this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
10. Wayfaring Stranger

A traditional American folk song, straight-forward pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die. Neil gives it the vanilla treatment, with little variation from the common lyrics. Can't find much of note to add to this one.

11. God Save the Queen

Perhaps a more British (Canadian?) take on a national anthem, recalling Jimi Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner? In Neil Young's rendition of God Save the Queen we hear the one of the rather un-diplomatic original verses (this is the full verse; Neil Young only includes the last 4 lines):
O Lord, our God, arise,
Scatter thine enemies,
And make them fall
*Confound their politics
Frustrate their empty tricks
On thee our hopes we fix
God save the Queen.
... after which the Neil Young & Crazy Horse veer into "My Country Tis of Thee", which shares the same melody. Let freedom ring!
posted by yourcelf (30 comments total) 94 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is a good post, thank you.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 4:01 PM on July 14, 2012


Very nice post. Thanks!
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:05 PM on July 14, 2012


Nicely structured post. I only wish I liked Young's new album, but then again I was lucky enough to like Le Noise a couple of years back - he usually seems to score about one good record for every five or so these days.
posted by item at 4:05 PM on July 14, 2012


Suddenly the last verse of Tom Lehrer's "Clementine" makes sense. I always wondered but never thought to look it up.
posted by Flannery Culp at 4:07 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


yourcelf: "Every one of these songs has verses that have been ignored. And those are the key verses, those are the things that make these songs live. They’re a little heavy for kindergarteners to be singing. The originals are much darker, there’s more protest in them"

Hey! It's the ice cream truck!
posted by boo_radley at 4:09 PM on July 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Nicey.
You can currently stream the whole album over at Rolling Stone.com
posted by infinite intimation at 4:14 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks!

(Your post is actually more interesting and thoughtful than the album).
posted by dontjumplarry at 4:17 PM on July 14, 2012


infinite intimation: "You can currently stream the whole album over"

What! How dare he allow a non-24bit 80000 khz stream of his music.
posted by stratastar at 4:20 PM on July 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


As far as I know, the "questionable" verse of Clementine is generally sung as part of the standard summercamp version - at least at every camp I ever went to...
posted by Wylla at 4:39 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Good post! Thanks!
posted by methinks at 4:57 PM on July 14, 2012


Excellent post; we're already checking out the album stream.

Also of note on the Gallows Pole renditions is the version on Great Big Sea's last album, which I'd love to see them do live.
posted by immlass at 4:58 PM on July 14, 2012


The, er, tricks of our enemies are traditionally knavish I think, although no less easily confounded.
posted by cromagnon at 5:07 PM on July 14, 2012


Exceptionally crafted and highly enjoyable post. Cheers.
posted by vozworth at 5:10 PM on July 14, 2012


Wylla: "As far as I know, the "questionable" verse of Clementine is generally sung as part of the standard summercamp version - at least at every camp I ever went to..."

I don't know how old you are, but this could well be one of those things where the version you grew up with has since been blanderized for today's mollycoddled children.

Most of the album doesn't do much for me, but Clementine sets my ears on fire.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:28 PM on July 14, 2012


This is a great companion to The Seeger Sessions...
posted by mikelieman at 5:28 PM on July 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Indeed, this is a righteous post. More trivia regarding "She'll Be Coming 'round the Mountain": it figures significantly in the final section of Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III's Promethea.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:49 PM on July 14, 2012


NY and CH never fail to impress me. I love them and can't wait to listen to the songs.

ONTH, I was invited to watch Journeys today by some hippie/folk-music friends and had to pass.
posted by snsranch at 5:54 PM on July 14, 2012


In a similar vein, I always thought of You Are My Sunshine as a sweet, cute song. But have you ever looked at the verses?

You told me once, dear, you really loved me
And no one else could come between.
But now you've left me and love another;
You have shattered all of my dreams:

[Chorus]

In all my dreams, dear, you seem to leave me
When I awake my poor heart pains.
So when you come back and make me happy
I'll forgive you dear, I'll take all the blame.
posted by pdq at 5:59 PM on July 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is cool. I had forgotten so many of these songs even existed.
I've always thought She'll be Coming Round the Mountain was about a train for some reason. Now I know better.
posted by Mezentian at 6:16 PM on July 14, 2012


Indeed, this is a righteous post.

One might even say it's a post worthy of "Best Of MetaFilter." Well done.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:17 PM on July 14, 2012


Goodnight, Irene is another one with dark lyrics. My band usually leaves out this verse:
I love Irene, God knows I do,
I'll love her till the seas run dry
But if Irene should turn me down,
I'd take the morphine and die.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 7:27 PM on July 14, 2012


What was striking (to me) about the Fresh Air interview (which I played for my wife in the car today on a road trip), was that Neil Young had gone through the trouble to arrange for Crazy Horse to be in his studio, for the first time in 9 years, and he had no new material to record.

Do the guys in Crazy Horse draw a salary to be on retainer, to be able to fly up to La Honda on Neil's whim, any time he feels like playing with them?

And then to have them show up, and have no material, and have to fall back on an idea he (admittedly) stole from another band, early in his career?

WTF, Neil?
posted by Danf at 7:41 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'll admit it, I've got a beef with his selection proces. Tom Dooley is fine, but I can think of another, better, ballad he should have chosen instead.
posted by OmieWise at 7:45 PM on July 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Pdq, it's kind of amazing how so many old campfire songs were originally really, really grim. A while ago I was talking with my girlfriend about Froggy Went a Courtin', and I jokingly said something about how the original version probably ended with Froggy dying horribly. And of course... (Note that that's apparently just one of seemingly hundreds of versions of that song, but most of the old ones do seem to end with poor Mr. Froggy meeting a sorry fate.)
posted by Ursula Hitler at 7:45 PM on July 14, 2012


"The latest record from Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Americana (released June 5, 2012), is a surprising collection..."

The only thing that surprises me from Neil Young in the past thirty years is when he does a straight-forward Neil Young record.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 8:04 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


What! How dare he allow a non-24bit 80000 khz stream of his music.

heh, Out of the Blue, I had forgotten that mission he was on, and ought to have mentioned that you need monster-gold-diamond-rusty-uranium plated cables to activate streaming over web... but then I was listening to this version of piece of crap from the NY&CH complex sessions (which contains the brilliant: change your mind NY&CH directed by Jonathan Demme)... where you can hear this line; "went to buy an LP, guy had see dees, so digit-ally clean -- it was a piece of crap" (1st verse, altered from sleeps with angels [the revolutionary] album version).

Life is full of funny little circles (not noting this as a haha hypocrite, or snarky thing, just funny little circle of stuff, bottom line being, great music, great musician, and a wonderful post, BOMF indeed [need to read up on these campfire songs, but classical tunes often seem to speak to darker times, "pocket full of posies"?). Mr. Young is definitely not crafting a piece of crap. Into the black.
posted by infinite intimation at 8:10 PM on July 14, 2012


I'll admit it, I've got a beef with his selection proces. Tom Dooley is fine, but I can think of another, better, ballad he should have chosen instead.

Might that be They're Hangin' Me Tonight, perhaps? Which was covered nicely by Thin White Rope...
posted by foonly at 8:18 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, it's not a groundbreaking album, but I personally like it. If I still owned a car, it would share pride of place with Young's Ragged Glory (1990) as a great album for driving down the freeway on a warm day with all the windows down.

Dylan also covered "Travel On" in his album Self-Portrait (1970), a strange mash-up of covers of old standards, a few originals, and a live version of "Like a Rolling Stone."
posted by dhens at 10:16 PM on July 14, 2012


Metafilter Projects has more on Tom Dooley.
posted by Paul Slade at 8:42 AM on July 15, 2012


I downloaded this when you posted and have been rocking along ever since. Thanks!
posted by Blandanomics at 4:40 PM on July 21, 2012


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