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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Shelter me from the Powder in the Finger


We've always found the analysis of Neil Young lyrics to be quite fascinating.

And we're not the only ones. Of all the mail and comments that we receive here at Thrasher's Wheat, nothing compares with how frequently the topic of "Powderfinger" comes up. While many long time fans sort of roll their eyes at the subject, it seems that no other song so transfixes the more "casual" fan.

A quick recap. The definitive lyrics analysis of "Powderfinger" was done by Mark "Powderfinger" Klus way back in 1995 on the rust@fish server. Mark "Powderfinger"'s original analysis was quickly dissected and expanded.

But even today, the question of what does the song "Powderfinger" mean continues to be the source of endless theories.

We've had these letters and comments piling up all over the place and thought the time had finally come to try and consolidate to find a more permanent home for these far flung interpretations.

So here are a few thoughts below that we're seeding this thread with.

Got a hunch on what "Powderfinger" is all about? Drop a comment below. No registration required.


At 9/14/2008 06:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe post Civil War song?
Rebel Country Family on the river?

Or end of the Indian wars?
Native American family?

Father's wisdom "red means run son..." could be his experience with the war.

Who knows?

At 9/14/2008 06:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the song POWDERFINGER and I've thought long about its meaning. Is it possible that the young man's gun misfires...explodes in his face? This would fit the timing of the narrative and the lyric "my face splashed in the sky". The first shot hits the dock and does not kill him...he then raises his rifle to his eye (the same eye that later sees black)...never stops to wonder why (why he pulls the trigger). What kills him? The powder (in the rifle, perhaps a musket) and the finger (his finger) - "shelter me from the powder and the finger. Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger". As to a theme...He's young, it's daddy's rifle and no matter how reassuring it may feel, daddy's gone and the weapon is not ready. Left alone...unprepared...he's using a gun that can't protect him and perhaps kills him instead. Youth abandoned and ill equipped to fight…the self-destructive nature of war…I’d say there’s a lot going on in this lyric.

At 9/14/2008 06:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being a big NY fan here in Europe I dont want to analyze the lyrics, but just wanted to mention, that when I listen to the song POWDERFINGER I envision a family from African American decent and the white boat for me was the Ku-Klux Klan. But that's just what is in my mind.

At 9/14/2008 07:02:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Cover me with the thought . . . "--We commonly use ideology to excuse terrible actions, e.g. soldiers kill people (normally inexcusable) but they do it for "freedom and democracy". So: protect me from the consequences of my terrible actions with the laudable reasons I had for doing them. Thin protection indeed.

At 9/14/2008 07:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Powderfinger - Psychological mystery about suicide of a young man lost without love, except one remembered to late.

This song is about a young man and suicide.

Look out Mama, . with a big red beacon - His only reference to his Mama, and telling her what is about to happen.

there's a White Boat.- Mental Health wards in white coats to take him away.

Daddy's gone, Big John's been drinkin'.. etc. How depressed he is and hard it is to go on day to day.

Power to be left me to do the thinkin'... I was wondering what to do - means why am I here, I have no purpose,

The closer they got the more those feelings boom - paranoia, I better end it now (his life)

Daddy's rifle in my hand felt reasurring - His love for his lost father, family, loneliness and nothing else to hold.

When the first shot hit the dock- foresight, thinking of the bullet coming down the barrel

Raised my rifle (his rifle now) to my eye, never stopped to wonder why, and I saw black - BAM, he shot himself

My face spashed in the sky - his head being blown out behind the shot

Shelter me from the powder and the finger - Afterthought speaking after death, asking for forgiveness

Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger - bury me, feelings for sorrow why he killed himself

Just think of me as one you never figured to fade away so young with so much left undone- "I never thought he'd commit suicide, he was so young" as his friend and family would say even today

Remember me to my love I know I'll miss her - Ultimate love for his girlfriend that is the only thing he is capable of feeling love for even though he is emotionlessly said in this last statement- his last cry out for help before he goes.

Wonderful song, one of my favorite from the since I first time I heard it. I play it when I on stage myself.


At 9/14/2008 07:05:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Powderfinger Analysis: I'll start with the assumptions of previous posts: We're dealing with a poor family living in the woodlands along a river. They have very little in terms of creature comforts, medicine, or contact with "civilized" society. They live off the land to a great extent (brother is hunting), poor medical care (river took Emmy-Lou suggests disease to me rather than drowning), and their main means of contact with the outside world is through mail boats.
All of this also suggests a more primitive era (no cell phones, tv, radios, etc). Therefore, I would agree with others that it makes sense that this story takes place during the civil war.
As such, I don't think they are drug runners or moonshiners as some have suggested. There just wasn't much of a market for that back then. They are just innocent, isolated folks with no money trying to get along the best they can.
So why the concern with the US military ship (big red beacon, a gun, a flag, numbers on the side)?
The key is that the song is about family of emancipated slaves living in the North along the Missouri river.
The fact is, the US was at war with itself at the time, and any time there is war, there are atrocities. The US civil war was no different. While the courage and honor of African-American soldiers during the war is well documented, it is lesser known that many freed slaves were forced into service by the government. There are many accounts of Union soldiers raiding black households and farms in the north and taking the males, often very young, away to the military.
So when the protagonist of the song (someone aptly referred to him as "22") sees a boat approaching in a threatening manner, he gets worried. Besides racial issues with white society, the family may be living in the sticks because they have already lost a family member to military kidnapping ("daddy's gone"), and so they are in hiding, in a way.
So what's my support? First, it seems to me that the "white boat" reference is obvious and intentional. Its the first line of the story and sets the stage for racial conflict. North/South issues were not a foreign topic for Neil (Southern Man). We also know that there are probably 3 males in the family the military could utilize (22, Big John, Brother).
Also, 22 seems very innocent and naive ("just think of me as one you'd never figure, to fade away so young). If he were into drugs or moonshining, that line would not make sense. He would be more cagey and worldly. His sense of fear and uncertainty throughout the song supports this ("I was wonderin' what to do, and the closer they got, the more those feelin's grew").
Additionally, 22 says that he "hope(s) they didn't come to stay" again indicating a Union raiding party who might not only kidnap the men but also make themselves at home for awhile before doing so.
OK, so why is it the Union army that's doing this? Couldn't it be a Confederate force going after the family? Probably not, since the family is together and has been for a while. Slaves did not escape and remain in the South...they went north.
So how did 22 die? As the boat approached, it fired a cannon shot at the homestead, hitting the dock. It was a warning/message aimed at instilling fear and submissiveness. 22 had been advised to flee such a situation by his father (red means run, son), but he must have thought that the entire family could not escape this attack, and besides,
Dad was captured despite his wisdom.
22's instincts to fight took over, and he raised his gun, immediately drawing full fire from the gunship.
The rest so to speak is history, or a lyrical version of it.
This is an emotional ballad, and as stated by others, fantastically supported by the instrumentals.
About me: Love Neil Young music, heartily disagree with his politics. I also don't discount points of view based on politics. Powderfinger is a sad story which happens during a sad time in American history. There will more sad stories, and more reasons to have faith for our future. Off the soapbox. JT

At 9/14/2008 07:07:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I gotta say I agree with the comment by Tony M. I interpreted the song pretty much exactly as you and was surprised to see so many had A: been as concerned about the true meaning of the song, and B: so many had gotten it so wrong, (ha-ha).
Since this post seems to be in a diffent place, I will refresh:
The song was set during the Civil War era, the big white boat was a government boat, probably Union, the boy "22" was Southern, the men were gone and he was confronted with protecting his mother and perhaps others against a powerful drunken mob of marauders on a boat, and had no time to absorb the idea that he could not win, overtaken by the immortal feeling of youth and the idea that right is all that matters.
I envision his face flashed in the sky as the reflection of his own face in the sky like a picture of his soul as he is taken, visible to himself.
Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger, was, of course, remember that I fought the bastards, and though I died, I did not abandon those I loved, I faced the music, I shot though took better than I gave.
And by the way, I gotta say, have any of you people heard Cowboy Junkies version? I heard it first, although I am a Huge Niel fan. Cowboy Junkies version is FANTASTIC, and I would suggest you go out and get it right now, in fact the whole album is sick, ( in a good way). Peace out!

At 9/14/2008 07:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

powderfinger ive always
assumed/associated with
cocaine smuggling on the
ocean...and having the police after him so instead of running, he took a shot at them before he got hit..
just my interpretation...

At 9/14/2008 07:34:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have gotten a definite meaning from the song although I can't figure out how to trace that meaning back to any particular story that the lyrics tell. Instead, the lyrics and the music give me the feel that this 22-year old has been forced to fight for a side during the civil war. That's why he grabs the gun and was warned to run. When the first shot hit the dove refers to an earlier time when he felt that killing was wrong, but still he fires the gun when ordered into battle and kills. The feeling of killing humans in war was predicted by his earlier feeling when shooting a dove. He's got powder on his fingers,either from firing or loading. The conflict is his trying to come to grips with the thought that pulled the trigger. What turned me into a murderer. Like your life flashing before your eyes before you die, the images may not be in chronological order, which seems to excuse the lack of straightforward meaning in the song. Thanks to the others for the shroud image for cover me ... The song can be about the innocence that dies in the instant when the trigger is pulled in whatever context.

At 9/14/2008 07:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Powderfinger is a simple war story told from one boy's first hand experience. He had a gun and a boat with bigger guns was coming after whoever was on shore. The boy couldn't defend himself - thank God his brother was out hunting in the mountains and his dad was gone. He was left with the Power do his own thinking. He's scared but brave. Powderfinger is the gunpowder on the trigger finger of the person on the boat who killed the boy. He faded away so young because Neil Young always makes references to his last name, Young. Fading away is because no one will remember the boy, not even himself when he dies. Only the song will keep his last memories alive. They are in the song. The boy talks to himself in his head all through the song. It's that simple. Very deep and very sad and there is nothing the listener can do to save the boy. Tragic death of yet another boy you cannot save. Don't try. If you get too involved you'll cry and wonder why. Just listen.

At 9/14/2008 07:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

About Powderfinger: seems to me that everyone has missed the central point here. This song is about the slaughter of a young native American at the hands of the red coats. It's intended to convey, in a very visceral way, to the modern audience, the tragedy of that episode in history. John, EmmyLou ... this could have been your story, or mine. It's dumb luck that it turned out to be the story of the native Americans.

Why this interpretation? Some give aways:

"Red means run son, number add up to nothing" --- run when you see the red coats; numerical superiority of the native notwithstanding.

Big John, the once noble warrior, is drunk; a victim of that community's genetic predisposition to alcohol intolerance and addiction.

"I hope they didn't come to stay" --- you know that they are. This is definitely a colonial force.

At 9/14/2008 07:50:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm really quite amazed at all the interpretations of Powderfinger. From these comments alone, we seem to have 4 main theories for the broad story:

1) It's the civil war, and 22 is an African American, to be forced into service.

2) 22 is a Native American killed by the red coats.

3) It's about his suicide

4) The boat is a police boat and he's involved in cocaine trade on the ocean

Then you can take any of these and question what happens with the gun. Does he fire it? Does it explode in his face? Does he get shot before he can pull the trigger?

Personally, the first time I heard the song, I didn't have any idea who 22 was, but to me it seemed that the gun accidentally exploded in his face. I think that interpretation came to me first because it the lyrics suggest 22 is young, naive, and has never quite been exposed to this before (The Powers That Be left me here to do the thinkin', as if he's never had to do this thinkin' before).

There's a lot in the last verse, I think. For starters, in Rust Never Sleeps, the line is "Cover me with the thought that *I* pulled the trigger", not the way the lyrics page suggests and the way people seemed to be quoting it, "Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger." Note these are vastly different.

If the line is "Cover me with the thought that I pulled the trigger", there's two ways this could be taken, and I think should be taken together. One is 22 is asking for people to cover his dead body not only with the Earth, but with this thought that he pulled the trigger. The other is that this is a plea, in his own mind. He's wants to think of himself as having pulled the trigger, as he's dying. This lyric is not suggestive either way of whether he actually did pull the trigger. Only that he wants to think he did and he wants it to be remembered that way.

If the lyric is "Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger", then we know he did actually pull the trigger. He's asking to be immersed in the feeling that forced him to pull the trigger. Every now and then in my life I get an intense feeling for or about something or someone, but the intensity is short lived and I soon almost forget the thought, am left reaching for threads. If the lyric *were* "Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger" (which I claim it isn't), this is how I would interpret it.

I love this song, and I only discovered it today. Fantastic.

At 9/14/2008 07:51:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The cool thing about Powderfinger is that the exact meaning of the events being narrated by "22" remain so visceral and impressionistic. We want to know more about the context but are thwarted by 22 himself, who gives us only his desperate thoughts and emotions in the moments leading up to and following his violent death. It's really interesting to read all of the different ideas about what is actually taking place and why. I'm not going to give my line-by-line interpretation, but have a few thoughts to offer from the point of view that a song really "lives" in the imagination of its listeners: I don't purport to have special insight into Neil's intentions when he wrote it.

For me the song has always evoked images from the film Deliverance (1972). The river and wild terrain (i.e. brother out hunting in the mountains) remind me of the fictional Cahulawassee River in the back woods of Georgia, which is the setting of that film. I am not suggesting that 22's family is composed of a bunch of toothless rapists as the "mountain men" in Deliverance are, but what I take away from the film and the song is that there are people in the South who continue (or until fairly recently continued) to live by their own rules, off the grid. They remain very hostile to outsiders while making a living in some kind of black market economy (in Deliverance it is assumed to be a whiskey still).

In other words, these families don't have social security numbers, they don't send their kids to school and they don't pay taxes. Their whole existence, not just their livelihood, runs counter to the established social order. Hence the bitter irony that the official looking boat "don't look like it's here to deliver the mail." 22's family is essentially living a bandit lifestyle (for me "Big John" conjures up Little John from Robinhood's merry men, but in this case he is a broken man, ruined by drink.)

Yet this bandit lifestyle is actually what makes the community vulnerable. People without an official existence can be disposed of without consequences. I definitely think the white boat represents official law enforcement intent on raiding an isolated community. Perhaps the policemen shoot 22 because they see he has a rifle (thus making his death preventable), but we know that he has not yet raised it when the first shot hits the dock. My sense is that the police have come to "take-out a few hillbillies," because they know they can get away with it. Clearly, this family has been targeted before.

As for 22, I have always read ambiguity into the line "I had just turned 22; I was wondering what to do." I don't think he was wondering what to do about the boat, rather he was more generally seeking purpose in his life and was on the brink of a decision. He seems to be a victim of circumstances, both in terms of the abuse of official power (the lawmen) and of a violent and disenfranchised life he did not choose. He has been left alone, a sitting duck and the only able-bodied man present when the boat comes. He must protect his mother.

I definitely agree that the line where he sees black and his face splashes in the sky describes his last moments of consciousness as he is shot in the face or head or as his eyes roll back into his head.

I will also add that the red beacon on the boat seems to me to be anachronistic for the Civil War. I have a more modern, institutional impression of the boat.

Finally, I don't think that 22 is entirely honest with us or with himself. The last lines of the song sound like an epitaph for someone who's death will never be marked with a headstone. He speaks to us posthumously and asks that we think of him as one we never figured would fade away so young, with so much left undone. In fact, he was on the wrong side of the law from birth. His description of his life (centred around a rifle and a river, wondering what to do in an abandoned outpost) does not suggest limitless possibilities. I am of the opinion that the last line is more of an expression of regret for a great love affair he hoped to have, rather than actually had, although he is probably referring to a real girl that he had a crush on.

For me, the anger and the anguish of the song is that 22 is mourning his life as well as his death. He wants to be remembered as he was not, a boy whose world was his oyster. The line "cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger" has been much explored in this forum. Suffice to say that I don't think 22 wants to be remembered in death as he was in life. When faced with the law, he is compelled to protect his mother, take up his father's gun and act as he was raised to act. He refers repeatedly to family members and is directed by the words of his absent father. But his last thought is of his love, an external figure which suggests that 22's loyalties are divided (first line refers to mother / last line to lover). He is torn between the world he knows and one that he has just begun to sense.

There is something incongruent and conflicted about 22 that makes me think that he was thinking about abandoning the lonliness and the possum stew (like Paul Simon's Duncan left the bordom and the chowder of his maritime childhood) when death made his decision for him. He stayed and died with his family.

Ok, so I have read a lot into the song, but really, most of us do it because it is fun and stimulating to analyse Neil's lyrics, to explore and develop a theory. If you have not seen Deliverance or heard Duncan, I recommend both (with a warning that Deliverance is quite graphic).

Finally, the main themes that I think clearly emerge from the song are police (or establishment) brutality, coming of age and separating from childhood/family.

- Meg

At 9/14/2008 07:52:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

pluto said...

Great to find the interesting stuff about Powderfinger. I often cite Powderfinger as the model for my own songwriting. It's so concrete, you feel the immediacy of emotion, yet it the details of identity are omitted, enabling each and every one of us to identify. In any case, the numbers on the boat tell you that it's military/gov't. And the red light I think pretty much tells you that it's modern era, not Civil War as some have supposed. Boats in the Civil War era didn't have running lights, AFAIK. I certainly don't think they had "big red beacons".

I always guessed that this song was about the conflicts on Native American reservations in the U.S. in the late 60's and early 70's. No real basis for this other than Neil's identification with the Native American independence movement.

I guess I have always thought that "Powderfinger" was the name of the protagonist. LIke "Sitting Bull" or what have you. In my interpretation, he is Powderfinger, because his rifle jams. That's what I always thought of the lyric:

"raised my rifle to my eye, never thought to wonder why, and then I saw black, and my face splashed in the sky".

When he sees the shot coming, he fires back, but the rifle jams, and the powder and the shell explode in his face. His youth and inexperience led him to not prepare his rifle well, and it literally backfired. He was ill prepared. But we sympathize, because it was simple youth. Not ignorance, or incompetence.

This, to me, is a great metaphor for the futility of taking on a heavily armed and backed oppressor. You can fire away at them, but it's gonna come back and get you in the end. And the naivety of the protagonist works as a possible metaphor, too, symbolizing the naive optimism of the "hippie" anti-establishment.

There's my .02.

Thanks for having this forum.

Best regards,

Dan Cohn

At 9/14/2008 07:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Powderfinger is simply an old interpretation of how the state tries to control it's citizens. In my slightly romantic view, its almost the American civil wars anthem, written in the knowledge of countless occasions where control is not wnated! rather like the Highland clearances, which could heve led to the existence of the characters in the song.

His heritage is Scottish,
c'mon the Neil and all who hear.

At 9/14/2008 07:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Barry said...

Ok, I know this post has been around for a while but I love Powderfinger, even though I don't get it. This coupled with the fact it is very quiet around here with Christmas looming. So here is my 2 cents:
These are rural people for sure. I don’t know who is in the white boat but certainly some sort of authority and I’m guessing they have a grudge to settle. I think “Daddy” is dead, otherwise why would the narrator have his gun? Maybe Daddy died by the hand of the people in the white boat. His growing feelings must be fear and loathing. Clearly Big John is useless and should have been in charge, people who live near rivers have all had some sort of loss to the river in a lifetime.
I think “red means run” is a guerrilla tactic, take a shot draw blood and fall back, don’t just try to get more notches on your gun. Never stopped to wonder why, maybe he was sure of the family’s side of the story and felt justified. He was certainly struck down as he raised his rifle; I think he may have gotten off a shot or two first, at least I'd like to think so. Regardless, the white boat was coming in fast with bad intentions. “Shelter me from the thought that pulled the trigger”, may mean that even though he felt justified he was intending on taking someone’s life and felt some guilt. “Think of me as one you’d never figured would fade away so young with so much left undone”, maybe this would not be the first guy the people in the area would think of as making such a stand. I don’t think he was protecting anything or people, since he seemed to be all alone. He was making a stand and would not surrender.


At 9/14/2008 07:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Firstly to JoeJoe: A lot of folks (myself included) are perplexed by the lyrics of Powderfinger and find it enjoyable to enter into dialogue with equally rabid Young fans about the song's meaning. Providing interpretations about such a provocative song doesn't undermine Neil's creative genius, it affirms it.

OK, I too think the song is set in the civil war. A gun ship approaches on the river but despite his late father's admonition to run in this situation, he's not sure what he should do (he's only 22). The bigger part of him grabs Daddy's rifle and prepares to defend his home and Mama. When the first shot from the gun boat hits the dock (not a warning shot, the shooter simply misses his target the first time), he knows this is the end. Nevertheless, he raises his rifle anyway and takes aim at the gun boat, choosing to stand and die like a man rather than flee. He sees black and his face splashes in the sky when the evitable takes place and he his slain by the gunship. "Shelter me from the powder and the finger" is a young man's posthumous plea to be spared from what has already happened (to me this is reminiscent of the cry of young soliders who lay dying on the battlefield will commonly call out for their mother's to help them). "Just think of me as one you'll never figure" is him saying to his survivor's "Ya, I know I was supposed to run - but hey, I guess you'll never figure me out." So the only think I remain totally baffled about is 'Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger'.

Well, that's my $0.02 worth.

At 9/14/2008 07:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My humble opinion is the song is about a young man, very suspicious of strong-armed government due to brain-washing perhaps by his father, attempting to defend he and his dad's presumably illegal bootlegging or perhaps marijuana operation from gov't agents.

Or perhaps the agents are IRS sent to shake the protagonist and family down for unpaid taxes.

Given that they came equipped with gun(s) they anticipated resistance. Given that his dad cautioned him - "red means run son, numbers add up to nothing", he raises his gun to defend against the agents in a boat with flashing red light (police or similar) and numbers on the side. red light and numbers = gov't agents (out to get protagonist).

I don't think that the subject is necessarily those prone to gov't conspiracy theories but I do think the subject is very distrustful/anti-gov't but moreso due to illegal livelihood he is defending or unpaid taxes.

The Ruby Ridge tragedy seems similar to the song but I do not think that that type of situation was necessarily what Neil Young had in mind but maybe it was.

Anyway I perceive it as individual very distrustful and antagonistic toward gov't agents with prior actions culminating in this showdown and the individual's life is extinguished way too early.

My humble thoughts.

At 9/14/2008 07:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Powderfinger is so beautiful. Typical Neil. As discussed here over the years its themes are typical NY - youth, and the angst of leaving youth, assuming responsibilities. Our protagonist, 22 as he's been dubbed, fits the bill.
There's been so many ideas put forth - I agree with the general feeling: rural folk in danger from the approaching authorities.

Second verse relays this deep reluctance of leaving childhood and the comforts of allowing others take charge and having responsibility put on you. We've all experienced that apprehension, that sorrow. I started listening to this song on Live Rust in 1979 when I was 13 and that whole album had (has) such a profound effect on getting me through it all. As mentioned in earlier posts the guitar solo at the end of this second verse takes this apprehensive feeling and conveys it like no words ever could. You feel what 22 is facing. Neil may not have the technical guitar prowess of the greats - Hendrix, Beck, or Page - but I have always felt his playing like no others. So 22 bravely and naively accepts and is ready to defend his Mama and his home.

Third verse, 22 tragically dies and the second guitar solo takes us into the air where 22 is experiencing his own death. Once again, just feel it.

Now the fourth and final verse that has us a little perplexed, The first three lines start with: Shelter me, Cover me, and Think of me - all are 22's thoughts or requests as to how this incident (of him dying in defense of their home) is remembered.
Now this is always open to your own interpretation, but here's mine: 22 died when his rifle backfired in his face possibly due to 22 carelessly having gunpowder all over his hand (finger) while loading the gun in haste - a rookie mistake that cost him his life and certainly a lesson his Pa would have instructed him on previously. After having taken on the ultimate "responsibility" of defending the family by fighting the authority, in the end it was his careless mistake that cost him. He is humiliated by this fact and so his first thoughts are when you tell the story of how I died put a spin on it: not talking of my fatal rookie mistake (Shelter me from the powder and the finger) but rather accentuating the part of my bravery and me taking on the responsibility (Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger). who knows?
Whatever Neil's thoughts were when writing it, Powderfinger stands as one of our the all-time Neil favourites.

At 9/14/2008 09:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An overcharged priming pan on a flintlock rifle results in excessive back flash causing burnt face and fingers along with an increased chance of misfire.
The song is actually very simple to decipher.
First off the protagonist is not in control of the situation which could be taking place in any place or time.
He did not make the conditions that lead to the final event but is pressured to take part regardless since those responsible are unwilling or unable.
In other words the song is about the powers that be driving the young into the same pattern of perpetual conflict and the sons paying for the sins of their fathers.

At 9/14/2008 09:02:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wanted to say that I heard Powderfinger on the radio today on a local "classic rock" station - your usual lame playlist of 50 or so tunes, never playing anything that wasn't basically a 'top-40' single. I was shocked to hear it, but glad I did... one of my favorite Neil Young songs of all time.

I think your basic Powderfinger analysis is right on - it's a young kid protecting his outlaw-ish family of moonshiner-pot grower-gun smuggler- or whatever from 'the law'. A _lot_ of people in the rural US have to live on the gray side of the law... I'm in upstate NY and there are plenty of areas like that here! People raised in metro areas have no idea, but there is definitely a rural culture many people would be shocked to learn about.

You can definitely picture it in civil war times but did they have red beacons, power boats (big wake) etc.? Nope. I've also read it may refer to various Canadian conflicts, and even the American revolution ('red')... but no lights there, no modern rifles(muzzle loaders only), no powerful boats, etc. Therefore, I think the story is set in modern times, somewhere in the Southern US where coast guard, police or ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Fireams) might be using patrol boats. Not this century since it was written 30+/- years ago, but I'm thinking 1920s (prohibition/moonshiners) 1930s (gun runners) 1950s-70's(weed)

I wanted to comment on the line "Red means run, son... numbers add up to nothin'...."

I think that is basically "if a boat is coming up the river with a red light... it's the law... run like hell. But if it's just another white boat with numbers on the side... no problem." Not much more complicated than that, but again, it is such a great song the lyrics can be interpreted however the emotion moves you.. that's the mark of a great song IMO.

BTW - A "powderfinger" is the gun powder mark shooters get on their trigger finger. I'm not into guns at all, but plenty of people around here are.

Thanks for a great site - I knew I could Google some "Neil Young Analysis" and find somebody thinking.

At 9/14/2008 09:02:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

re the excellent analysis from rust, specifically the comments on the line "red means run (son), numbers add up to nothing":

I simply take that to mean don't do battle with the cops or whatever authority is symbolized by the "big red beacon." That even if you have numbers on your side, people to back you up, it will result in catastrophe either way. "Red" might refer to the beacon, or to blood. When blood starts to flow, run, Forrest, run.

At 9/14/2008 09:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From I, Claudius...

The pedigree of "Powderfinger" makes it obvious that this is a song about an incident in the Civil War. In the first stages of the war, the Union immediately set about seeking to blockade Southern ports and especially take control of rivers to cut off both troop and supply movements. Because many rivers were either shallow or full of snags, smaller shallow-draft gunboats, packing cannon and a few support troops, were commonly used. By the nature of events, they would appear suddenly headed for some minor river port, often raiding but not occupying riverside settlements unless in support of land-based troops. The early days of the war also saw enthusiastic response by the men of many Southern states, leaving younger members to "guard the farm"and work the soil or shop. The tragic protangonist in "Powderfinger" is 22, a ripe age for military service. But right off the bat, we are given hints that here is someone left behind and alone in his actions because he is a simpleton, relying on others to tell him what to do. When left to his own devices, he reacts on a base level to perceived assault; he doesn't even think of the danger and being massively outgunned but simply takes a defensive stand -- and is killed for it. In the last stanzas, he wants his symbolic death shroud to be the sense of protectiveness to his home that was his final thought. And of course a parting goodbye to love. Enough to make you cry.

At 9/14/2008 09:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, this is about Powderfinger. I was reading the page analysis for Powderfinger, and lots of it is really off the mark.

All the stuff about cops and drugs, i'll say 'no'. It's in the past, before those sorts of probems.

Daddy is dead.
Brother is out living.
Big John is just a drunk now that Emmy is drowneded.
So Fate has left it up to the boy.
wondering what to do more and more while the boat gets closer + closer.
edging its dirty way to shore.

Daddy's rifle in my hand felt reassuring,
he told me 'red means run son, numbers add up to nothing'

-No matter what, run if you see the boat with the red flag. It doesn't matter how many there are of you, and how many there are of them. If you see that red flag, run like fuck.

But when the first shot hit the dock, i saw it coming,
(it's sweet beats, i was prepared)
raised my rifle to my eye,
never stopped to wonder why
(i don't know who these people are,
or why they want to kill me,
but i know what i have to do)

Then I saw black and my face splash in the sky.

-now this part, i can't believe that the first idea to come to this boy was that it was night time and he fell into a lake. The boy has just been shot in the face with a fucking rifle.
He is going to see black, and his face is going to splash in the sky.

"Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger"
leave me in that warm state, where i did what was right and i shot. that instance.

then all the rest of the lines are a goodbye message.

and give my love to rose.

At 9/14/2008 09:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just want to say how great it is to find explanations on i.e. Powderfinger. Thursday evening (August 28th 2008) I invited my daughter to the NY & His Electric Band show in Horsens (Danish town - I'm sure he chose it because of the name which connotates Crazy Horse, heh-heh) - and Powderfinger was on the list, the lyrics of which has puzzled me for years. The images that follow are so vivid, I see that patrol boat coming up the river and I feel the impact of the gun shot right in my face (no, he didn't commit suicide - he was taken out by "the law", although he tried as best he could to protect him self and his family. Being a (somewhat poor) poker player, it's almost like going all in against your better judgement, just for the heck of it..! That's my analysis. Anyway, so great to see that Neil's still going strong - and I've been a fan since 1970, I fell completely to After the Goldrush and stayed on after that. Greetings from Denmark, Leif Carlsen.

At 9/14/2008 10:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Come on people; none of you are wrong, however many of you are taking yourselve's a bit too seriously. The song is about the sound of the song. Things mesh well and create images-moments of peace and moments of gunfire. All in all it's a great song, but writing an explanation that is longer than the song, seems to slap in the face of it's all one song. Then again: I DON'T KNOW!

At 9/15/2008 02:11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Holy O' Mackerel!

What a can of worms you opened with this topic!

My take of the song now is the guy analyzed his situation (song) DEATH!

At 9/15/2008 02:28:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not sure how relevant the info is, but the original line was "red men run", not "red means run". And the song dates back to 1967/68, when Neil had just turned...22.

At 9/15/2008 04:00:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always thought that 22's rifle backfired, but in Shakey (p. 539 in my edition), Neil says "Guy's gonna take a shot but gets shot himself".

At 9/15/2008 04:21:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's about facing life (and its responsabilities) without ever being ready for it.

At 9/15/2008 09:03:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi , just to remind you that Neil started to write the song back in 1969...the original title was Big Waves...remember the sheet inside After The Gold Rush...probably one of the ideas about the never released or never produced film by Stockwell...another version was recorded during the Zuma sessions...I'm waitin for his Archives volume the long next future we will know...

At 9/15/2008 12:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that Hoyt is perfectly right!

You all forget that Neil wrote the Song originally for Lynyrd Skynyrd. And this is the key to the secret!

The interpretation of Hoyt fits best into the classical Lynyrd Skynyrd arsenal. A poor Confederate Farmer Boy who gets shot by bad Yankee Marauders while defending alone the Family`s Farm, because his Dad has gone to war.

The last big secret I think is the "red means run son"

What the hell was red in the Union Army during the Civil War?

My explanation is that the red beacon is meant. We need an Navy-History-Expert here!

Best Wishes from Germany

At 9/15/2008 03:39:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great debate here - I remember reading the original stuff in Thrashers archives only recently - as with all great songs the song means what you want it to mean and how you interpret it.

Personally, I always think of it being Red Indians (can you say that still or is it PC to say Native Americans).

Because of this I wondered what the 'red means run son' line had to do with it as I assumed at the sight of 'red' indians you would run but a previous post nailed it for me - its the redcoats.

This leads me to think its probably more to do with Canada (hence the link to Neil) early doors - because the redcoats have the experience of using guns it would be best advice to run at the sight of them.

This is the opposite of the natives who aren't experienced with rifles and as such 22 kills himself using one.

The same post also got it right in my mind as it refers to 22 hoping they hadn't come to stay i.e. the nasty white men.

There's probably a bit in here too about the honour of using rifles compared to native weapons - a bit like the end of the film 'The Last Samuri' when the honourable Japenese using anicent weapons get slaughtered by the new gattling guns - what a film.

Anyway - Powderfinger - what a song - if someone asked me to name a song that summed up Neil musically or lyrically this would be the one.

Luckily seen it live quite a lot but in the spring tour this year the final verse really got to me each time - goosebumps and all.

Heres looking foward to he earlier versions in Archives 2!!!


At 9/15/2008 03:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing I always found interesting about the song is a slight lyrical difference between the "Rust Never Sleeps" version and a version I have on the unreleased "Chrome Dreams" album.
In the "Rust" version, the narrator relates that his father told him "red means run son, numbers add up to nothing." On the "Chrome" version, I'm almost 100% positive that the line is different and is as follows..."he said red MEN run son, numbers add up to nothing". I've read an awful lot of books about early America, Mountain Men, Frontier life etc. One thing that comes up in a lot of those narratives is the idea that no matter how many Native Americans one might be up against, often killing just one of them sets the others to running.
I've always thought that that was the reference in the early (Chrome) version of Powderfinger, that red men (Native Americans) run if fired upon, that their numbers just add up to no real amount of force. Other than this idea placing the narrator on the American frontier, I think the rest of the song's imagery is relatively incongrous and poetic, as are most of Neil's songs, which is why they are great!

At 9/15/2008 05:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Red Means Run Son"

Red lights on a game wardens boat.

"Numbers Add Up to Nothing"

The numbers on the side of the boat mean nothing, but trouble.

At 9/16/2008 06:20:00 AM, Blogger Mark Johnson said...


And living with it.

At 9/19/2008 08:18:00 AM, Blogger Luth said...

Let's not overthink the classic coming of age story where the young narrator is forced to make a stand whether he (or she) is ready or not. You make the stand on your own, perhaps for the first time in your life, and you live with the consequences. You're now a grown up.

In Powderfinger, he makes his stand and he dies, but he makes his stand. He woke up a boy but dies a man. That's about it.

Perhaps it's a romantic statement about the fact that most of us won't have such a "big moment" in our lives where our fate is determined... most of us will just have to make a long series of seemingly small decisions hoping each one is right or, at least that they add up to something we can be happy with in the end. (that could describe Neil's life eh? and yours and mine...)

Perhaps not.

There is only one human story. Every good song, novel, joke, movie, even the Bible retells it using different details to make it more personal or timely or relevant to the target audience.

Powderfinger is just that. Its staying power lies in the simplicity of its retelling in an easily familar situation - even if none of us are clear on the details - that ends tragically but is delivered by contrastingly desperate but hopeful, dare I say beautiful music.

The details of the conflict change over the centuries, but the story never does. Powederfinger is one of those retellings that will likely last for a while longer. Audiences across its life span will substitute their own details but they'll all be drawn to the tragedy... and the hope wrapped up in that human story.

At 9/19/2008 04:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never over ananalysed Powderfinger but it's one of my favourite Neil Young songs and the one I play most.
I think in general it's about having to take on a big responsibility at a young age (in this case too much). It's dramatic and emotional that's for sure. Does it relate to Young's younger days when he took on big responsiblies starting off on his musical journey?

At 10/03/2008 02:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My two cents

I believe that the song is about nihilism--the belief that life is meaningless; and the boy's standing up to that philosophy(which he was taught) and doing what he thinks is right. All the other stuff--the boat, the light, the flag, who the people on the shore are, etc.-- are not important. They could have been any details, set anywhere. Only what the boy does in relation to what he was taught is important. That's why Neil leaves those elements vague (and he knows exactly what he's doing--these lyrics are no accident). The details are not the point.

"Red means run, son/Numbers add up to nothing" is the expression of nihilistic thinking: What you know, what you've learned, what you have experienced is meaningless. Therefore, nothing is worth fighting for; or said another way: save yourself--nothing else matters.

The boy rejects his father's philosophy and does what his conscience tells him to do.

At 10/30/2008 12:54:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up in the country. I had family who were alcoholics and most country people lived by a code, one I will not get into.
I love Neil Young and I certainly love the song POWDERFINGER.

I don't believe the lyrics are not complex at all nor do I believe them to be too vague or mysterious. I do believe this is a very simple soulful story.

In the country you grow up learning to shoot and trap and all things associated with rural rugged survival. "Your daddies rifle" was very symbolic as a boy. It meant survival and safety for the family. A boy firing his daddies gun held a certain reverence and was trusted to be true.
From where I come from when daddy was gone he was dead, disappeared on a drinking binge, or gone crazy. His brother "up huntin in the mountains", means exactly that, providing for the family.
In the begining he asks Ma to call John but John's been in the bottle since his girl EmmyLou drowned.
This is it, he's scared of something as big and strange as the approach of a military vessel, a military vessel he has never seen in these parts of their part of the river.

IMHO, this is clearly the confederate troops coming up river. Daddy warned him " Red means run son, numbers add up to nothing". This may explain his daddies abscence, PTSD, after fighting large numbers of confederate soldiers, The Civil War was very violent and bloody hand to hand combat.
His advice to his son was just that, "red means run son, when you see that many comin". The "numbers" adding up to nothing was probably a scene in which his daddies regiment were wiped out and lots of "red" blood.
Obviously 22 knew what to do when he saw that white boat comin, he grabbed daddies gun because daddy had warned him about the rebs and their vast numbers, about the bloody stories and what it had done to his father.
Aside from these things, most difinitive is the key phrase itself, 'Powderfinger".
Shooting a flintlock in those days created smoke and I'm sure a black discharge plus the loading may have caused his hands to become black from loading powder with a terrified shaking hand.
He saw the shot coming from the firing from the white boat. He knew what he had to do. Even though he pulled the trigger it didn't matter, it was all over in an instant.
In that last instant it all went black as he sees the blood fly from his face and/or head.
At this point the dying youth made soldier, Nam reference, makes his peace with God and those he loves. Another wasted young man to the horror of war.
Just another poor simple country boy wasted away.

At 12/04/2008 12:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read the 'analysis #1' of powderfinger. Interesting, but some parts are being over-analyzed. 'shelter me from the powder and the finger' i think is a drug reference. 'it don't look like they're here to deliver the mail' lends to the fact that this is not law enforcement approaching - it's people coming to settle a score. I can't believe that analyisis #1 did not correctly identify 'red means run'!!!! this is a rifle joke -when the safety is off, it appears red. 'red means run'....also, 'i saw black and my face splash in the sky'... the 22 year old kid in this song shoots himself in the head, as he realizes that these people were coming to kill him. that's it! it's about an uncollected debt, and mistakes that can't be undone. don't ask me how i know this, but everything that i've posted is fact. wanna talk some more about it? ciao!

At 12/07/2008 10:17:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always felt it was a story about a north vietnamese gunboat and a young soldier thinking about back home seconds before he gets shot before he takes his own shot - "the powers that be" line really seems to reference the many young soldiers that were virtually unsupervised in that war, trying to make life and death decisions...
Dr. K

At 1/09/2009 10:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with much of what I've read regarding the song being a "Civil War" era piece. After the war there were various group of men roving the country side on horse back in the lawless territories. Jesse James was such a man. The war was hell on earth and after killing men for years these unemployed men with no where to go could only continue doing killing. I believe the men on the "white boat" where not government men but ex-confederate white soldiers and the man on the dock was black. They wouldn't have much cared who the 22 year old man was only that he was black. They were murders who lost the war and out looking for people black or not to fight and kill along with stealing whatever valuables they had. Daddy's gone means daddy's dead. The young man remembers "red means run son, numbers add up to nothing", clearly a Clint Eastwood type comment from his Pa regarding the pointlessness of war. He was conflicted as to what to do but knew his honor and the lives of his family were at risk. He didn't have time to weight options he could only act. The image of his "face splashed in the sky" has always been the most vivid for me along with "remember my love I know I'll miss her".

At 1/25/2009 10:57:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Powderfinger implies the name given to 22 in his defiance of the marauders.
Like the RED Badge of Courage,this suggests to me a Hospital Boat or a boat full of wounded or dying soldiers.
like his song Cripple Creek Ferry it is suggestive of the Civil War era and the RIVER has to be the Mississsipppi.
So a press Gang scenario exists where the boat is probably a rebel one looking for new conscripts to bolster its ranks.
I think Neil has used a fair bit of poetic liscence here as to be not too specific and provide a moral undertone saying that sometimes we have to make a stand cos we are going to lose whatever decision we make.22 does the last great act of defiance and chooses to shoot back but is hit while making his stance.

At 1/28/2009 03:20:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Folks,
I'm a little humbled by some of the excellently thought out analyses already posted, but I'll have a go myself anyway. I tend to agree that the key to the song is that it was written for Skynard, in relation to some event they described to Neil. As it comes after "Southern Man" & "Sweet Home Alabama" it sort of stands to reason that the 'event' that '22' is describing is happening to a southern (read Confederate/sucessionist) man. The reference to 'Daddy' being gone is therefore likely telling us that Daddy was killed in the Civil War or is still a prisoner somewhere (there were a lot of confederate soldiers in prisoner of war camps at the end of the war). 22's 'brother out hunting in the mountains' reflected reality for a lot of, previously wealthy, southern plantation owners, their agricultural wealth had evaporated in the war environment. The fact that 22's home had a 'dock' fits with a previously wealthy plantation house. The great plantation houses had not been worked properly, as the overseeers had all left to join the confederate army, the slaves had not been directed to plant, sow etc., the slaves had perhaps also fled by this stage, but many were pressed into service for the confederate army also, and those left behind now had to live a hand to mouth existence. Yes it is true there were significant Union reprissals in the south after the war, but we tend to forget that commmunications were not what they are today, and news of the Union victory was generally dissseminated by the soldiers who had now come to occupy, or to flush out the last confederate pockets of resistance, obviously unwelcome news.
If related by a 'Southerner' (we know it was/is as a Skynard member related it) the story is probably highlighting the violence or menacing activities of the government soldiers. It has always seemed to me that 22 was someone who either couldn't accept a Union victory or decided to fight on in a symbolic last stand as life in the South would never be the same anyway. To the oblique references; hand cranked sirens and cone shaped bullhorns are referred to as 'beacons', in line with an announcement. The 'flag',stars & bars, and the 'man on the rail' would be a military spotter. 22's life so far had not equipped him 'to do the thinking' or accept the repercussions of a Confederate defeat. 'Red' is a reference to the flame discharged from the barrel of a gun, but more likely a cannon here, as cannon fire is not direct but will be in a curving trajectory if at any distance, lengthening the time to impact, which also explains why he 'saw it coming'. 22 fights back defiantly but it is already too late. The 'thought that pulled the trigger' was the Confederate/successionist thought, that started the war in the first place, and to be covered in that thought would be to be covered in the Confederate flag for burial, 'so much left undone' would then be the ruins of the southern agricultural economy after the war & little direction as to how to rebuild it without slave labour. 'So young', the confederacy was short lived & troublesome while it was alive as was 22, and 'my love' was the lost glory of the southern plantation aristocracy, and the carefree existence they enjoyed while they had others to do the actual work that supported them.
Some will likely disagree, but I think in the historical context I'm not far off. The only thing that gives me pause for thought, is an earlier comment that the original lyric was "Red men run, son, numbers add up to nothing" which would seem to suggest a Native American context, but then some of the 'boat' references would be hard to explain.
Thats my two cents worth, your health folks.
Sean Og

At 1/28/2009 10:52:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll leave the interpretation up to the master. What I can offer is my band's live version of Powderfinger with a tribute in pictures to Neil.
I hope you enjoy!!

At 2/27/2009 09:11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


"numbers add up to nothing":
It doesn't make sense if you try to compute what isn't computable/to calculate:
1+1 doesn't equal 2 if you're trying to "compute" what is "powderfinger" or any other neil-song really all about.

((by the way some of the most fanatic believers in number-adding (german writer ernst juenger called them once "verzifferer") have caused imho some of the most severe problems of the 20/21 century ... world war I was only a "number adding" and adds up to nothing but millions of deads - like the ongoing big-bang of the capitalism in its now decadent phase etc.pp. usw.usf. ad infinitum ...))



thrasher's wheat is really fine ...

... but all of the lyrics analysis ...

best wishes


At 3/20/2009 09:12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Respect the source!"


At 3/29/2009 01:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the 30's the Tennessee Valley Authority dammed up many rivers in Appalachia.

Some of the people of the area lost their land to the lakes caused by the dams. The ones that resisted were put down by goverment riverboat.

It would fit too, as the Tennessee River was known for wild floods, and in the lyrics it states; "since the river took Emmy-Lou"

Black powder rifles were the weapon of choice in the area. They do not require cartridges. Not much use against a gunship though.

At 4/10/2009 04:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insights. IMO

"Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger"

I think this is said as a hope that the decision to pull the trigger was a noble one. And if it is 'correct/noble' to pull the trigger, then his soul will be covered/protected.

I see the song as a civil war experience. And I love it! Thanks N.Y.

A Fan

At 4/21/2009 12:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Shelter me from the Powder in the Finger"?????????? Pardon? What is the meaning of this misquotation? And why the unnecessary capitalizations?

Anyway as for the meaning of the song "Powderfinger" while I am not certain, I do get the sense it is another one of Mr. Young's many Native North American anecdotes. This becomes clear if one considers the context of the album "Rust Never Sleeps" with its many lyrical references to Native American experience (in songs such as "Sail Away" and "Pocahontas", even, obliquely, "Ride My Llama").

This working of Native American imagery and feeling is a recurrent factor throughout Young's work, let alone this masterpiece.

At 5/03/2009 01:40:00 PM, Anonymous Steve Pascali said...

"Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger"

In this context, I associate the word "protect" with "cover". "22" finds disillusionment after making the decision to raise a gun and pull the trigger. His naive faith is now gone. Although he once was the one last "innocent" in his family, he now joins the ranks of "adulthood", saying goodbye to childhoods end. "22's" wish to remain among society's inncocent is gone, and that split second decision is a regretful one. He can't believe the thought even crossed his mind and is now ashamed of his actions.

At 5/09/2009 09:44:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

My thoughts are that it was either during the Civil or possibly the Vietnam war. As it fit's in with the time of release.

The song seemed to me it was about simple young 22yo and his 'hick' family (think movie deliverance). They lived in an isolated part of the woods along a big river. Maybe along the Mississippi. They don't read news, not part of the modern way of life and don't trust outsiders.

As there was forced conscription during both wars it could have been the military police? He either thinks they will take him away where he won't come back or are out to kill him.

Or if it was during the civil war it was some sort of navel boat that belonged to the 'bad' guys and it better to die trying than to be taken away.

At 5/15/2009 03:38:00 PM, Anonymous davidt said...

Great song first off, then I would comment for all those civil war freaks, there were no number desination on boats until WWI, ther were no big red beacons neither. I do not know how many of these commentors were alive in the sixties, so you have t olook at context of the times. Most all of these pioneers of this style of music in the world of rock and roll at that time had this forum to protest there views on a mass scale. Also at that time air time on the radio was limited to 3 minutes, so you had short time to get what you wanted to say in the song,and even this did not make the top forty you still had to keep your minites down on the albums, so many metafors were used by musicians for various reasons. Back then if your song was too political or racy it did not even get put on the album. Most all these artist werer at the mercy of the producers or ownwer of the record label. Most of the time artist had to be clever in getting there message out. Remember also we were not far removed from Macarthurism. Also since he has never exactlly explained the lyrics, it could have been a catchy tune that needed some words to think about. There was a lot of that during the sixties. Thanks,

At 5/26/2009 10:33:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

al believes that powderfinger is a song about racial intolerance in the deep South probably Alabama during the 50s-60s and that 22 and his family are black . That the men on the white boat are kkk type people out harrassing black folks, and that this has happened to his family before(the father). I believe that it comes from the same vein of songs like Southern Man. It shows Neils hate for racisim. In the end 22 dies and the hate continues on as it has to his family before.

At 5/30/2009 01:29:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I play guitar, this is one of my favs!
one quick comment, all your posts are interesting....but does no one play with guns??
turn off the safety of a rifle, what color is the tab? when its on, its black, safe mode, when its off, its red, ready to go.... stand on the business side of a gun, you see a red tab, you had better run or face what is coming, I am Canadian, seen neil in Blind River, he knows all about guns also..... red means run son....
Thanks for looking, and thanks for this forumn very cool //// good job everyone..

At 5/30/2009 01:32:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

anyone else play, here is the song.... have fun...

Look out, Ma, there's a white boat comin' up the river

With a big red beacon and a flag and a man on the rail

I think you'ld better call John

Bm C
'cause it don't look like they're here to deliver the mail

Bm7 CM7
And it's less than a mile away

Bm7 CM7
I hope they hope they didn't come to stay

Bm7 CM7
It's got numbers on the side and a gun
and it's makin' big waves


Daddy's gone and my brother's out huntin' in the mountains
Big John's been drinkin' since the river took Emmy Lou
So the powers that be left me here to do the thinkin'
And I just turned twenty-two
I was wonderin' what to do
And the closer they got
The more those feelin's grew




C Bm C

Bm7 CM7

Bm7 CM7

Bm7 CM7 D


Daddy's rifle in my hand felt reassurin;
He told me "Red means run, son, and numbers add up to nothin'"
When the first shot hit the dock I saw it comin'
Raised my rifle to my eye
Never stopped to wonder why
Then I saw black and my face splashed in the sky


Shelter me from the powder and the finger
Cover me with the one that pulled the trigger
Just think of me as one you never figured
Would fade away so young
With so much left undone
Remember me to my love, I know I'll miss her


CM7 032000
Bm7 xx4323

At 5/30/2009 01:48:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

one more little ditty, I saw black and my face splashed in the sky.....
hmm, did someone forget to turn off the safety and get shot?


At 5/30/2009 05:58:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Last post people, unless someone wants to have a conversation bout this, I will enable e-mail.... When looking at Neil's songs, my grandpa took me to see him when he was just getting going in Canada in the 60's..... Grandpa told me to use the KISS theory, Neil would agree....

At 5/30/2009 05:59:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

E-mail now enabled....

At 6/01/2009 02:58:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, but most of the posts I have read here are a bit off the mark.

Neil tells a nice little social/historical/emotianal story; which is pretty simple really:

A young guy (22)is a hillbilly/mountain-man/redneck, circa 1865-1899.

His "libertarian" (perhaps rebel/anti-goverment) Dad is dead, his Uncle is physcologically messed up from his wife's (Emmy Lou's) drowning death, his older brother is away hunting.

When the government comes for him, for some unknown thing that he has done, there is no one to turn to; he feels alone, and he panicks.

He thinks of what his father has told him about the nature of governments and punishment, and instead of being taken to prison, he commmitts suicide with his Dad's rifle.

The last verse explains that:

1) the anger that caused him to committ the "crime" in the first place also made him kill himself in the end when faced with the reprecussions of such. That's what he means by "shelter me from the powder in the finger"

2) that by thinking to kill himself he has atoned for the intial "crime" (as well as the suicide itself) "cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger"

3) he whistfully hopes people will think his death is tragic: fading away "so young, with so much left undone" etc.

The song is really, really sad, but the music itself is defiant and somewhat hopefull. Remember, by killing himself he alighns himself with his father's belief system. We are not told exactly what that is, but we know the family is in opposition to the state.

So 22's death is more than a mere fleeing from consequence, it is a politiacl act, but at the same time we know that it is mostly because he is young, alone and scared, and simply over-reacts.

what do you think?

At 6/03/2009 06:38:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scanning through all the posts, it was interesting that nobody came up with a theory I had when this song first came out.

I'll probably get slammed for this...but, it seems to be a simple tale of early American violence stemming from the right to keep and bear arms. Of the senseless loss of life that right sometimes brings when the average Joe takes up an easily accessible weapon to do what they think at the time is the right thing.

I don't know Neil's position on 2nd Amendment rights. Also don't think he tried to make a statement either way with the lyrics here....just doing what he does best: telling a story very colorfully to illustrate what happens during life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in America.

At 6/09/2009 09:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always thought it was about the revolutionary means run being redcoats. i always fiqured my face flashed in the sky was the explosion of a old flint lock style rifle that has a lot of powder and flash right next to your face when it fires. hey..who knows

At 7/11/2009 02:12:00 PM, Blogger Kurt Dejgaard said...

I see a lot of fine interpretations and will offer my own.

I tend to compare the song to the famous Australian song "Waltzing Mathilda", which has a narrative not unlike "Powderfinger":

"Waltzing Mathilda" is the story of a hobo who snatches a young goat ("jumbuck") at a creek where he is camping and where the goat has come to drink. He is discovered and confronted by the landowner and 3 police officers and - seeing there's no way out of the situation - decides to take fate into his own hands (in the only way he can still control it) and jumps to his death ("You'll never catch me alive, said he") into the creek, rather than facing capture. ("And his ghost may be heard, if you pass by that Billabong...")

"Powderfinger" has a similar narrative. A young man is confronted with a (somewhat more vague) situation from which there is no escape and, faced with the confrontational nature of the situation, decides to go for one thing that spontaneously occurs to him to offer him control of his own fate ("Raised my rifle to my eye" is not necessarily to aim at someone else and it says nothing about the direction of the barrel).

"Cover me with the though that pulled the trigger".
What was his thought when he pulled the trigger?
Despair? Pity? "Why"?
It interests me, because of the second guitar interlude - the second solo from "Rust never sleeps" (but not from any Live recordings I've heard. Only from the "Rust never sleeps" version).
That second solo (in particular the first half) reminisce a bagpipe
(I play bagpipe, myself) and to me, takes on the meaning of Neil playing a "traditional" lament for the dead boy.

"Red means run, son"
Red is/was the uniform color of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP, nicnamed "Mounties")
I.e. the story may take place, somewhere in rural Canada (Neil's home country).

"Shelter me from the powder and the finger"
To me, means "Don't put a gun in my hand". "Don't leave me the option to do something stupid, in a mindless second ("never stopped to wonder why") that can't be undone, afterwards".

To me, the song is either a pacifist- or an anti-gun song. (Probably both).

At 7/26/2009 02:04:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think "cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger", reads kind of like an epitaph. "This man killed by the powers that be for feeding his family". The authority is "the thought that pulled the trigger" and his grave should be covered by the dirt of that injustice for all to see.

At 7/29/2009 07:15:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I have the same feeling about Powderfinger being a Civil War era song, and agree with Gerard about the rifle misfire. Daddy's rifle was not our young hero's gun, and he may not have had much experience with long guns.
It was not uncommon to have muskets misfire or blow up in the faces of those that loaded too much powder or ball into the muzzle. I own such an antique Ball and Cap long rifle that blew up (backfired through the percussion hole)in it's owner face. Misfire reports of the Civil war got lost if the carnage of the era.

At 8/16/2009 12:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been an admirer of Neil Young and his work since about 1989 onwards, 'Powderfinger' came to my attention when I purchased a copy of the CD version of 'Rust Never Sleeps' and subsequently 'Live Rust' as I had previously heard him play this song live on the US broadcast of Live Aid in 1985 but did not know the title of the song.

When I listen to this song along with hearing his voice, I feel I am transported to a period of American history where a young farm hand is called to defend the family's homestead with the help of his father's trusty rifle but naively thought he could take on single-handedly the might of a heavily armed gunboat which was commandeered by a band of 'red-necked' renegades which he had been previously warned about to expect and to take on whilst the rest of the family were away, unfortunately he takes aim but is alas not properly trained to shoot accurately and does not blow the excess gunpowder from the firing mechanism in his haste to return fire.

What a gifted songwriter Neil Young is to make me an Englishman visualise this scene so graphically!

At 8/19/2009 03:52:00 PM, Blogger John said...

Subsequent to my earlier post on 16th Aug, I think the subject analysis is fascinating but overly analysed according to some postings, Neil Young obviously has great insights into the history of North America and it's folklore and is obviously well-read thus enabling him to weave this tale of woe in such a fashion that it got tongues wagging to this day, which it obviously has, hence the existence of this website devoted to him.

May Neil's star burn even brighter!

John, Northolt, England

At 8/21/2009 09:59:00 AM, Blogger doc said...

Anonymous(2 posts ago) I think your interpretation sums up nicely what I feel the song is about. You don't have to look to hard and over analyse what Neil is writing about coz most of his lyrics are a simple interpretation of an experience or a story hidden agenda or cryptic meaning here.... and yes the song Is quite addictive in the picture it portrays and the influences it has on people who are lovers of Neil's music. (One of our great Aussie bands have adopted the title of that song as their band name).
Its true when you read just how many bands and people that Neil's music hasinfluenced/touched/affected throughout his long career and continues to do so..Long may you run Neil...long may you run!

At 8/22/2009 10:19:00 AM, Anonymous tyddles' said...

I have always thought this was about the Civil War, just assumed it. The first Neil Young song that caught my imagination, on Live Aid 1985...evn though my partner had tried his best for years to get me off Bob Dylan and on to Neil Young. Never did go off Dylan but love, love love Neil Young since hearing Powderfinger
Val Parry

At 9/17/2009 01:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another tremendous cover of this song was on the Beat Farmers "Van Go" record in the mid-80's. That was my first exposure to it, in fact.

At 9/18/2009 01:27:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't seen this explanation, but it was my immediate reaction to the song. RE: "Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger". This is a play on "You've made your bed, now lie in it". He realizes the impetuous foolishness of his actions have ended his life and isn't afraid to admit so.

At 9/18/2009 01:46:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

RE: "Shelter me from the powder and the finger". He's admitting that anger, and the will to animate it with physical violence, were his undoing.

At 10/10/2009 01:05:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger" maybe that thought was "This is our land" and after he is killed when his rifle blows up in his face he is covered in dirt, covered in "their land"

At 10/10/2009 07:28:00 AM, Blogger John said...

I think Neil would have to be asked what the immortal line meant, I don't think there is much to be gained by speculating about what it does or doesn't mean!

At 12/26/2009 10:48:00 AM, Anonymous Slim said...

It sounds like a poor Appalachian family. And for some reason the police have shown up when no one is home except the youngest son. So he remembers is father's advice as he takes his rifle and fires back. It sounds like he never is actually killed but rather knows his fate will be a life behind bars.

As for the enigmatic line "Shelter me from the powder and the finger. Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger." This to me just sounds like a prayer asking for his aim to be straight and the shot to be true and just.

At 1/10/2010 03:34:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I first heard Powderfinger in '78, and fell in love with it. At that time, at age 16, i felt it was a song about the Civil War. 30 years later, as a Civil War buff, I still feel that is what it is about. A young man left at home to defend his home, his elder male family members off to fight the war. By 1864 anyone 22 would be conscripted by the Confederacy (they controlled no Union rivers, so if my interpretation is correct he must be a Confederate), so this would be a tale from the first two years of the Civil War...

At 2/03/2010 10:15:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe Powderfinger is a song about a post apocalyptic event. Central authority is meager, and the story is regarding a small village or outpost.

The white boat is probably a central authority seeking to enforce its dominance or expansion.

"Shelter me from the thought that pulled the trigger" merely refers to the title character regretting his impulsive action, which results in his death.


At 4/04/2010 10:21:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger"...i was reading the analysis page and this line, apparently, has escaped the writers definition (which to be honeast has been spot on...but as for this lines deifinition, surely its obvious? It simply refers to the reasons as to why the "powder and the finger" people (or the powers that be) excuse what they do, the protagonist is seeking reasons for WHY hes been shot and needs refuge underneath its apparently secure blanket of ignorance. Thats what i took form it anyways.

At 4/14/2010 11:59:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

All I can say is that there is some mystical quality about this song that provokes a strong emotional response. It's Steinbeck-like in it's composition and melodic in a way that only Neil Young could pull off. I don't want to get into interpretations because I feel differently every time I hear it and it's simply compelling, the way Neil would likely want it. This song is a masterpiece and it separates me and my thoughts from others that just don't get it, the way true art should do.

At 5/12/2010 03:21:00 AM, Blogger mad4wrecks said...

The song is pretty self explanatory-other than the phrase "powderfinger", which does fit in nicely if you know what it means.

The song does describe a rural southern family and an approaching Union gunboat (a red beacon is simply a guiding or warning signal).

As for "powderfinger," that phrase goes back to the civil war and musketeers, who wore fingers of gunpowder around their necks and on sword belts. One finger of powder per shot. The musketeers would have the gunpowder pre- measured into fingers so as to keep it dry and speed up the loading process. Too much or too little gunpowder would be disastrous (as was the case in this song-he wasn't hit by an enemy round, his musket blew up in his face!!) A not so uncommon occurrence back then.

Tommy G

At 5/17/2010 08:58:00 AM, Blogger John said...

In response to the last posting, the finger being a bottle-like container makes perfect sense as this was the means developed during the English late tudor period of storing and transporting gunpowder in measured quantities, and was extensively employed by Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army from 1644 to 1648 in it's campaign against King Charles I's royalist forces and proved successful.


At 5/29/2010 06:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For me the song is a vignette, set on a river, probably in Virginia, surrounded by mountains. By the river is a family farm. It is populated by a young man, 22, "Big John", the widower of Emmy, 22's sister who drowned in the river, and 22's mother, and 22's brother, who is out hunting at the time in the mountains. 22's father is "gone", which I take as dead, but might mean away fighting in the war. It is set during the civil war, when the sides did not always restrict their actions to those in uniform. It is a moment when a Union ship comes around the bend and opens fire unprovked, killing 22. Sometimes, that is just how fast it happens. It is the story of a young man suddenly faced with a fight against overwhelming odds, and thus it is a tragedy, because though we want the young man to win, he could never win, but that did not stop him from fighting (raising the gun). It is, essentially, a nihlist poem. Rock on. N.Y.

At 6/05/2010 06:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man I don't see how this couldn't be about Ruby Ridge. All of this really happened: a young man on the outskirts of a White Supremacist compound up the river from them (White Bird up the River) had a dog first get hit by the feds before he does (I think it says 'when the first shot hit the dog' not dock) while his father is out (who told him what to do if something happens) and while his brother was out hunting. He got shot by those who powder your finger and have numbers and guns on their cars coming up towards him and that aren't there to deliver the mail (feds). And the Father says 'Red (blood/race/bleeding for what you believe in) beats wrong, son, numbers don't add up to nothing'...and the son 'never stopped to wonder why'...and the son says:'cover me with the knock (term for an undercover agent) that pulled the trigger, just figure me as what you never figured'...Am I just drinking the wrong punch or is everyone here drinking it for not getting this?...maybe there are some more comments somewhere I didn't read that mention this..but didn't see any.

At 6/06/2010 12:19:00 PM, Blogger thrasher said...

@ 6/05/2010 06:58:00 PM

The reason why Powderfinger has nothing to do with Ruby Ridge is that the song was written in the mid-70's -- 20 years before RR.

At 7/04/2010 07:06:00 AM, Blogger Charles Izquierdo RN said...


here's a young man, a man of simple means and an inate sort of dignity, home life is broken, by despair, and hopelessness but still this young man or the generation that he represents wants to do what's right, when confronted by authority, i.e the government or some malignant organization, he is forced by circumstance to stand and fignt or to run and it seems as though his choice is already made for him, he will persevere or meet death thats my feelings about powderfinger, big john's been drinking since the river took emmy lou,, this guy did the right thing neil and he always will there is metaphorically hope for my generation and all the ones who will come after us

At 10/08/2010 09:00:00 AM, Blogger LoCoDe said...

A couple of thoughts/alternate viewpoints on some of the possible meanings discussed.

"22" isn't sure what the white boat is coming for. "doesn't look like they're here to deliver the mail", "I hope they don't plan to stay". So even though he knows that "red means run son", he's still unsure of what to think. "the powers that be left me here to do the thinking".

So, when "the first shot hit the dock", what he sees coming isn't the shot itself, it's the end. (I saw IT coming). And that's why he only then raises his rifle, because he'd been hoping it wouldn't come down to a "war".

I do believe the white boat is a police boat of some sort. Most police boats have a rail at the front, have a beacon (flashing light), and numbers on the side.

Another idea I had about the "red means run son, numbers add up to nothing" line. What if the red doesn't mean the beacon, but it means being in debt? (in the red).

Which is why Daddy's gone, he ran when he realized how bad it was. So then "numbers (that) add up to nothing", meaning they're in debt, didn't pay the mortgage, whatever, causing the police to come to evict them. I think it's more likely to be referring to the boat, but it's still an interesting alternate idea.

Regardless, in my mind there's really no right or wrong in what anyone thinks the song means. One thing that the music video did was take away the imagination of what a song might mean, whereas in a lot of cases I prefer my own ideas.

Discussing the meaning of a Neil Young song is much better than wasting life watching reality TV, that much is for sure!

At 10/21/2010 07:27:00 PM, Blogger Ace said...

I've never heard so many people try to read so much into the obvious.

Sigmund Freud once said:"Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar"!

At 11/28/2010 05:29:00 AM, Blogger Charles Izquierdo RN said...

a young man living his life as best he can, strong sense of family and an ardent mistrust of the man, government, his defining moment in his life is fighting against what he believes to be a crushing life sapping force knowing that he will not prevail but his actions are destined so he will do what he has to do

At 12/10/2010 08:25:00 PM, Blogger herr hå said...

I´d say it´s simply (oh well) about the transition from adolescent to adult and all the incertanty involved as one waits in awe or sheer panic on what is cast upon one. Examples of what an impact life has had on others, and feelings put to words. Not telling a story, but painting a picture. Albeit by telling a story.

At 12/26/2010 11:44:00 PM, Anonymous Sandy Ritson said...

This song refers to the Battle of Batoche in Saskatchewan during the Metis Rebellion of 1885.A well known event in Canadian history.
The "white boat" coming up the river is the 'Northcote' a white color gunboat sent with a Canadian/British infantry force in 'Redcoats'[not of course the blue/grey uniforms of Union/Confederate] to suppress the rebellion.Men,women and children participated in the defense of Batoche,hence a 22 yo standing on dock with a rifle,since many fighting Metis men were away at another battle.
Young has long shown an affinity for native Canadians including the Metis[half breed].

At 12/27/2010 12:30:00 AM, Anonymous Saqndy Ritson said...

I might add Neil grew up in a well educated family including his father who was virtually revered as a very intelligent sportswriter and he would have been well versed in Canadian history,including the Metis Rebellion.
Interestingly my family lived very near "Blind River" in "1962".

At 12/27/2010 12:31:00 AM, Anonymous Sandy Ritson said...

I might add Neil grew up in a well educated family including his father who was virtually revered as a very intelligent sportswriter and he would have been well versed in Canadian history,including the Metis Rebellion.
Interestingly my family lived very near "Blind River" in "1962".

At 12/27/2010 12:29:00 PM, Blogger John said...

Hello Sandy,
Interesting account given Neil's origin, however all this is speculative and would at the end of the day require Neil's explanation, and for him to be invited to an on-line chat forum to explain the lyrics.

Happy holiday!

At 3/27/2011 02:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


1) literal

2) metephoric

3) musical comp. (this the glue that holds my therory all together).

Literal - This song is indeed about a our lead protagonist charater "22" who is left to carry on ops in abscence of father and untimley death of his mother figure "Eme Lou". His activities would suggest smuggling (I will get to this part later). Then we have our antagonist "the big white boat, Red stripe with a flag and a man on a rail". The Red stripe is indicative of a Coast Guard Cutter
(Note- initials "CGC") which has a predominatly Red, with White and Blue Stripe running diagonally across the bow- the Red Stripe can be seen from miles away- jokingly Neil refers to it looking like a floating mail truck- LOL . The rail is a charateristic of an 82' US COAST GUARD "C" CLASS PATROL BOAT. All CG Cutters fly the Union Jack (the blue box/star portion of the US FLAG)on front post of bow. Boats in USCG greater than I believe 55' are designated with five black numbers adjecent to the "Racing Stripe" which consist of their length and commision number i.e. 82972 (82' - boat number 972). The "man on the rail" is a common pratice where you have a spotter on the bow anytime underway in shallows or transit in waterways. Its is also common practice to fire a warning shot before engaging. Thus the shot that hit the dock. This is a non-leathal way of them USCGC saying "Do you REALLY want to do this?" "because the next one is gonna put you out". The USCG had commisioned 82' Pat Boats from prior service in Veitnam - the 82' "C" class boats were in service from approx. 1964-2000. They were positioned heavily in along the Atlantic coast from NC south to Miami/Keys and Gulf Coast from Key West to Glaveston TX. Famous for anti-smuggling activities in Fla. (especially Gulf Coast just north of Alligator Alley in Naples/Sarasota/Cortez Area. Marijuana growing/smuggling in the 70's-80's in that area was as common-place as moonshine running was to the rest of the south. There was a small town (i think- "Apopka") in the region that was the epicenter of domestically grow pot and was a family run business (The patriarch of family was ulitmiately caught durring the Reagan era and handed down like three life sentences in federal prision. Many pro-pot (NORMIL) activists for decriminalization are familiar with this story). So I am saying with almost 99% certainty this is the basis of the story-line. The only ? is exaclty WHERE in Florida.

Metaphoric - this is not as long winded. Youth vs. Authority- Boy becomes man/ Freedom vs. Goverment / Making that life changing choice - where theres no turrning back.

NOW THE TRULLY AWESOME PART - I woke up today with Powderfinger playing in my head. So... i figured Id look up the sheet music to learn it on the guitar (which I did) only to stumble across this website. After browsing all the theories and contemplating adding the Coast Guard Info I had noticed the chord progression of this song. ITS SO OBVIOUS ITS FUNNY AND SO GOD DAMN BRILLANT... SO NEIL!!



This is why I love this man - I know most of you here now understand. LOL!! Neil is one of the best songwriters ever.



Email me @

At 3/27/2011 02:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS - The first time I heard this song I was 18-19 years old, never really put much thought into it. Figured it was about cocaine. A few years later joined the US Coast Guard and was stationed on USCGC 82972 "Ponit Swift" out of Clearwater Beach FL. MTV had just put out the Neil Young "Unplugged" CD while our crew and cutter was in dry dock in New Orleans. Being the Neil fan I was I bought it while also having pulled out my Live Rust CD which I hadnt listened to in a while. One night I was alone on the boat (we had to take turns sleeping at the boat in case it sunk)painting the deck. I was kinda head buzzed from working in the outragous heat all day and with all the paint fumes. Powderfinger came on and I got chill bumps. Icouldnt believe I had missed the story line. The next morning I petitioned the crew to approach our captain to see if we could play it over the loudspeaker while underway. = ) While navigating our way out of the delta area of louisiana we played it.. running adjacent to a break wall there was a downed Cesna airplane that had been there a while. When we were comming into the delta on the way to New Orleans capt had told us that the plane was smuggling and had crash landed after running out of fuel. Needless to say it was a surreal momment in time and I will forever be grateful to Neil for providing the soundtrack that couldnt have been more fitting for such a vivid scene.

I am so happy to be able to share this with people.. Hope you all enjoyed it. I feel like a chapter of my life has come full circle today. Cant wait to pick up my guitar. THANK YOU NEIL!!!


PPS - sorry about the typos as well
I had to lol when I re-read "brilliant".

CORRECTION - Now I think the towns name was Myaka not Apopka. Still not sure.

"Yes (Sigmund) sometimes a cigar IS just a cigar..... but SOMETIMES a cigar is a blunt and it twists your mind in a magical way that will make you forget about your mom."

- Eric Baughman

At 3/27/2011 03:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish I could post pictures of the boat.

Anyone who'd like to see pictures of the boat. You can see the racing stripe the red beacon, the rail. I dont have any pics on the pc that depict the numbers but Ive painted them on the hull countless times, believe me they exist.

At 4/04/2011 11:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How about asking Neil what the song means

At 6/03/2011 06:48:00 PM, Blogger irishbill said...

I think it's from a Vietnamese kids p.o.v. as he sees a Swift boat coming to his ville, written in American vernacular......Just this Vietnam vets take on it....

At 6/18/2011 02:44:00 PM, Anonymous Philip Trammell said...

Hello everybody...I love the takes and interpretations of the "POWDERFINGER" lyrics, but I think many of you got the ending wrong!!! I think by now we all know this was a poor back-woods boy left to pay the price for his father's wrong doings, but to me, I think it is very obvious he gets shot and killed, not kills himself with an accidental misfire.
The lyrics say.."when the first shot hit the dock i saw it coming" well, obviously to me this leads me to believe there are more shots coming. From his vantage point, either on the dock or close to it, he saw them fire at him and saw the bullet strike somewhere on the dock. His reaction was to raise his rifle to his eye, aim , and fire back. However, he does not get the shot off because he gets shot and killed before he could pull the trigger. " I saw black and my face splash in the sky " is the equivalent of saying " I was shot and killed, everything went black, and then I saw my life flash before my eyes." Him saying "cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger" is his wanting to know why he was shot and killed. Anyways, thats my take on the final verses of the song, there was no misfire/backfire, he was shot and killed, saw his life flash before his eyes, and now mourns his own passing, thanx a bunch, Im out ; )

At 7/08/2011 11:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of Neil's most iconic and classic songs...I remember discussing this song with my college friends in 1980 - we'd listen to it over and over again (under the influence of who knows what!) and debate the's fascinating to see the song still resonates as profoundly now as it did then...

Someone in another blog said something to the affect that 'Powderfinger' was a truly American song that touched on many themes without settling on one, and I tend to agree with that. I see the setting in the day - how else could 22 see a white boat coming up the river a mile away? Beyond that, I've always pictured a Southern scene, obviously a backwoods family earning what they saw to be an 'honest living' that wasn't perhaps wife's family were moonshiners in WV, and I can tell you they to this day believe they did NO wrong other than get caught!

As far as the specific scene, I see 22 as doing what he thinks is right regardless of knowing he is out-gunned and in a hopeless situation, that his actions of firing are his last (and only?) defiant act of protecting their far as the white boat, in my mind it's the 'Government', the setting is the late 1800's, early 1900's...

I don't know if anyone will get the definitive answer as to the circumstance surrounding 'Powderfinger', but it's obviously a powerful song that, IMHO, is one of Neil's greatest, which is saying a lot considering his incredible breadth of work.

At 7/17/2011 12:07:00 AM, Anonymous Phil T said...

It's straight forward enough (to me)actually. The visual imagery as described - the boat coming up the river, light's siren's, numbers - is obviously the boat belongs to some authority of some type - "when the first shot hit the dock, I saw it comin...." I take to be he sees the boats guns firing in a show of dominance by the people in the white boat, not a shot AT "22", I've always imagined him high up on a hill watching the boat getting closer and their shot he sees is as in them saying "we just destroyed the dock, what are YOU going to do to US"? Well he aims his daddy's gun and he shoots back at them of course, and no matter WHAT the result of 22's shot the result is he gets killed immediately "then I saw black and my face splashed in the sky", black being the lights going out when you are shot in the head and your face splash in the sky is I think very literal - his face is in a hundred million pieces in the air, and is not something HE is seeing. As to "shelter me from the powder and the finger". Well remember, he was simply left in charge as everyone but mom is gone, and it would have been nice if those I guess responsible for the white boats arrival were there to help do something about it, but instead it's him at 22, not wanting to have to defend it, but he does because he's the man and he was left in charge by the powers that be, and he's sorry because he is going to miss his sweetheart. And "cover me in the thought that pulled the trigger" might refer more to his eulogy or to an inscription on his headstone and his thought that he is sorry he didn't defend well enough and to that it was his job at all. As noted above, "22" was never supposed to be in this situation and is why you'd never have figured he'd go in this manner......

At 8/29/2011 12:43:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the Deceased Equine Dept.:

A "casual" NY fan here (permission to roll your eyes denied). I just heard an analysis of the song on a public radio program that runs on my local station at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. I awake to my clock radio, listening to these two hacks from Chicago fumbling around with this, and remembering the song from long ago, I thought I'd weigh in.

I can't believe nobody has figured this out yet. This song is clearly a metaphor of the Greek tragedy that is the Kennedy Family.

Think about it - the set up is a family of moonshiners and/or bootleggers. Joe (Daddy) Kennedy made his money as a bootlegger.

Big John's (Ted, actually) been drinking since the (Chappaquiddick) river took Emmy-Lou (Mary Jo).

And both John and Robert wound up relatively young on the wrong end of a gun (apologies to Dickey Betts).

Case closed. Next up, Zappa's "Billy the Mountain."

By the way, all you who swear you hear "red MAN run" might as well check in at right now. Mr. 22 is remembering Daddy's advice by counting off the details of the white boat he just saw... red (beacon) means "run," the numbers (on the side) mean nothing but trouble - he's telling you why he went and got Daddy's gun. Got it?

At 9/21/2011 05:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

PowderFinger could be the B-Side of Needle and the Damage. It's about slingin' dope - red means run the numbers add up to nothing (insulin syringe). when the first shot hit the dock?

Shelter me, shelter me from the thought (obsession)'s like a frightened prayer - least it's always resonated with me in this way.

It's been my prayer for many years now.

anon - dopeless hope fiend

At 9/27/2011 08:15:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

All the thoughts of placing the events within a time frame seem plausible. As does the unanimous feeling that 22 dies, and that all certainly makes sense. But the very first time I heard PF, I had an entirely different understanding. I sounded as if until then, he had never shot at anything other than food, like his brother. This time without stopping to wonder why, as soon as he saw the first incoming, he fires and kills a man, maybe the man on the rail. He loses his youth, even his soul, at that moment as his face fills the sky he sees it go. He then runs - he doesn't die suddenly, he "fades away" to the people who he asks to remember him. He misses his love because he must live without her, and all that could have been his with her is left undone.

At 10/04/2011 04:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a comment that the Cowboy Junkies drain the life out of this beautiful song. First, no plaintive Neil Young nasal whine. Second, excuse me, but this is a young man's song. Third, the Junkies singer refuses to sing more than a couple of notes and makes the melody flattened. Fourth, no NY guitar (this song without a guitar!) And lastly, they change an important lyric: "Look out, Ma, there's a white boat comin' down the river..." It is up the river. The singer is upriver, heretofore sheltered from the outside intrusion.

At 11/05/2011 10:40:00 PM, Blogger Pilgrim said...

Powderfinger reminds me of Ken Kesey's novel 'Sometimes a Great Notion '

Ah guess there ain't nothin' in it but rekkon you maybe should read the book anyways.

At 11/14/2011 10:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Powderfinger has always reminded me of the Sometimes A Great Notion setting as well.

Red means run, son
I always thought this line was a remembered lesson from the father about using firearms, and how releasing the safety on a gun shows red. I was taught the phrase 'Red means dead' for my safety lesson.

At 11/29/2011 10:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 11/30/2011 08:12:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a song, I agree with so many of the sentiments expressed here in the comments I've read though obviously I haven't quite gotten through them all. From the very opening bars of this song there is an inevitablity of where things are headed and a truly raw edge that pervades a sense of urgency meaning no matter how many times you've listened to it makes it feel just as urgent every time.

The last verse in particular always makes me shake my head in awe. "Shelter me from the powder and the finger" I love that he breaks the act of the gunshot into two seperate parts, the Powder representing the gun and thus as such the means, the finger being the person, persons, institution that executes the action. The point being that in itsef while the Powder has such potential for harm, (thus he asks to be sheltered from it), it's also nothing without the finger behind it that "pulled the trigger" this is deliberately ambiguous as the finger could belong to anyone and is extended to represent the organisation/force/institution that has designs for harm on the young man's life. This line is so touching because it communicates so eloquently how scared and terrified the young man is but yet does not compromise his dignity and still allows him to maintain such a brave face in the face of death. The fact that he asks for "shelter" gives indication of how vulnerable he is and how helpless he feels against this inevitable force that has come to get him, and serves as a heartbreaking reminder that he is still only a boy. The fact that his request is made in lieu of the gunshot that has killed him makes the line even more powerful.

The earlier lines in the song about his father being gone and his brother being out hunting, as well as big John no longer being around to help all serve to build to this point and illustrate so potently that this is not something the boy was given a choice in. There is an inevitability to what has happened as evidenced in the opening line of the song where the boy is instinctively aware of what the boat coming down the river means. There is (and I'm sorry to repeat myself!) such a sense of urgency throughout this song in Neil's guitar and vocals and never more apparent than in this verse, without giving the listener time to breathe or digest this lyric he's already moved on to the next line.

At 11/30/2011 08:13:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Cover me in the thought that pulled the trigger" is such a beautifully crafted line, so poignant and says so many things at once. Firstly he is asking to be remembered not by the action that killed him, this being the gunshot, but more importantly by the thought behind it that caused the action to be taken. Thus the boy seeks his death to represent so much more than the tragedy that is always present in the loss of life in one so young but to go further than that and underline the tragedy that is the inevitability of this event and the conflict that has led to it, it is a much broader statement than the untimely death of one young man but rather a heartrending rage at the inevitable and yet brutally unnecessary conflicts that have always pervaded human history and into the modern day, something Neil has referenced in so many of his songs throughout the decades.

The next two lines are much more personal and give a much greater insight into the boys own motivations and thought process throughout these events. "Think of me as one you'd never figured" you can almost picture the smile on the boys face as he falls to the ground for the last time with this thought running through his head. While there is no doubt a bitterness here that his life has ended so young this line is also amazingly bittersweet as you realise how romantic this moment is to the boy. There is so much going on here, firstly "Think of me as one you'd never figured" would imply that this is not something that would have been expected from the boy or at least that is how he perceives it. His brother out hunting is no doubt an older brother (given he is the one taking the responsibility of going out to find food) and thus would actually be be the one to take this stand were he present, with father no longer around and Big John a drunken mess you realise that this is not a situation the boys should actually be in making it all the more difficult to stomach.

This notion of being the hero however obviously appeals to the boy and his death is something that he appears to have already accepted as a circumstance of fate.

At 11/30/2011 08:14:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The second half of this verse represents the culmination of the arc in the boys final thoughts "With so much left undone, Remember me to my love, I know I'll miss her" is the bitterness that compliments the sweet romance the boy has realised in death. While the boy is obviously attached to the notion of the romance of his heroic stand and tragic end he is also so young and scared much as he has painted a brave face. This theme is subtly interjected in the lyrics throughout the song such as when he states "Daddy's rifle in my hand felt reassurin' " you can feel the conflict of emotions that the boy is going through so vividly, his pride in making his stand to protect his home, and his terrible fear of death that still pervades. Whether the notions/beliefs that lead him to take this stand are misguided is deliberately questioned "Raised my rifle to my eye Never stopped to wonder why" and yet also beautifully irrelevant in that in giving up his life in this fashion and at such a tragic age the question of motives becomes no longer relevant and is overtaken wholly by the wrong committed by "the trigger" .

The goodbye to his love as has been referenced in many of the comments I've read does not necessarily relate to a love that he has already found. If he were in fact saying goodbye to his lover he would appear to be giving her something of a raw deal as she has not otherwise even entered into his thoughts up to this point. It seems more likely therefore that this farewell is addressed to the love he had yet to meet, which would tie in perfectly with the simultaneous tragedy and yet beautiful romance he appears to recognise in his end. The fact that he is dying "with so much left undone" would further lend itself to this theory as after all falling in love or finding "the one" represents in itself a huge swath of what the vast amount of people themselves seek to find in life.

If you've managed to get through all of this then I'm truly quite falttered you thought enough of my ramblings to get to this point, and hope you get as much of a kick out of this song as I do the next time you hear it! and apologies for eating up so much comment space..

At 12/03/2011 04:33:00 AM, Anonymous FroguetteMiNote said...

Like Dan Cohn, I always thought the narrator was a Native American. "Powderfinger" seems obvious to me as an Indian name (may be given to a child who put his finger in black powder one day?) and the setting as one of a powerless conflict or rebellion. => The song's is set after most tribes were already decimated or forced into submission. "Red means run, numbers add up to nothing" is what Powderfinger's father told him : we - the Reds - can't win, even if we are numerous - we have to flee, not fight. (Also, the "cover me" in the end refers to the custom of covering dead men with blankets and either burn them or, in the Northern parts of USA or Canada, let them freeze in the open. Instead, Powderfinger just wants his thoughts to cover him.)
Anyway, I first surmised like Dan that the song had to do with the US reservations rebellions of the late 1960's, and to me the "EmmyLou" of the song was Emmylou Harris… But the flag, the line "I hope they didn't come to stay" and their colonial overtones made it hard for the song to be that contemporary.
Now thanks to Sandy Ritson, I understand those 1960's events probably just were a background or a spark for Young when he wrote the text of this powerful song about the use of, and reaction to, violence. The gun on the "White boat" (white = skin color) I had taken for a handgun or a rifle is a obviously a bigger one: a battling gun, or a cannon - much easier to see from "less than a mile away", even if Native Americans have a legendary good sight!
Wikipedia gives us interesting data about the Battle of Batoche (thanks again for the hint, Sandy) that perfectly fit with the setting in time and place (small and remote community - a boat usually delivers the mail): "BATOCHE. In 1872, Xavier Letendre dit Batoche founded a village at this site where Métis freighters crossed the South Saskatchewan River. About 50 families had claimed the river lots in the area by 1884. Widespread anxiety regarding land claims and a changing economy provoked a resistance against the Canadian Government ... The resistance failed." And the Canadian History Portal mentions even more interestingly that the head of the Canadian forces "had transformed the Hudson Bay Company steamer, the Northcote, into a gunboat".

Still, I don't think a song could be that universal and appreciated if it remained constrained by the historical background that inspired it. So here is my more universal take on the song: Powderfinger, a simple young man with a submissive father, who lived in a remote and rebellious Native American (Red) community on a river, tells his story of how he died at age 22: one day, he saw a threatening White boat approaching. He wondered how to react, whether to fight, tought about what happened to his fellow NA (his dead or absent and submissive father, his drunken friend Big John), and when the first gun or cannon shot hit the dock, saw death coming and decided to embrace it: he commited suicide ("i raised my rifle to my eye"), which can be read either as escapism (he does what his father taught him: flees, but into death), or an ultimate act of dignity and courage, or even, paradoxically, non-violence (violence only exerted upon himself). The song is his death's story and epitaph, the song's title is his name. The last verses are the moral he derives from his own experience and death at the time of his burial: shelter me from violence, it is what led me here, dead so *young* (Neil Young… how come no one spotted this?). One has to remember the nonviolence movement was very strong in the 60's. And the fact that Young mentioned the song had to do with his "angriness" is a strong clue as to his emotions and intentions, IMO.

At 12/03/2011 04:56:00 AM, Anonymous FroguetteMiNote said...

Error and ensuing correction: I wrote "run" for "dead" in my attempt to decypher "Red means dead, numbers add up to nothing". Clearly my mind raced too fast.
My re-interpretation is that this verse might be a typical, two-layered, Native American proverb made up by Young:
"Red means dead, son" : Both the red beacon and our Red skin mean death.
"Numbers add up to nothing" = boat numbers (symbol of a central government), have no meaning + even if we are numerous, we cannot win the fight.

I am really looking forward to reading Young's autobiography, to be published next January if i gathered well, to check out what he has to say about this song…

At 12/15/2011 11:44:00 AM, Blogger As Bjorn said...

I just never had a problem understanding this song. For me this piece is about a boy in a river town during the civil war, during the period the Union was securing the Mississippi. He's on the dock and sees the Union boat approaching and although he's been told to flee he has his dead father's rifle in hand and without really thinking it through he shoots at the boat. The gun on the boat is a cannon and because he has fired at it the boat shoots the cannon, killing the young man. The supposedly enigmatic line about covering him with the thought that pulled the trigger refers to his pulling the trigger, his thought, and it covers him like a shroud because it got him killed. In retrospect he wishes he hadn't tried to fight. It's also a metaphor for the whole southern experience of the confederacy. The macho desire to take down the Union caused them to take out their powder and load their rifles and pull the trigger on a conflict they were always doomed to lose. Neil seems to be saying we should always understand that violence itself is an error. Oh, and numbers add up to nothing is simply that calculating things doesn't really work in the heat of actual violent conflict.

At 12/23/2011 11:29:00 AM, Blogger davedave said...

Civil War, did anyone use white boats. John on the rail is Johnny Law, the coast guard. i don't think it is drugs sounds like moonshine which is a multi-generaltional family business

there is nothing about suicide in the song

At 12/23/2011 11:37:00 AM, Blogger davedave said...

did civil war boats have numbers?

"it don't look like they are here to deliver the mail"

Red beacon red means run --- they are the cops or Coast Guard --- Daddy go his som killed over moonshine

At 1/03/2012 05:13:00 PM, Anonymous pete raaab said...

I've always heard Powderfinger as an anti Viet Nam war song. Neil has clocked the characters in a southern US setting to allow us to visualize the scene of a war weary family experiencing a gunboat coming up the delta and blowing the teenage son away as he tries to defend the home. I couple Powderfinger with John Prines The Great Compromise as two of the best anti war songs.

At 1/07/2012 05:26:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Comment on the Powderfinger line ' red means run and numbers add up to nothing'. I think that red means blood as in being wounded. Run if you see blood. The numbers part is that it's no need to be a hero and kill a few guys because it doesn't get you anywhere. Pj

At 3/20/2012 11:19:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always "felt" that the line "milk blood to keep from running out" referred to draining (or milking) one's family and/or friends for what they could to support their habit.
Although, I must admit that "jacking" the needle is just as logical a definition. In all these years since the song's conception ... has anyone ever simply asked Mr. Young for his literal interpretation of the line(s) in question? Just a thought.

At 3/25/2012 12:01:00 AM, Blogger doug13 said...

Back in the day of putting black power then the ball or Minnie ball and ramming it down the muzzle loader, your mouth and fingers got black from the loading process. I always thought of that in his lyrics as it seems set in civil war time. So the powder and the finger refers to killing.

At 4/28/2012 04:38:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am more convinced by the suicide version of events. I think he raises the barrel of the gun to his eye and when he shoots he blows his brains out. I am not too sure of whether the other lyrics are metaphorical about his decision to kill himself or the events are realy happening and scared of what is going to happen when the boat arrives he decides to take his life instead

At 5/21/2012 07:39:00 PM, Blogger Pogue Mahone said...

My first impression is that it's an American Civil War song, that the Southern family is being attacked by soldiers from the North,and I believe the North wore red if I'm correct("Red means run, Son.") I also wonder if perhaps it was a settler family being attacked by Indians; "Red" referring to Native Americans perhaps?

At 5/30/2012 11:19:00 AM, Blogger keefe2 said...

I have pretty much thought the same thing since I heard it for the first time when the album came out.
Young guy lives along a river with his Ma in a place and time when mail is delivered by river, (seemingingly at irregular intervals) and armed men could be coming up the river with no advance word preceeding them (no phone, radio, telegraph or rider has told boy and Ma that the boatmen may be coming). The boy's choice of words sounds old fashioned (river took Emmy Lou, my brother's out hunting). Emmy Lou sounds like a southern girl's name (but maybe not). Since they seem surprised, scattered, unaware, it doesn't seem they have really taken sides in a war or consider themselves in a war zone, but daddy did tell him red "means run". Even though a big red beacon has been referred to, which could help identify the boat as a war ship, I somehow feel it means "red coat" soldiers. ("If you see the red coats, no matter what number of boys you have on your side, run.") So I have always though it was during the Revolution or War of 1812, up the Mississippi from New Orleans, or any river in the SE US where revolutionaries fought the Brits (Carolinas, Virginia). These could be Brits pushing up any river scouting, and when they see the boy lift the rifle to his eye, they shot him dead. It doesn't really matter if they are soldiers during the Civil War, either, or which side they are on.
I think the poignancy that brings tears to my eyes when I hear the song comes from the loss of innocent life that is highlighted by the whole scene. The young man is not a combatant, and has no concern in any war. His father is "gone" probably dead, his brother is out hunting for food (so they seem hardscrabble poor) Big John (brother, uncle? ) is inconsolable and drinking himself to death since his love died in a flood. He doesn't know what to do, but Daddy's gun feels reasurring. He makes one impulsive choice and dies for it. His last thought is of his young love, who he will miss and never be around to build a life with. He had simple desires in a simple life and just trying to be a man in a surprise moment leads to his death in a conflict he didn't have an investment in. It is a snapshot in time that applies to so many lost young lives. It is just a simple, powerful poem/song that drew us a picture, told a short story, and broke our hearts.
I can see why Neil doesn't want to explain it any further. It is what it is; it says what it says. Shelter me from the powder and the finger.

At 10/25/2012 05:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I've always considered the line "cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger" to be a reference to 22's burial. Neil Young is comparing the sheltering or covering of a coffin by earth and a tombstone to the metaphorical covering of a corpse by a thought, that of his killer.

At 11/29/2012 04:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

maybe it means nothing at all,just a good wee story matched to some simple chords to make a great song.......

At 12/18/2012 06:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For me it's about indians, no matter what. "Powderfinger" an indian name like Running Bear. "My face splash in the sky" as a reference to the no-good guns sold to Indians.
Got a bit of a problem with the white boat and mail delivery though. Don't bother me much. Great song!

At 3/27/2013 01:40:00 AM, Anonymous arghmatey1 said...

Powderfinger is inspired by Mark Twain's "Hulkleberry Finn".
In one chapter, Huck Meets a young man who's family is involved in an ongoing feud. The boy is shot and killed. Then Huck floats on down the Mississippi to more adventures.
This always seemed the obvious inspiration to me.
Great song. Classic Neil.
I can't believe no one else could see this.

At 4/07/2013 07:57:00 AM, Anonymous said...

It reminds me of Ruby Ridge

At 4/11/2013 12:40:00 PM, Anonymous Fat Bennie said...

I love all the speculation on these lyrics, so I must add my own. I don't think this can be a song alluding to contemporary events. "My brother's out hunting in the mountains", doesn't ring as modern. Also the reference "Red means run son, numbers add up to nothing", is a direct reference to native Americans. Settlers were often warned never to engage any Indians, no matter how lopsided the odds were, if you saw Indians-run! The rationale was that there were more you couldn't see and despite superior numbers, the Indian style of fighting could overwhelm a superior force. With this in mind, I don't conclude this is not a modern reference. Also, lines like "since the river took Emmy Lou" seem to infer a time in the past. And the notion of powder and finger, seems to describe a flintlock or muzzle loaded weapon. Not a modern cartridge style of firearm. Just my opinion, but my take was a family run ferry crossing in the early to mid 19th century.

At 5/15/2013 12:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I Think The Red Beacon "22" Seen Was The Flag Raised High In Plan View Of A UNION Cival War Gun Boat and The "White Boat" Meant The Boat Was Full Of "White" Union Soldier's, and The Black He Saw Was The Gun Powder That Backfired In His Eye's! As He Fell Into The Water He Saw Is Face Splash Into The Reflection Of The Sky On The River. That's Just My Opinion Tho!

At 5/17/2013 10:03:00 AM, Anonymous Peggy Sue said...

To Bad Big John Was A Mess!!! Id Say Big John Is Black Man (a hired hand) Civil War!!!!....A Young Man's Self Destruction Trying To Be A Man....

At 11/18/2013 07:41:00 PM, Blogger Timber93 said...

I feel strongly that the line "cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger" definitely implies that honor is due the young man for choosing to resist (perhaps partly to protect his mother), despite the hopeless situation, rather than to run as his father had told him he should do if he ever saw the red beacon.

And I agree with other posters who suggest that the young man is, in reality, a young Vietnamese man, but that the song was to be disguised as representing a young southerner on the Mississippi River after the North had taken New Orleans. The latter is borne out by the fact that Neal Young intended that the song be recorded by the southern-rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd.

At 11/18/2013 07:49:00 PM, Blogger Timber93 said...

I feel strongly that the line "cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger" definitely implies that honor is due the young man for choosing to resist (perhaps partly to protect his mother), despite the hopeless situation, rather than to run as his father had told him he should do if he ever saw the red beacon.

And I agree with other posters who suggest that the young man is, in reality, a young Vietnamese man, but that the song was to be disguised as representing a young southerner on the Mississippi River after the North had taken New Orleans. The latter is borne out by the fact that Neal Young intended that the song be recorded by the southern-rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd.

At 5/26/2014 10:44:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

West Gulf Blockading Squadron
US Steam Sloop Oneida

"In case a rebel vessel makes her appearance off Mobile [Alabama] at night, the blockading vessel making the discovery will, at the time or immediately after firing the first gun, HOIST A RED LIGHT AT THE PEAK, which will be followed by all the blockading vessels to prevent friend firing into friend."

22 and his family were confederate supporters and blockade runners or confederate suppliers. 22 died for the cause on his families' dock, even though his father taught him to run at the sight of the Union identifying beacon.

At 10/09/2014 02:31:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

War of 1812 British had lots of boats on the border waters and lake Champlain and Erie. There was lots of terror driven stuff like burning places. The boat was a military one getting ready to land. The young man was a settler who was "holding down the fort".
He dies young, that's what the song is about. He considered himself careful but finds out he didn't know life deals you raw hands. Make your choices and live or die. The setting is just romanticism.
This is on the US and Canada border so there was all kinds of opportunity during the war of 1812 to see this going on.

At 10/22/2014 09:51:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Boats use running lights to identify port and starboard. Red is port and green is starboard.

If the boat were a blockade boat it would not be running into the dock but out in the river maintaining a watch.

I think a lot of folks, myself included, try to make things fit because we want them to fit. But an artist takes license with history and fact and writes whatever suits him. Neil Young in particular, often claims things come through him implying that he doesn't struggle over historical facts.

I still contend that it's about a kid who died young and thought he would be around a while because he didn't think of himself as a risk taker (even though he's in some sort of risky environment).

At 12/08/2014 07:09:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

In my humble opinion the song Powderfinger is about a remote American river family trying to survive thru life's tribulations while the Government man knows best and tries to intercede. RUN SON

At 12/25/2014 09:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If it was that easy to put your finger on it wouldn't be Neil Young song. It means what it means to whoever it means something to.

At 2/02/2015 01:03:00 PM, Blogger Summerisle said...

I'm with KevDC, 'red means run, son' has always sounded like it's a reference to the British army of King George III and their red coats. 'Numbers add up to nothing' ... just get the hell out.

But one further thought occurs. Is 22's name John? We have Big John, perhaps 22's father's brother, or an outsider who married Emmy-Lou. But in a small community, why the need to call him Big John? Perhaps there's another John, a younger man, and that could be 22.

At 1/31/2016 01:34:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Every Canadian knows what the song is about the only mystery is why all Americans think it has to be about them and their Civil War about which us Canadians including myself and Neil most likely care very little about. It had virtually no impact on Canadian History. How incredibly self centered on the USA every comment has been!!

At 2/17/2016 09:00:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

In my mind, this happened in Canada, perhaps Neil's vision from a story he heard passed down from family members regarding historical territorial conflicts in his 'birth region'. It is a beautiful characterization of two simple facts; the random circumstance any of us may face within one second of care free life and, the courage some of us will muster to meet an ominous unexpected physical challenge. I never thought the gun exploded when fired only, the 'normal' explosion from a flintlock firing mechanism. I've never posted a comment here but was motivated to do so because what's in my mind is so different from what I've been reading (not right ... just different). Imagine my surprise to see 1/31/2016 01:34:00 PM's post; I think most every Canadian will have advantage over most of us on the topic. For additional context, I am an AVID American Civil War buff and I never thought of the American Civil War setting for Powderfinger. In summary, the beauty of this and any song is that no one's interpretation is wrong but we all share the insatiable desire to know what Neil was thinking at the time. Thanks to everyone for sharing each and every 'vision'.

At 9/15/2017 03:07:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I always thought he committed suicide. He was obviously out numbered, on his own. He more than likely grew up around guns probably since a little child, so I do not think he made a mistake with his gun.

At 4/29/2018 10:47:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I've been coming back to this page for years- like the the song itself, the discussion always pulls me in- and each time, I'm compelled to share my thoughts, but never have. While I'm tempted to really dive into it, the thought of how much there is to say, versus the limited time I have to post, has left me from taking that first step. This time though, I'm committed to just a couple of thoughts- There's always next time, and at least I've (hopefully) added something to the conversation. Apologies if I don't credit something that's already been said, but I've read these comments so many times in the past, and don't have the time to read through them all again before I post.

First, I don't believe that the "conflict" in the song is between the boat/crew/gov't agency/etc. and the protagonist, the law and. the criminal, the oppressor and the oppressed. I believe it's an internal conflict, one between the idea of a young man just hitting the stride of life, with everything ahead of him, with his own thoughts and ideas and aspirations, and the life that's been preordained, that's expected of him, and that he feels a sense of duty and obligation towards.

It's an oft-told story, and though I'm stuck at the moment, I'm sure I'll start remembering any number of novels, movies, and songs with this as the central theme as soon as I walk away from the computer, but the one story that I'm thinking about now is "It's a Wonderful Life." George is set to get out of his little town, go to college, and make a life for himself, but things happen, and his obligation to his family, his community, and to his values become his priority. His sense of duty takes over, he springs into action, and before he can think about it, he has another life, far from the one that he had envisioned for himself.

So here's a kid, "with so much left undone", "one you'd never figure would fade away...", faced with problem that, while one he's never personally faced before, is one that he's all too familiar with, as it's one that his family has dealt with, in one way or another, for years, or even generations. He's been schooled on this his entire life (he told me red means run, son...", and though the fight isn't his, though he's conflicted, he ultimately feels that it's his duty to fight it ("I was wondering what to do, and the closer they got, the more those feelings grew"). Without much thought, on instinct, he knows the situation that he is facing, and what he is expected to do, and he does it.

At 4/29/2018 10:48:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...


The protagonist's conflict is all over this song. The brilliance of the guitar parts is that you feel conflict in every note and every phrase, as well as the overall tone. I see this as the sort of nebulous thought process within his own head. And in the lyrics, there are many allusions to his conflict:
* "you better call John"- he's an adult, but his first thought upon realizing that there's trouble is that it's not his fight. Not a cowardly thought, but more the realization of facing a situation that he is the least-prepared to face.
* "Daddy's gone, my brother's out hunting in the mountains, Big John's been drinking since the river took Emmy-Lou"- he runs through a list of all of the adult men who's fight this should be instead of his. He's not complaining, but just lamenting the circumstances that put him in this position.
* "the powers that be left me here to do the thinking'"- he's not actively looking to take up this fight, but rather, is passively accepting (and maybe resenting) that those who may feel that it's their fight, who are much better suited to fighting it, are unavailable, leaving it to him.
* "Daddys rifle in my hand felt reassuring."- he doesn't even have his own weapon- literally, his father's gun, metaphorically, his father's fight. But he uses it to gird himself for the fight that he will have to fight.
* "never stopped to wonder why"- he has to put the conflict out of his head in order to do what is expected of him.

My second thought is regarding "Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger." Simply, it's his sort of resolution to his conflict. He knows that what he did is/was wrong- legally (assaulting a gov't official), morally/ethically (defending whatever illegal activity his family has been involved in), and spiritually (going against his own beliefs/life plans/etc.). And to those outside his kin, this is what they will see- that what he did was wrong. But while he himself knows that it's wrong, he somehow rationalized his way into pulling the trigger, and it's this rationalization that he hopes somehow justifies his wrongful actions to those on the outside, and to whatever higher spiritual power he believes in.

He hopes that the thoughts/thought process/state of mind that led him to that fateful decision will absolve him, will be his "cover". He's not some savage, gun-toting hillbilly, filled with anti-gov't hate, mindlessly resolving issues with violence (or however he's afraid that he'll be thought of), and this was not a simple black/white situation and decision for him, as he knows it will be looked at as.

I best leave it there, having written way more than I had intended, or else I may not make it away from my keyboard before daylight. Thanks for indulging me, and I look forward to any comments/feedback.

At 10/06/2018 09:07:00 PM, Blogger lynnea1 said...

Powderfinger is far and away my favorite NY song. I am not good at dissecting and analyzing things, so here is a short note about what goes through my mind when I hear it.

I have always envisioned the Civil War setting. Although I'm not totally comfortable with that because we know he was a staunch anti-Vietnam War spokesman. That being said, I still see this as a Civil War story. He sees the boat and is playing out the scenario, in the hopes that one of the older, more experienced men of the family would show up. They have obviously talked about what to do if this situation ever occurred. If this were a Confederate family, they would stand up to any Union soldiers. I do think he killed himself, but it was not in fear or angst; it was in total rebellion! He was telling them, 'you sumbitches will never take me alive! I will not be your prisoner.' I also think 'cover me with the powder and the finger' was his way of asking his family to protect his reputation, and he wants people to know he died a hero.

HOWEVER, I do like the analogy of the Vietnam boy. I can see him doing that.

There you have it---my .02, FWIW. :)

At 10/27/2018 04:30:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Red means you hit the vein and flagged. Shelter me from banging up or letting go to addiction or pseudo death again or running.when you see red you hit the plunger with your powderfinger and float into space. numbers on the side C.C.'s mean nothing to hard core.He used his dad's fit second generation addict.

At 6/07/2019 11:50:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hi all,
My take is this entire song is about heroine. While a similar lament to “Needle and the Damage Done” although much more metaphorical.

The lyrics never really mention what the powder is…only that the writer requests shelter from it.
From there:

White boat: heroine = the ship that floats you to somewhere else.
Big red beacon (blood) and a flag (writer knows its dangerous)
Man on the rail: provider ~ connection?
Numbers on the side and a gun: the syringe and the needle
(let’s now keep in mind that a syringe is similar to the size of a finger – full of powder – from a white boat).

Daddy’s gone verse….lots of turmoil, bad feelings, angst – all reasons to escape.

Daddy’s rifle – another syringe image
Red means run – drawing back on the syringe
Then I saw black – black out? – total surrender to the opioid? Death?

Shelter me from the powder and the finger = the heroine and the syringe.

My last thoughts are that this may have been an overdose. The suicide note reads:
“Cover me with the thoughts that pulled the trigger…cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger…think of as the one you never figured would fade away so young…”

Thanks for reading.

At 6/07/2019 11:50:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hi all,
My take is this entire song is about heroine. While a similar lament to “Needle and the Damage Done” although much more metaphorical.

The lyrics never really mention what the powder is…only that the writer requests shelter from it.
From there:

White boat: heroine = the ship that floats you to somewhere else.
Big red beacon (blood) and a flag (writer knows its dangerous)
Man on the rail: provider ~ connection?
Numbers on the side and a gun: the syringe and the needle
(let’s now keep in mind that a syringe is similar to the size of a finger – full of powder – from a white boat).

Daddy’s gone verse….lots of turmoil, bad feelings, angst – all reasons to escape.

Daddy’s rifle – another syringe image
Red means run – drawing back on the syringe
Then I saw black – black out? – total surrender to the opioid? Death?

Shelter me from the powder and the finger = the heroine and the syringe.

My last thoughts are that this may have been an overdose. The suicide note reads:
“Cover me with the thoughts that pulled the trigger…cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger…think of as the one you never figured would fade away so young…”

Thanks for reading.

At 9/02/2019 12:56:00 PM, Blogger Jan Blike said...

I'd just like to comment on the line "my face splashed in the sky".
I believe it's not that his head explodes because of gunfire but rather
that the boy is hit by a bullet and falls face down into the water which reflects the sky.

At 6/24/2020 09:12:00 AM, Blogger AllbuttHindstain said...

I am not sorry to say that I don´t have time to read all the tripe and maybe there was a man that felt the same as me about Powderfinger...if he said it before then that´s great.

Powderfinger is a song about Vietnam and about the excessive power of tyranny both at home and abroad. If you let yourself free of the ignorant racism you can still be a racist. Nobody said they hated the Vietnamese so much as ZOG hates white America.

The boat seeks to destroy...that´s all. It makes no difference if it is in the rivers of Vietnam and Cambodia or on the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, or James. It´s a government gunboat and it´s come to be a lot of trouable for a lot of people patriots, innocents and the enemies of patriots alike. The jew is the governing jingoist. Powderfinger is the jew´s opinion of Appalachia as the jew destroys Asia.

At 2/22/2022 07:46:00 AM, Blogger eco goods said...

Sitting here listening to the song again, and I still like it. What is it about , when is it about, Some say the civil war era.
What about the gun boats going up the ( Mekong River ) ??? I guess one would have to have been there.

At 2/24/2022 02:53:00 PM, Blogger thrasher said...

From the man himself ...

I was thinking about Powderfinger today.

There's the Crazy Horse version on Archives Vol. 2 from 1975 where you seem to figure out the song about halfway through the take. Then you recorded the solo Hitchhiker acoustic version in August 1976, but didn't play it live in 1976 at all. Then in 1978 you try it once solo at the Boarding House and then—boom—it shows up glorious and fully formed on the Rust Never Sleeps tour. Do you have any recollection of why you chose that song for that tour after ignoring it for several years and how you came up that definitive two-guitar version? Were there recording sessions before Rust Never Sleeps, or was it something you came up with during some sort of tour rehearsals? You probably hate these kind of time travel questions, but I figured I'd ask.

Thanks for everything,

Neil on 2-23-22 @

The song was started in the year 1968 or 69
It was done many times.
It evolved.
Love earth
be well

At 10/28/2023 07:16:00 PM, Blogger Scotty s said...

I came here for answers hoping it was a settled deal - I was wrong. Neil is not on record, and he crafted a powerful song that just happens to be indecipherable. Probably intentionally. We don't NEED the fuller context;, we just WANT it.

I have a few thoughts:

1. He didn't kill himself, suicidally or by misfire
2. if Neil was talking about Vietnamese, I think he would have been clear - if he wanted to make a political point he damn sure did
3. red has nothing to do with the safety on daddy's rifle - makes no sense since he already said there was red in the boat, and a safety being own wouldn't mean run - you just flick it off and shoot.

all we know is a white boat on a river, that 22 has been taught arrives with violent intent. that's all - everything else is family history. The names imply North America.

Do we all assume Neil had ONE historical inspiration or multiple? Maybe he had none - he just wrote a story and declined to tie it to a period or event, as that would please us but detract from the power and wonder and SIMPLICITY of the lyrics.


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