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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Powderfinger": What the Heck is that Song All About, Anyway?

powderfinger.jpg


So get this.

It seems -- incredibly -- that there are still some folks out there that can't figure out what Neil Young's song "Powderfinger" is all about.

Imagine that.

Over on MetaChat, there's the usual amusing speculation and over-blown lyrics analysis which we do so disdain here at TW.



Really. C'mon now. Isn't it just totally obvious?

It's not too hard to say the meaning of this song "Powderfinger"?

Is it?

If you enjoy a little chuckle at the expense those without true rustie enlightenment, drop by MetaChat by jonmc:
Powderfinger by Neil Young. What the hell is the song actually about?

I've heard it a million time and musically it's incredibly powerful, but I can't put my finger on the topic. Neil himself is mum on it. Are the protagonists frontier soldiers/ homesteaders? in Vietnam? Drug smugglers?

I'm baffled. Still a great song, though.
post by: jonmc

Go to MetaChat and then check back on why you should shelter me from the powder in the finger.

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24 Comments:

At 2/16/2010 11:58:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neil Young & Crazy Horse July 9, 2010 , Rockwave Festival, Athens.

 
At 2/16/2010 12:03:00 PM, Blogger Thrasher said...

To 2/16/2010 12:58:00 PM

So that's what PF's about?!

This rumor has been floating around for awhile and is unconfirmed. What's the source? And plese don't send a link in Greek.

Not trying to be a jerk but there were the same rumors about Neil & CH for 2010 Bonnaroo but when official lineup announced.. No NY/CH.

But you can still be a dreamin' man

 
At 2/16/2010 01:32:00 PM, Blogger Matthew Lintzenich said...

What HAVE we settled on with this? I mean, obviously there's a kid of barely 22 left alone to protect the ol' homestead, and here comes a white boat, with a red beacon, numbers on the side, a gun, and a man on the rail.

The kid obviously KNOWS that this is not good, remembers the words of his father, who told him to run when he see's red (to me, obviously this is the beacon he's referring to), decides to stand his ground anyway, uncertainly, and terrified, raises his father's rifle, and gets shot by someone on the boat.

His face splashing into the sky is the reflection of his face in the water as he's falling forward.

And he has a few last-second thoughts and regrets, and then that's it.

That's all apparently, to me, obviously correct, but if I recall the debate mostly centered on the SETTING, in terms of TIME AND PLACE, and that's where the confusion came in.

I believe that Neil made it kind of vague so it could be more universally interpreted, that is, you can put your own time and place into it so as to better identify, but I could be incorrect in that.

Neil has been vague about it, which seems to support that theory, but then again...

the names of the people (Emmy Lou and Big John) seem to indicate a very specific intent from Neil - that is, that the time and place are known to him, and are quite specific, but that, in typical Neil fashion, he leaves any direct references to that out, except for the names and description of the boat, so that we have to spend the next 30 years scratching our heads and arguing and debating about it.

heh heh heh.

So was there ever a conclusive agreement on the where/when of the song?

 
At 2/16/2010 01:42:00 PM, Blogger Pinto (or Flounder) said...

Hey Thrash;

This site (Metachat) is a joke, right? Like The Onion...
Has to be.. (old enough to repaint? Funniest line so far this year.)

There are a few Neil songs whose meaning is somewhat obscure (I have never had a clue what Mr. Soul was about) and others whose appeal lies in the land of the subconscious, but Powderfinger isn't one of them. A great story, well told, beautifully sung and brilliantly played.

I'll be going back to Metachat regularly for the laughs, though. Thanks

 
At 2/16/2010 01:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

but we've been through that (PF) a hundred times or more...........

 
At 2/16/2010 02:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not sure on Metachat being a joke site but there was a comment on there I was curious about.

Someone said that Big John was JFK and Emma Lou is Emmylou Harris because she almost drowned in real life?

I never heard that Emmylou Harris had a near drowning. Is that true??

small john

 
At 2/16/2010 02:11:00 PM, Blogger Thrasher said...

Matthew,

Good rundown.

And yes, the SETTING, in terms of TIME AND PLACE seems to be what folks get caught up on.

it's all one song....

 
At 2/16/2010 02:11:00 PM, Anonymous Mr Henry said...

Nobody knows
Nobody sees
Nobody knows
But me
Long Black Veil
Danny Dill & Marijohn Wilkin

God's servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two - one uttered, the other not.
Mark Twain
The War Prayer

 
At 2/16/2010 02:19:00 PM, Anonymous S. R. Powell said...

Powderfinger is one of my favorite NY songs. It was interesting reading the comments/analysis and I'll add a few of my own.

The song to me evokes fear, loneliness, and regret. I had always envisioned the setting to be a rural southern river in the early or mid 19th century.

The "white boat" being filled with pirates or other marauders preying on local residents and shooting first and asking questions later. The fear of the protagonist who knew this day could come, hoped it never would, knows it is now here, and with "daddy gone" must put on his brave face and face them alone and try to protect the old homestead as best he can.

The "numbers add up to nothing" I interpreted to mean that no matter what the odds were, somebody was going to get hurt or killed and it was best to run (when you see the red beacon, flag, etc). What father would tell his kid NOT to run in a situation where the odds were clearly against him?

I also took a more literal interpretation of the line "when my face splashed in the sky" to mean that he saw the shot coming, stood there frozen in fear, awe or amazement and died rather horribly.

The rest of the song is his spirit or soul lamenting his terrible fate.

 
At 2/16/2010 03:09:00 PM, Anonymous Mr Henry said...

And therefore, even when we are acting with the best of intentions, and imagine that we are doing great good, we may be actually doing tremendous material harm and contradicting all our good intentions. There are ways that seem to men to be good, the end whereof is in the depths of hell.

Thomas Merton
The Seven Storey Mountain

 
At 2/16/2010 03:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, after reading all 80 some comments from the link, and other interpretations over the years, I am not about to take a stab at a definitive take. I was fascinated though by some of the interpretations I never would have even begun to think of, e.g. suicide and nihilism. Made me think. I will say this, the name Emmy Lou tells me it is definitely the story of a white southerner. It’s an assumption, but I don’t see an Indian or black woman with the name Emmy Lou. By extension, Emmy Lou being taken by the river tells me the setting is river life somewhere in the south. Moonshiners, TVA resisters, people living off the grid, etc., or the nature and source of threat isn’t really relevant to me. Ultimately, it’s the story of ill prepared and confused youth - could have been you or me or anyone, but for the grace of God, confronted and overcome by overwhelming forces and circumstances. Although I don’t think it’s what Neil intended, for me 22 can also be seen as a metaphor for Man as yet still in its infancy, confronted with Life in all its complexity. The heartbreak and sadness is that the overmatched kid simply ended up on the losing end of an attempt at life that we all have to make sooner or later. It may come really early, big and fast, it may come in fits and starts, or it may just be a slow dribble over the course of a lifetime. The question for me becomes: how have I, or will I face up to my own Powderfinger moment? 22 chose to raise the rifle to his eye instead of running, and died in regret. Was it nobleness in the act of death, or some form of foolishness? Who knows? Life, and the meaning of the life of another, like the song Powderfinger itself, can sometimes seem ambiguous. It all comes down to the individual. How are you going to make your stand? This makes me start to think about the advisability of the individual trying to take the world on by themselves, and all the alternatives to such an individual stance, but I don’t think this is what the song is about. In the end, it seems 22 just didn’t feel like he had a lot of choice, and suffered the consequence.

Greg M (A Friend Of Yours)

 
At 2/16/2010 07:30:00 PM, Anonymous Mr Henry said...

Spending the time
that you borrow
Figuring a way
to get back home

Bob Dylan
Billy

Twilight had come, and a sharp autumn cold. To the north the old fort, in dark and gloomy silhouette on a cold sunset, rode like a ship in the running silver tide against the lightless islands and the far black line of the New England hills where the last light faded in the sky. Our young wives would not worry about us until after nightfall, so no help could be expected until next day.

Peter Matthiessen
Men's Lives

 
At 2/16/2010 09:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We'll all go to our graves
not really knowing....
But it will be something to think
about once we're gone.

 
At 2/16/2010 10:33:00 PM, Blogger doc said...

Let's analyse the lyrics to "last trip to Tulsa"..Powderfinger is a no brainer compared to that song!

doc

 
At 2/16/2010 11:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Trasher, a couple years ago CBC radio here in Canada had a contest of some sort where listeners would write or call in with their favorite lyrical couplet. Seeing as we seem to be in a slow Neil news cycle, perhaps we could give that a go.

 
At 2/17/2010 07:35:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Powderfinger was written for the sequel to 'Journey through the past' movie - Location was supposed to be Greenville (featuring Lucinda Williams)but then they realized that Emmylou Harris would better fit that role. In fact she is the one who was piloting the Creeple creek ferry when Miississipi took her while singing Star of Bethlem. Big John started drinking too much (you can see his face on the cover of American Stars and Bars) that is why he saddled up the Palomino trying to hold back the tears. hope this can clarify.

 
At 2/17/2010 09:01:00 AM, Blogger Matthew Lintzenich said...

I'm with anon 8:35. Makes perfect sense to me.

 
At 2/17/2010 01:12:00 PM, Anonymous jack/icy sky at night said...

i'm a songwriter. these are just words to fit the melody. songs/lyrics don't have to mean anything. just ask neil.

 
At 2/17/2010 03:50:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 8:35, how come I didn't think of that?

Greg M ( A Friend Of Yours)

 
At 6/24/2010 01:09:00 AM, Blogger Lastcall2010 said...

30 years of listening and this song still moves me. I once heard the song was about a young soldier killed in Vietnam.

The white boat is a US military boat coming up a mountain river to notify the soldier's wary family that he is dead. ("It don't look like they're here to deliver the mail.") During the 60's and 70's there were still homesteads and communities in the US so remote that mail and goods could only be delivered by boat. (eg. Appalachia.)

The soldier was killed while sitting on a riverbank, much like home, reading a letter written by his girl or a family member. (Daddy is away, hunting. Emmylou is dead, and "The powers that be left me here to do the thinkin'.")

"Daddy's rifle in my hand felt reassurin'", may be a reference to fathers giving their soldier sons their own rifles to take to war. (Did the Army allow this?) And, "Red means run son...", could be a comment about communism. Also, many soldiers during the Vietnam era said they were conditioned to react without ever stopping to wonder why. Last, 22 was supposedly the average age of a soldier who died during the Vietnam war.

 
At 8/08/2012 05:58:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This most likely takes place during the late 1800's/early 1900's (may or may not take place during the Civil War, but wartime status seems evident to me, whatever region of the States the characters live in is superfluous, as is their race, because to me the meaning of the song is ultimately universal and timeless).

From what I know, "Powderfinger" is a somewhat antiquated synonym for a trigger-happy individual, with a literal "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality. In this case, it is in reference to the antagonists of the song.

The characters in the song are part of a close-knit group of family members and friends who live a self-sustaining rural community somewhere between a large river and a mountain range

A young 22 year old man is sitting on a dock by a river watching the sun go down, when he spots a big white warship less than a mile away and approaching quickly, most likely with unfriendly intentions. He runs to warn his mother and find Big John.

Suddenly the realization hits him that he can't rely on his father (who's dead, called away, or disappeared), his older brother (who is way up in the mountains hunting for the family) or Big John (a family friend or extended family member, who is passed out in one of his alcoholic stupors. He started drinking heavily after his daughter/sister/or sweetheart drowned in the river.)

Being the only able-bodied man around he's forced by circumstance to shoulder all the responsibility of dealing with these unwelcome vistors by himself for the good of his entire family's safety. All the while, the ship continues to approach...

He anxiously grabs his father's gun and returns to the dock, probably frightened out of his wits. He remembers his fathers advice to run the hell away if he sees a warship with a red beacon and numbers on the side of it.

Now the ship, several hundreds yards away, has spotted him with the rifle in his hand and fires one of its guns at him. He watches, stunned, as a cannonball hits the dock he's standing on. Without thinking twice raises the rifle and fires it at the ship in a desperate and futile attempt to defend himself, his home, and his family.
While attempting to get another shot off, he sees another black cannonball soaring directly at him. This one however, hits him directly and fatally in the head. He sees bloodied pieces of his face get flung into air from the impact as he quickly collapses and loses consciousness...

After this, the main character is evidently speaking to us from beyond the grave, relying a sort of prayer to save his soul from violence and protect it with "the thought that pull the trigger" (I'd say this refers to the *courage and love* it took to fire at that large ship with only a rifle simply because he cared enough about his loved one's to attempt to defend them at his own expense, that's "the thought that pull the trigger").

He goes on to tell us he wants to be remembered as a young man who was destined to have a much longer and more fruitful life ahead of him had it not been snatched away due to needlessly violent encounter. Finally he wishes us to let his sweetheart know that he'll always love and miss her terribly.

I definitely also believe that Neil had the Vietnam War in mind while writing these lyrics, they are directly relatable to that entire event.

 
At 10/29/2013 11:43:00 PM, Anonymous Doug said...

I don't buy this being about the civil war. The lyrics clearly describe a modern powered gunboat.

I always believed the lyrics describe a police state/martial law situation taking place in the near future, with some backwoods folks getting their first taste of federal authority. If you've ever seen a human head liquefied by a high-power rifle bullet, the line "my face splashed in the sky" makes sense.

 
At 1/19/2014 09:47:00 AM, Anonymous aglet said...

Is it just me, or has anyone else interpreted the part when he pulls the trigger "then I saw black and my face splashed in the sky" as a gun or muzzleloader backfire?? Maybe his own gun killed him? That would explain both the "I saw black" part and "my face" part right as he was pulling the trigger. Could happen with an old style gun.

 
At 3/08/2014 01:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

way too many comments to read but I just read the lyrics .not sure what the entire song is about but I think the guy put the rifle to his eye and shot himself .

 

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