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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Neil Young's Song "When God Made Me": 10+ Years Later, Still More Questions Than Answers


"Did God give me my voice so that others could silence me?"
Neil Young sings "When God Made Me"
Live 8 Benefit Concert - July 2005

It strikes us that the lyrics of Neil Young's "When God Made Me" from 2005's album Prairie Wind still continue to be poignantly prescient.

Did he give me the gift of voice
so some could silence me?
Did he give me the gift of vision
not knowing what I might see?
Did he give me the gift of compassion
to help my fellow man?

When God made me.

(Complete lyrics and analysis for "When God Made Me".)

And just as Young's performing of John Lennon's "Imagine" for the 9/11 "Tribute" and the song's debut at the Live 8 Benefit Concert in July 2005, the performance has incited passions.

The reaction to the song's lyrics for "When God Made Me" generated more reader comments than just about any other article on Thrasher's Wheat history at the time.

For example, from Peter V.:
"A beautiful song, lyrics and melody, which embodies the heartfelt surge that is mounting in America's conscience to challenge the overbearing sentiments of the religious right that have been choking the compassion of this country. This song fills my heart with hope that once again we will know that the power of God is love."

And Goodlife said:
"Hearing "When God Made Me" caused me to flip on the computer and "google" looking for the lyrics. I am a believer ... but not a part of the fundamentalist right. This is a song which touches my inner spirit. I hope many will hear its message, and think deeply about who they are underneath the encumberances of their everyday life."

Of course not everyone was pleased when rock stars venture into the debate on religion. Tim Graham posts on NewsBusters:
"Are rock stars trying to give us lectures as they sing on hurricane-relief benefits? Last night's mega-channel concert featured Neil Young sang his song "When God Made Me." The lyrics clearly show Young thinks that the problem with religion is that God tends to favor people who believe he exists. That, and religion is the reason for too many bloody wars. Some compare it to John Lennon's "Imagine," but Lennon wants no God, and Young just thinks He might be a Unitarian Universalist."
Neil Young - 2005
Photo by Chris Pizzello

From "Companion" interview with Neil Young by JODY DENBERG in OCTOBER 2005:
JODY DENBERG: Neil, thank you so much for joining us for this Prairie Wind Companion. Prairie Wind seems a definitive snapshot of where you're at today as you approach 60 and it's a beautiful piece. But in the hundreds of songs you've written it's been rare that you've sung directly about God. What were the circumstances of you composing Prairie Wind's final song, When God Made Me?

NEIL YOUNG: First of all I didn't know what I was doing. There was a little room with a piano in it. And the piano is locked in the room. It'll never leave the room unless they destroy the room. It can't leave, 'cause the room was built around it. And the room is in a church. The studio is in a church. So the ceiling of this studio has got a few little vents in it. And if you stand on top of a ladder with a flashlight and look up through the holes, you can see the, the church windows.

And this old huge roof and everything, and it's closed off, because to get the right sound and everything they, they made a lower roof. But when you see that, it really gets you. And then I just started playing this hymn. And, and, you know, a Spooner Oldham is one of the most beautiful, uh, beautiful Gospel, you know, on the organ, it's just great. I mean he's just alive with it.

So, you know, I've learned a lot from him over the years, just listening to him. So all the passing chords and the blending of things together, the, but all hymns seem to have these little passages on the piano between them that sets up the next verse, kind of gets everybody in the key and kicks it around and gets ready to go. It's, so I found myself just playing this, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Still don't.

One of the things that, that bothers me today is how religion seems to have been hijacked and politicized by the administration. The thing that bothers me the most is how one political party can say that the other political party is not faith-based. That, how can you say something like that? And I think it doesn't represent America. It only represents part of America. And I think that faith has a lot to do with family and loving God.

It doesn't matter whether you read the Koran or whether you're a Buddhist or whether you're, whatever you are, you're still trying to get in touch with the one thing that made us all, who we are, the great spirit. So I feel like that's been taken away from us. It's being used as a tool against some people. And, uh, and so that bothers me a lot. I don't like to go into church and hear the Star Spangled Banner.

That's a song about bombs bursting in air. Let's, let's have God Bless America if we're going to sing a song like that. I don't think that one is really needed either. But if you're going to have one, let's, let's have one that, that, that tries not to think about our country only. Let's start, let's have a song that tries to think about humanity and, you know.

So, you know, one of my friends went to church last week here in and, and had to stand there while we sang about, you know, bombs bursting in the air and that was the first thing. I don't believe that. I don't, and, and I think a lot of Americans and Canadians and just citizens of the planet don't necessarily go along with that. And that's why there's such an upheaval in the church and that, you know, attendance is off?

Some places it's up. But a lot of places it's not up. It's down. And it's because the church has been, you know, taken to all these different places. And really, it should be everywhere. It shouldn't be a tool.

JODY DENBERG: Neil Young asking the big questions on When God Made Me, the final song on his new album. The answers my friend are blowing in the Prairie Wind. Neil's new album that brings together his dreams, his love of family and friends, and his concern for the ecology in a way he's never done before.
prairie-wind-companion-cd.jpg prairie-wind-companion-cd.jpg
Prairie Wind Companion CD

Here are the lyrics for the Neil Young song "When God Made Me" from Sharry (Up in T.O. keepin' jive alive) posted on Rust:

Was he thinking about my country,
or the colour of my skin?
Was he thinking about my religion,
and the way I worshipped him?
Did he create just me in his image,
or every living thing?

When God made me.
When God made me.

Was he planning only for believers,
or for those who just had faith?
Did he envision all wars
that were fought in his name?
Did he say there was only one way
to be close to him?

When God made me.
When God made me.

Did he give me the gift of love
to say who I could choose?

When God made me.
When God made me.
When God made me.

Did he give me the gift of voice
so some could silence me?
Did he give me the gift of vision
not knowing what I might see?
Did he give me the gift of compassion
to help my fellow man?

When God made me.
When God made me.
When God made me.

The lyrics are ripe for interpretation. And everybody likes to analyze Neil's song meanings.

At first glance, certainly not Neil's most obtuse lyrics like ""And I saw you in my nightmares, but I'll see you in my dreams" but more like the enigmatic lyrics "What is the color when black is burned?".

On second glance there is a lot going on here. Start with the gospel choir-like Fisk University Jubilee Singers. The student vocalists introduced "slave songs" to the world and, in many opinions, preserved this music from extinction. So Neil has not embarked on some light-hearted exercise here as many seem to believe.
Neil and the Fisk University Jubilee Choir
Live 8 Benefit Concert - July 2005

From the comments below:
"Musically this is a nice song, but in terms of lyrics it's a different story. Lennon's song "Imagine" was quite unambiguous.

Young's is totally ambiguous, asking ten questions, but giving no answers. You might think the answers are all obvious, and so might I, but I doubt we agree on what those obvious answers are. Is that the beauty of this song, or its evil side?"
"Shelter From the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast"

How can a man asking 10 questions provoke so much discussion?

The debate and controversy over the "When God Made Me" lyrics continues to this day.

After flaring up after the song's debut at the Live 8 concert in July 2005, things settled down.

Then when the song reappeared for the Hurricane Katrina Benefit "Shelter From the Storm" in Septemeber 2005, the debate heated up once again. A comment by Matt M. sums things up as well as any of the many provocative interpretations:
"Keep in consideration that Neil Young is a musician and an entertainer.

He may very well have kept his real thoughts on God to himself, and set these lyrics to music and released them downstream to either collect as silt and drop to the bottom of the riverbed, or spawn and multiply farther along.

Either way, Neil has once again stirred the muddy waters of controversy.

And no matter what side you take, or what your reaction is, the fact remains that Neil knows how to spark a debate."

Read for your self how a man asking 10 simple questions ignited a firestorm.

An interesting exercise to answer Neil's questions laid out starkly in the deceptively simple lyrics.

Others question Neil's motives. For example, on Get Religion, Douglas LeBlanc writes rather absurdly and demonstrates a complete lack of lyrical analysis -- much less christian-like empathy:
"For a few decades now, John Lennon’s “Imagine” has served as a secularist hymn. From the end of The Killing Fields to the post-9/11 America: A Tribute to Heroes broadcast, “Imagine” has been there to tell us that the world could be so much more pleasant if only everyone were inclusive enough to set aside what they believe about God, the afterlife and other trivial matters.

Neil Young played “Imagine” on America: A Tribute to Heroes, and now he’s written a song that could join it in the pantheon of believer-bashing hymns.
You’ll likely hear “When God Made Me” many times in the coming decades, especially at elementary schools’ winter holiday festivals and weddings that favor vows custom-written by the bride and groom."

ECJ responds to the above post on Get Religion:
“The implied answer to every rhetorical question was ‘No.’ The song is a denial of both explicit revelation, and Exclusive Truth.

“Was He planning only for believers or for those who just have faith?”

He divides belief from faith, thus implicitly asserting that faith is more important than the object of the faith. Have faith in what? Can you have faith in God and yet disbelieve? Yes, you can, if what you disbelieve is the exclusive doctrine rooted in Revelation which demands conformity. If God is silent and we are all just struggling in the dark to find Him, then each man can follow whatever faith he thinks up in his own mind. Who is to question him?

“Did He envision all the wars that were fought in His name?.”

Since having faith is what is important, and not any specific content for that faith, then why should anyone fight over it? In essense he argues that the exclusive religious belief is dangerous because it leads people to fight. Of course, the important question is whether this exclusive belief is true. But he has already answered that in the previous line.

“Did He say there was only one way to be close to Him?”

This is the penultimate question. Is it true that God has revealed Himself through only one religion? Was Jesus lying or deceived or mistaken when He said “If you do not believe that I Am, you will die in your sins.” Place the question in the context of the previous two lines, and you see how the song frames the question.

This just scratches the surface. I could have just as easily focused on Providence. Or Sovereignty. I took the song and the artist seriously. And I think this is a reasonable and fair rendering of its meaning. It has nothing to do with grace and election. It presents a Theology of uncertainty - a god lost within the haze who knows nothing of holiness, and speaks with no clear voice."

In an interview with The New York Times by Jon Pareles, Young commented:
"I feel like our religion and our faith have been hijacked.

What is bothering me the most is the misappropriation of religion and faith, the misuse of God and the house of worship. It's one faith with different people trying to express it in different ways. It's all about being the little guy in the big world."

In an interview in Rolling Stone magazine by Alec Wilkerson:
"Young has a seeker's sensitivity, a susceptibility to impressions received in passing or only half-clearly. The hymn "When God Made Me" is deeply subversive. It is meant to unsettle those ardent believers whose certainty of holiness makes them feel they can abusively enforce their beliefs on the rest of the world.

"I was asking questions about faith," Young says. "But one kept evading me. I couldn't figure out what the last question was."

Not until Young realized that the recording studio was actually in a former church, was he able to complete the song.

From A churchless song: “When God Made Me” - Church of the Churchless:
"The way I see “When God Made Me,” it offers a glimpse of how much better religions would be if their focus was on asking questions that didn’t have ready-made dogmatic answers.

I’m going to make it the Church of the Churchless theme song."
"When God Made Me"
Neil Young and Fisk University Jubilee Choir

"Shelter From the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast"

Also, see "Prairie Wind": A Gentle Breeze Deceptively Lulls The Howls Of Loss.

Labels: , , ,


At 4/16/2017 10:20:00 PM, Blogger P. Michael Quinn - Webb said...

Even without answers, this song provides a comfort. Thanks for this welcome reminder.

At 4/21/2017 06:01:00 PM, Blogger The Metamorphic Rocker said...

"I don't want to go to church and hear the Star-Spangled Banner." To which I utter an ironic--yet genuine--"Amen!" The manipulation of religion as a partisan political tool is, and long has been, dispiriting to me, and one of my great concerns is that lasting value that can obtained from the holy books and teachings is compromised or undermined by militant conservative fundamentalism. The values and ideas espoused across many faiths can, in some regards, be brought to bear positively on our political systems, but not by those seeking to codify narrow, rigid doctrines as law and place their own religious beliefs in a position of cultural supremacy. The spirit is not a cultural or political tool.


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