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Sunday, October 25, 2020

Why It Works: Neil Young's “Rockin’ In the Free World” | Essential Secrets of Songwriting

Neil Young (as a homeless person)
(frame from "Rockin' In The Free World" music video)

Neil Young's song “Rockin’ In the Free World” is so iconic that even U.S. presidential candidates use it to launch their campaigns.  Imagine that?

And while we have spent a great deal of time here on this blog analyzing the song “Rockin’ In the Free World” over the last few decades, we do sometime wonder just what it is about this song exactly that makes it work on so many levels?

To answer this question in terms of melody, lyrics, and chord progressions here is a detailed analysis from Neil Young, “Rockin’ In the Free World”: Why It Works |  The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 


If you listen to a lot of Neil Young songs, you start to see that even though a song may be in a simple major or minor key (this one is in E minor, with an A chord thrown in, borrowed from the dorian mode), he tends to favour pentatonic melody shapes.

An E minor pentatonic scale uses the notes E, G, A, B and D, and you’ll notice that a lot of the verse melody dwells on these notes, particularly D, E and G:

Rockin' In the Free World - Melodic Shape

Those melodic ideas, playing in and around those three notes, are a favourite shape of Neil’s, and as I say, you’ll notice that he really likes pentatonic shapes. You see it in the opening line of “Old Man” (“Old man, look at my life/ I’m a lot like you were…”), and all through the melodic ideas in his “Heart of Gold.”



The lyrics reference the politics of the late 1980s, so you’ll see references to the Iranian “death to America” mantra of that time, as well as some gibes to George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of lights”, and “a kinder, gentler nation.”

But I think what is most noticeable is that this is the sort of lyric where the meaning gets transmitted best when being sung over one or two pitches. When you sing lots of repeated notes, it sounds like a kind of musical “scolding”. Just as Bob Dylan chose to set the lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone” over melodic cells that repeat the same note often (“Once upon a time you dressed so fine/ Threw the bums a dime/ In your prime…”), Neil sings out the words to “Rockin'” like he’s really trying to make an important point, and uses repeated pitches to do it.


Chord Progressions

The song is in E minor, and both the intro and the verse use the simple three-chord progression Em-D-C. In the intro, those chords get played over a pedal point bass that sits on that tonic note E. The bass then moves to play root position chords for the entirety of the verse.

The chorus switches to the relative major key of G major, and gives us this progression: G-D-C-Em. The tag at the end of each chorus, which brings us back to either the intro for the next verse, or Neil’s guitar solo, is an A major chord.


Complete analysis from Neil Young, “Rockin’ In the Free World”: Why It Works |  The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 

Previously, Neil Young has  “continuously and publicly” objected to his music being used by Donald Trump going back to 2015 on his website NYA. Background on Neil Young's Open Letter To President Trump and below.

Donald Trump & Neil Young
or ...
or ...

More on It's Game ON: Young v. Trump

Freedom (1989) by Neil Young -
"The rock and roll coda of the Cold War"

 Freedom ... So Is It All Really Just An Illusion Now?

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At 10/28/2020 05:06:00 PM, Blogger Abner Snopes said...

I learned a lot from this post, thanks Thrasher

At 10/28/2020 06:26:00 PM, Blogger thrasher said...

Great to hear Abner! Are you a musician?

At 10/29/2020 08:55:00 AM, Blogger Abner Snopes said...

I was thrown out of chorus when I was in second grade, end of my musical career. I know nothing about music and that is why I enjoyed the post so much. Thanks.

At 10/29/2020 11:06:00 AM, Blogger thrasher said...

ok, got it. Kinda same here. altho we have played harmonica and banged a tambourine in front of a few audiences here & there.

we also enjoy some of the insights. hopefully you clicked thru to full article. the guy has a lot of great insights on so many wonderful sings that we're all familiar with but the in depth analysis offers interesting perspectives.

At 10/29/2020 12:53:00 PM, Blogger Abner Snopes said...

Yes, I did look. If I had more time I would read about music. It seems that Neil Young has an amazing grasp on the structure and form of music. He probably has good mathematical mind


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