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Friday, December 09, 2022

Comment of The Moment: "Alabama" & Neil Young's "Harvest Time" Film

Neil Young - Sept 10, 1971
NYA Vol #1 Boxset Photo by Joel Bernstein

In the film Neil Young's 'Harvest Time', there are extensive scenes from The Barn of the recording of the song "Alabama", as well as, Neil discussing the song as "not a political statement" but a song "about himself".

In other words, Neil Young is downplaying the whole "Southern Man" and "Alabama"  

This statement by Neil Young is downplaying the whole politics of "Southern Man" and "Alabama" in 1971 is obviously well before it became a legendary myth feud with Lynyrd Skynyrd's iconic "Sweet Home Alabama"

lynyrd-skynyrd-vanzant-crop.jpg neil-young-lynyrd-skynyrd-t-shirt.jpg
Ronnie Van Zant with Neil Young "Tonight's The Night" T-shirt
Oakland Coliseum, July 2, 1977 - Photo by Michael Zagaris
Neil Young with Lynyrd Skynyrd/Jack Daniels Whiskey T-Shirt
Verona, Italy 7.9.1982 - Photo by Paolo Brillo on Flickr
(via Thrasher's Wheat @ )

In fact, the quotes in the film make it sound like Neil could of picked the State of Mississippi randomly, but probably found just that Alabama worked much better lyrically.  Neil Young (paraphrased from memory):

“I just wanted to use the name of a state in the American South. Because that’s where the guy is coming from in that song. It’s not necessarily about Alabama.” And then, “I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
Which brings us yet again, to another TW  Comment of The Moment on the post  REVIEW: Neil Young's Harvest 50th Anniversary Edition (CD/DVD) | All About Jazz by Tomatron:

Given the insight added by the Harvest Time quote regarding Alabama, the song can be seen in, if not a brand new light, a more complex one, where it is elevated above its status of Southern Man II. It seems like the self-referential lines begin to incorporate more nods to Southern and country culture as the verses add up.

At first, the subject is primarily Neil himself, dropping minor allusions to keep that country tone going (“the devil fools with…” “swing low,”) as he expresses his personal feelings at the end of March ‘71 [NYA manuscript caption]. “You got the spare change, you got to feel strange” is his ambivalent mood about being a “rich hippie.” “And now the moment is all that it meant” sounds like a critique of a hippieism itself. In the original manuscript, Neil put the word “moment” in quotes, tellingly.

Where Southern Man was a straightforward social commentary and political statement, Alabama is a metacognitive meditation, a critique/questioning of self. 

Here the singer sings to himself, playfully naming himself “Alabama.” He recognizes that he is affecting an American style, all the while an outsider. This perspective will be developed in a later line, so let’s look at that chorus first. Rusties will recognize the references to self right out the gate. “…weight on your shoulders that’s breaking your back,” was written between Neil’s major back injury and the resultant surgery. We know he was in physical pain during this time and would hardly stand up with an electric guitar until months later. 

“Your Cadillac has got a wheel in the ditch and a wheel on the track.” Know anyone with a fondness for big old cars and ditches? [note: The first Caddy I could find in Special Deluxe was the limo he bought in ‘74 when he and Zeke were on the road with the CSNY tour.]

The next verse names Alabama as the person/subject and, separately, as the place itself (“broken glass windows down in Alabama”) The irony of banjos playing through these broken windows but that also “take you down home” speaks to the personal conflict already established and connects it to the character’s namesake state. The chorus returns, reinforcing the pain and strife of the singer/his subject. The final verse brings back Neil’s discomfort with fame living in the States. “Oh Alabama, can I see you and shake your hand?” is followed by the wry “make friends down in Alabama.” These lines bring to mind Neil’s comment in Harvest Time regarding his new famous life, where people’s eyes don’t look right when they talk to him. [Again sorry for the lack of direct quotes, I’m paraphrasing from memory of the screening last weekend.]

“I’m from a new land, I come to you and see all this ruin, what are you doing?” Another enigmatic line, but following the lyrics above, it seems he is stepping out of the Alabama identity and into the world of Southern Man, having established his own voice as full of contradiction and self-doubt. This seems to add the weight of credibility based in humility to the critical observations first laid out with “see the old folks tied in white ropes.” In fact, that particular line can be read not just as “them Southern folk are KKK,” but that they themselves are tied up, bound by the shameful side of their own heritage, unable to change. The ropes themselves are white, after all.

After asking “what are you doing?” Alabama closes with another question: “You got the rest of the union to help you along/ What’s going wrong?” A mere Southern Man retread would have left this line a reaching throwaway. It doesn’t quite make sense posed directly to the state of Alabama. But given a double meaning whose main purpose is an inward questioning, the line lands hard. We can easily see “the rest of the union” as CSN, Crazy Horse, or even the Stray Gators, from all of whom Neil has begun to isolate himself. He knows they support him, so why is he struggling? It’s worth noting that Neil had expected to be finished with Harvest by April [an offhand remark heard in the movie]. Alabama was written on March 30th, 1971 and no more recording was done until September. 

When Alabama was penned, it wasn’t quite Harvest Time yet.

Many thanks for the CotM Tomatron.  Man, this is right in our strike zone here @ TW.

As everyone knows, this whole subject of the Southern Man/Northern Man is what propelled this site from obscurity to relative prominence and then back to semi-obscurity. 

We had always suspected that Neil distanced himself from this whole fraught subject just because of the challenge of discussing and defending in the climate extremes we face. So, frankly, it is very good to understand that this apparent backtracking -- so to speak -- occurred in the early 70's and isn't a more modern revisionist thinking/justification. In his autobiography "Waging Heavy Peace", Neil Young writes that "Alabama" was "condescending" and "not entirely thought out". 

But, we ask, are the "politics" of today really any dicier than the 60's?

"Does your conscience bother you?
Tell the truth."

Labels: , , , , , ,


At 12/09/2022 12:56:00 PM, Blogger Dan Swan said...

A very well written and thoughtful comment of the moment, concerning a couple of epic songs. I appreciate the observations made on both songs, and admire the ability to convey some interesting layers to consider. I’ve always loved both of these songs, yet never really put any political spin on them personally. I also believe it might possibly be a mistake to ever take Neil’s lyrics at face value. He always seems to say one thing, while eluding to something else. Thrasher is one of those songs where the listener is taken on a journey that may very well be specific to Neil, or maybe an observational study of the world around him. We are free to explore the origins of his intentions, yet still not fully understand it. But we each know how the songs made us feel, and this may be far more important than what the writers original intentions were.

Peace 🙏

At 12/09/2022 04:25:00 PM, Blogger jjclark28 said...

Anybody know what song the stray gators are jamming out in the harvest time trailer. It’s right after Neil says “ There the peoples people……power to the people”. Sounds like a really cool jam!

At 12/10/2022 12:55:00 AM, Blogger Alan said...

Brilliant comment of the moment!

All you Neil Young-ologists really turn my crank!

I love the top photo!

Your brother Alan in Seattle

At 12/12/2022 07:15:00 AM, Blogger Aer Stephen said...

Thrasher's Wheat. Bringing the wheat home once more.


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