Sure, he might wake up one morning with memories of singing God Save the Queen at primary school and decide to have a bash at it here, but he also does a bit of research, digging out the oft-forgotten second verse, goes the full back to childhood kick with a kids choir thrown in for good measure and throws in some of My Country ‘Tis Of Thee (same tune, different lyrics), the unofficial anthem of the United States before The Star Spangled Banner got the official gig in 1931.

And if you thought it was just a matter of digging out a few old chestnuts and redoing them as garage rock thump after the artistic and political stances on Greendale, Living With WarFork in the Road and Le Noise he goes to some trouble to spell out the fact that many of those old hootenanny staples everybody sang so cheerfully back in the day were concerned with murder, sex, and political turbulence in circumstances where physical danger lurked around the corner for those who were inclined to question the status quo.

So you have the original Old Left lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, and in interviews Young has talked about She’ll Be Comin ’Round The Mountain (covered here, but renamed Jesus' Chariot), generally held to be a Negro spiritual, referring to the second coming of Jesus, with she being the chariot he’ll arrive on but points out an alternative narrative. She, in this reading, is union organiser Mary Harris "Mother" Jones promoting union activity in Appalachian coal-mining camps. Not quite your usual good time campfire hootenanny interpretations.

As Young and the Horse stomp through Oh Susannah (Stephen Foster filtered through an early sixties arrangement by The Thorns with a nod to Shocking Blue’s Venus), 

Clementine and Tom Dula (both a la Fort William, spring 1965), Gallows Pole, and a dose of fifties doo wop in the form of The Silhouettes‘ 1957 hit Get A Job 1957 it certainly sounds like they’re having a ball reliving bits of the past.

At this point I’m inclined to point out that Crazy Horse started off as a Los Angeles-based doo wop outfit called Danny And The Memories, so it’s not just Young’s past we’re revisiting.

Proceedings are rounded off with Travel On, the Haight-Ashbury folk-rock fave High Flyin’ BirdWayfarin’ Stranger and, just to wind things up, God Save The Queen. This one seems to have a few Yanks scratching their heads, but I have a suspicion The Squires and their peers, playing rock’n’roll for the kids on the Canadian prairies, were regularly told to finish the night’s entertainment with a rendition of the anthem, along the same lines as the situation where a Northern Ireland club owner insisted John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers finish with the anthem in November 1967 (as preserved on Diary of a Band)...

As with all things Neil, your mileage is likely to vary considerably, and I must admit initial exposure to the B-A-N-J-O on my knee in Oh Susannah produced a hessian underwear reaction that had me firmly in the anti-Americana camp but repeated exposure has scaled that back to minor irritation and there are moments scattered throughout that are quite sublime in a revisiting our garage rock roots kind of way. 

Fortunately, in these days of iTunes playlists and other filtering devices it’s easy to avoid the dross (God Save the Queen has already been relegated to the digital back blocks) and it’ll be interesting to see which other titles will have joined This Land is Your Land in the lofty heights of Hughesy’s Top 1500 Most Played. I’d nominate Get a Job as the most likely candidates.

Some links:

On Thrasher’s WheatA Neil Young Critic Drifts Into Self-parody and The Unbearable Lightness of Being Neil Young

© Ian Hughes 2012