Friday, June 29, 2012


Neil Young's Visible Republic

by Wayne Robins

Neil Young and Crazy Horse: "Americana" (Reprise)

There's always a method to Neil Young's madness, even on his most prosaic projects. Who would have thought that the eardrum-puncturing solo guitar project "Le Noise" would be at the center of his third Jonathan Demme-directed full-length film ("Journeys") a road movie that takes up back to Omemee, the town in north Ontario that left us helpless, helpless, helpless?

"Americana"(Reprise) brings us all back to our childhood homes or getaways. In the days before rural TV, after dinner entertainment at my grandparents' summer cottage next to the Shawangunk Kill in the foothills of the Catskills would consist of the family singing off-key but together to "Oh Susannah" and "Clementine," the first two songs of "Americana," a collection of 19th and 20th century folk, pop and patriotic songs, by Neil Young and Crazy Horse. These songs, as well as Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" (straightforward, though with the more confrontational lyrics from Guthrie's original manuscript), "Wayfarin' Stranger" (loyal to the Burl Ives rendition) and "Tom Dula" (the same lyrics as those in the peppy No. 1 Kingston Trio hit, "Tom Dooley") are so well-known that they're kind of an offset to the "lost" treasures that were run up the flagpole of Greil Marcus' "Invisible Republic." This is Neil Young's "Visible Republic," with amusing, illuminating twists. The feedback that introduces "Oh Susannah" lets you know this isn't grandma's hootenanny. Young's curatorial song notes tell us the melody and arrangement of this Stephen Foster song were taken from a 1963 recording by The Big Three, which consisted of Tim Rose, Mama Cass Elliot and Jim Hendricks. (You can hear The Big 3 version on the self-titled album on Spotify; it is called "The Banjo Song.") Such arrangements—the immediate precursor of folk-rock—provided the template for the "Americana" album. The Big Three's version is aggressive but still acoustic. Young and Crazy Horse amp it up until the guitar solo sounds like primo late 1960s Santana.

The notes—difficult to read because of the tiny font in the CD booklet—offer an occasional sly window into Young's often opaque strategies. It's doubtful that Young is just showing off his scholarly acumen when he notes that "Oh Susannah" was first performed on September 11, 1847; it's the 9/11 coincidence that grabs attention. The arrangement of "Tom Dula" comes from The Squires, Young's Winnipeg surf-rock-plus group circa 1963. And "High Flyin' Bird," which many associate with Richie Havens, notes the 1964 version of the Billy Edd Wheeler song performed by a group called The Company, with singer Stephen Stills. The song was already familiar to Young, as it also came from the repertory of The Squires.

Whether coincidence or not, a cluster of cited songs come from 1957-1958. "Travel On" stems from Billy Grammer's 1958 version. The Kingston Trio's "Tom Dooley" was a No. 1 pop hit in 1958, as was another song on "Americana," the furthest, most satisfying reach of all. I asked my friend Alan Grossinger, an expert in the popular music of the 1950s, if he'd heard the "Americana" version of this song—one of our childhood favorites—which I described to him as "one of the great protest songs about race and discriminatory hiring practices." Grossinger couldn't bite on that clue, so I had to reveal the answer: "Get A Job," by the Silhouettes.

 Recorded in 1957, "Get A Job" hit number one in January 1958. The 60s doo-wop revival group Sha-Na-Na took its name from some of the so-called nonsense syllables. The song, composed by the group members, is about the difficulty of finding meaningful employment in an economy with a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots. Young's choice to record this (loose but respectful) may be meant to draw comparisons to the 2012 economy, but there is a clear distinction. The Silhouettes, in their satirical way, were expressing the frustration of black America at a time when black America's frustrations were just barely registering on the national consciousness. It's Young's generous definition of "folk" music that allows him to include "Get A Job," as well as Odetta's "Gallows Pole," which may have first been heard on her 1957 live album, "At the Gate of Horn." The connection between Odetta and the Silhouettes wasn't understood then. It's not understood by many now, but as always, Young gets it.

The closing song, "God Save the Queen," makes some people cranky, for different reasons. The red- white and blue re•ac•tion•ary part of Young's fan base may wonder why he's singing what is essentially England's national anthem. But it's also a nod to the Young's Canadian heritage and that country's ties to the British Commonwealth. (Quebec excepted, of course.) It is also the melody of "My Country 'Tis of Thee," which is a kind of alternate U.S. national anthem. Young and Crazy Horse morph from the former to the latter—it begins as "God Save" and ends as "My Country," illustrating the continually evolving folk process that it the whole idea of "Americana." Many of us would have preferred the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen," which Young and Crazy Horse are long overdue in covering. Perhaps it will be the grand finale of Young and Crazy Horse's fall tour with the Patti Smith Group, with all hands, and all versions, on stage.

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