NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Has Neil Young Lost His Mind?

New Americana Album Delves Seriously Into the Past

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Naming an album Americana seemingly makes it critic-proof and bomb-proof since virtually any kind of music can fearlessly fly the Americana flag these days. Americana as a genre is wonderful in that it allows talented artists to escape narrow musical niches and to (maybe) dodge criticism.

Even as Neil Young was releasing such songs as “Oh Susannah,” fiddler supreme Mark O’Connor was playing that very same song recently for students at New York City’s pricey Turtle Bay Music School. No one is therefore deprived of this old-time Southern/Appalachian fiddle tune.

Country music sometimes moves in many and wondrous ways. Neil Young has made some marvelous music throughout his storied career. Some of his country music is simply sublime and equals or eclipses much of what Nashville has turned out over the years. Such albums as Harvest, After the Gold Rush, Comes a Time and the live album Treasure remain standards for Young fans.

Young also continues to defy categorization and remains a musical experimenter seemingly fearless in what he will attempt. But sometimes I suspect that Neil simply gets a wild hair and just decides that he wants to piss people off. I think that’s what he may have done with that whole Trans business in the ’80s when he put on his vocoder and mugged and stomped around heavily onstage, acting like a troll and pretending to be in a sci-fi film and singing unintelligible verses.

His new album, actually a Neil Young & Crazy Horse album — the first such entity in nine years, going back to Greendale — is Americana. I have really missed that Crazy Horse groove with the guitar fuzztone. But I was initially skeptical about a Neil Young album full of supposed “campfire songs,” as one critic wrote dismissively. But I’m finding that the reworking and retelling here of some classic folk tales with electric guitar is really becoming infectious. And the occasional use of children’s choruses adds another dimension to these old tales. This is a seriously good listen.

I’m not sure how “God Save the Queen” fits into this whole equation. The song has served as the national anthem of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as well as the countries in the Commonwealth. (It is now Canada’s royal anthem after it was the national anthem for years.) The song’s origins are murky. It is credited to the composer Thomas Augustine Arne, although it may have come down from dance tunes hundreds of years old. Portions of it appear in compositions by the classical composers Purcell and Handel.

So how did “God Save the Queen” become part of Americana? Perhaps by wishing very hard and then declaring it so. If the Sex Pistols could appropriate “God Save the Queen” as a punk anthem (and Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, Queen and Madonna have also performed it), then why can’t the Canadian Neil Young borrow it for his Americana album? After all, its melody was used for our “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” which “God Save the Queen” segues into here.

And Canada is part of North America. “America” does not necessarily mean just the U.S. of A. Why can’t Canadian artists be considered Americana? Instead, Canada’s Americana music is referred to as “Canadian Americana.”

After all, Young told NPR’s Fresh Air program he remembered singing “God Save the Queen” in school as a child, along with such songs as “This Land Is Your Land.” He said he learned the tragic old Stephen Foster love and death tale “Oh, Susannah” from the Canadian folk-rock group the Thorns and borrowed their arrangement when he did the song with his fledgling group, the Squires. Similarly, he nicked the arrangement for “High Flying Bird” from the Company, a Canadian group.

“High Flying Bird” was written by Billy Edd Wheeler about the desire to escape his Appalachian background in the West Virginia coal mining country. It’s been covered by artists ranging from Elton John to Gram Parsons.

Other songs on Americana have similar unconventional pedigrees. “Jesus Chariot” (more commonly sung as “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” started life as an African-American gospel song called “When the Chariot Comes.” The “she” in the song is said to refer to Jesus and describes his return to earth.

“Get a Job” is a classic doo-wop hit from the 1950s, originally written and sung by the Silhouettes, and I never thought of it as Americana, but it’s old and it does deal with unemployment.

“Gallows Pole” is best known these days as a centerpiece of the album Led Zeppelin III. Zep’s Jimmy Page incorporated an old blues song named “Gallis Pole,” which the blues singer Leadbelly had popularized. It also drew from a Jimmy Driftwood country song, “Slack Your Rope,” which was derived from an old British ballad. Page wrote “Gallows Pole” on a banjo, and it became the only Zep song featuring banjo. The song ends with a death by hanging.

“Clementine” remains a jolly-sounding song, even though it describes the drowning death of a young beloved daughter and sweetheart. Her paramour sings the song and ends it thusly,

In my dreams she still doth haunt me/Robed in garments soaked in brine/Though in life I used to hug her/Now she’s dead, I draw the line..

“Wayfarin’ Stranger,” also known as “The Wayfaring Stranger” and other titles, is a 19th century spiritual song. It became associated with folksinger Burl Ives and has been often recorded.

The old folk song “Tom Dula” is fairly dripping with history. Dula was an actual person hanged for killing his fiancée in North Carolina in the 19th century. The case garnered considerable publicity, and a local poet named Thomas Land wrote a poem about it (on which Neil Young’s song is based). The song also was also popularized as “Tom Dooley,” which the Kingston Trio turned into a major hit.

Country singer Billy Grammer‘s 1959 hit “Gotta Travel On” (written by folksinger Paul Clayton) is here titled “Travel On.” Buddy Holly used the song as his opener on his final, ultimately fatal tour. Bob Dylan later recorded it on his Self Portrait album.

“This Land Is Your Land” remains one of Woody Guthrie’s most durable compositions and has been relegated to campfire status by many. But, as Young told Fresh Air, “When you were little, you didn’t sing, ‘Made me wonder/Is this land made for you and me?’ Those were protest songs when they came out, and they were cleaned up and milked down … and everybody got to sing them like they were happy little songs.”

With Americana, Young has taken some valuable pieces of music history that had been dismissed by many and has made them accessible again. And made them matter again.

It’s good to see Neil Young out there on the wing again, gazing off into the horizon and seeing what he can see. Long may he run.