Neil Young and Crazy Horse's latest project — their first together in nine years — is an album featuring American folk songs and the tunes many of us learned as children, performed with grit, wit and a whole lot of electric guitar.
Americana is a wild journey through the classic American songbook, featuring songs like "Oh, Susanna," "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain" and "Clementine" reinterpreted in a folk-rock style.
Young tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he got the idea for the album while working on a book about his life. Thinking about his childhood reminded him of visiting a nightclub in Ontario as a teenager; there he saw bands like The Company and The Thorns play sets.
"The Thorns did 'Oh, Susannah' and they did [a new] arrangement of it, which I was knocked out by," he says. "They were pioneers at the beginning of the folk-rock era."
Young copped The Thorns' arrangement of "Oh, Susannah" and The Company's version of "High Flying Bird" for his own band at the time, which was called The Squires. Both arrangements appear on Americana, which also features the original lyrics to songs such as "Clementine" and "This Land Is Your Land."
"[When you were little], you didn't sing, 'Made me wonder / Is this land made for you and me?'" Young says. "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."
Many of the songs Young features on the album are ones we all grew up singing in school. In several tracks, including his version of "God Save the Queen," a children's choir sings background tracks.
"I had them on there because these songs are usually sung in classes, so it seemed logical to have the kids sing the Crazy Horse arrangements," Young says. "I woke up one morning a couple of months ago, and I was hearing 'God Save the Queen' in my head, and I thought, 'That's probably because when I was little, I went to school and sang 'God Save the Queen.' That's what happened.' So I kind of had this thing driven into my head, so it randomly came back, and I just happened to be recording Americana and I thought, 'I'll just do 'God Save the Queen' today and see how that works.'"
On 'She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain'
"I heard that song back in 1964, and I was really into the groove and the melody and the fact that it was an old song with a new melody and old lyrics. And then, when I did it in 2012, I started relating more to the lyrics and started doing more research on the lyrics. I actually got into what the lyrics were really about more than I was in 1964. I chose a few verses that emphasized a certain darkness, but they were all the original verses. ... Because I felt that the music was like a studious type of thing, it was like, 'Well, we're looking at something here. This is kind of historic stuff.' And I'm using the folk process to change it, which is fair game — but I'm still keeping the message of the original songs."
On his song 'Love and War'
"The song says, 'When I sing about love and war / I don't really know what I'm saying.' And I think that sums it up. Because they're very deep subjects. You can't possibly know what it means to somebody else. War to one person may mean a justified thing that's happening for a very good reason, and another person may think that's a terrible thing and never should have happened. And another person will be thinking that he lost his sister or his brother or his mother in the war and it was a waste of time. And another person could be thinking the exact opposite: that his brother went to war and gave his life for our country. So you can't really have an opinion, although I have opinions and I've had them and I've made very loud statements about things. But that's the way I felt at the time. When I did the Living With War album, I was very outspoken about the anger I felt about certain things that were happening at that time in history. But again, I was no more right than the people who believed in it because it was such a big thing — how can you know? How can you know all of the reasons and everything that's happening? I just don't enjoy war. I'm not like a fan of war. And love can be very damaging, and it can be very good. So you just don't know where to go with these things. So I wrote about that — the quandary of not knowing what to do with any of those things. It's kind of a useless point of view."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Neil Young is a great songwriter, and that makes his new album kind of unusual because it's all folk songs and songs that many of us grew up with as children, songs like "Oh Susannah," "Clementine," "Tom Dooley," "This Land is Your Land" and "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain."
But it's Neil Young and his band Crazy Horse, so the songs sound different than I've ever heard them. The album is called "Americana," and it's his first album with Crazy Horse in nearly nine years. Crazy Horse is the band with which he recorded the albums "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere," "After the Gold Rush," "Tonight's the Night" and "Rust Never Sleeps."
Americana was released yesterday. At the end of the month, the film "Neil Young Journeys" will be released, the third Neil Young concert documentary film directed by Jonathan Demme. Let's start with a track from "Americana." This is "Oh Susannah."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH SUSANNAH")
NEIL YOUNG: (Singing) I had a dream the other night. Everything was still. I dreamed I saw Susannah. She was coming down the hill. Oh Susannah, don't you cry for me 'cuz I come from Alabama with my B-A-N-J-O on my knee.
(Singing) Buckwheat cake was in her mouth...
GROSS: That's Neil Young and Crazy Horse from the new album "Americana." Neil Young, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'm so happy to have you back on the show. I love this project. You know, some of the songs that you do on this I know really well, but I didn't necessarily like them when I learned them when I was growing up, like "Oh Susannah."
But they still have these real, like, deep grooves in my musical memory. So hearing you do them and reinterpret them and change them is very fulfilling. Why did you decide to do this, taking songs like "Oh Susannah" and "Clementine" and reworking them into rock songs?
YOUNG: Well, it's kind of a long story, and I've got to go back to - I'm writing a book, and...
GROSS: A memoir.
YOUNG: Yeah, well, it's not really a memoir. It's kind of a memoir. It's more like a diary, a memoir and - so anyway, I was writing it, and I was thinking about a time that I spent in 1964 with my band The Squires in a nightclub called The Fourth Dimension in Thunder Bay, Ontario. A band came through there and played. They were from New York, and they were called The Thorns.
In the band was a guy named Tim Rose, who was the leader of the band, and they did "Oh Susannah," and they did that arrangement of it, which I was knocked out by. And they were, you know, pioneers at the beginning of the folk-rock era.
When I heard that, I was so impressed I showed my own band The Squires that song, and then I rearranged four or five other folk songs, similar genre songs, to that type of arrangement because I was so impressed with what Tim Rose had done that I decided to do my own, you know, take my own departure from it.
So I did that, and I taught the songs to The Squires. You know, so I was remembering that from writing my book. But at the same time, I was getting ready to record with Crazy Horse, and I had no material. So I went to my studio with - and the Horse was there, and we were ready to play. And I said, well, I don't have any new songs. I'll try this one here, and we'll try some of these just to get loosened up.
So we did those, and there was also one other one from a band that came through to the Fourth Dimension club in Thunder Bay that was called the Company, and in that band was Stephen Stills. And he sang a song called "High Flyin' Bird," which I thought also was great. So as I was in the habit of doing at the time, I copped that arrangement, too.
Actually, I copped the song, and then we did our own arrangement of it, loosely like the one that Stephen was doing with The Company. And, you know, that's when Stephen and I started being friends, and we vowed to later on to get together again and do something together.
GROSS: So let me get back to "High Flyin' Bird," which you apparently recorded before Richie Havens did, not recorded but performed with your band The Squires.
YOUNG: I guess so.
GROSS: I think it's a great song about death, and so what do you know about the background of this song?
YOUNG: I just know that it's a great song. Billy Edd Wheeler wrote it, and ah - so it's a contemporary folk song.
GROSS: He's in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
GROSS: So let's hear "High Flyin' Bird" and see what Neil Young and Crazy Horse do with it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGH FLYIN' BIRD")
GROSS: So that's Neil Young and Crazy Horse from their new album "Americana," and that's the song "High Flyin' Bird." You first knew this song because Stephen Stills did it with the group he was in in the - say, 1964, '63, called The Company. And at that time, you had a band called The Squires.
And you were becoming interested in folk rock, but this band also did a lot of really great, just like guitar rock stuff, inspired by like Duane Eddy and the Shadows, who did "Apache," and I just thought we'd squeeze in maybe a little bit from that band and how you sounded in '63 or '64, just give our listeners a sense of what you were up to then.
And this was - this was a piece that was released on your box set a few years ago called, like, "The Archive Project." It was just, like, stuff from the '60s that you'd recorded, and it's really interesting stuff. And this is called "The Sultan," and it opens up with this gong. (Laughing)
GROSS: It's just - it sounds so out of character to start with this gong, very exotic. Just say a couple of words about this track and what you were doing then, when you started getting interested in folk rock but were also doing this guitar rock kind of stuff.
YOUNG: Well, this song, you know, this track "The Sultan" was recorded probably a year before the period that we're discussing. So that was quite early in the life of The Squires, and we really hadn't started singing yet. I wasn't singing yet at that time. So in the year after that, I started singing.
So this would maybe be 14 months later or something, the period we're talking about, where I learned "Oh Susannah" and different songs from The Thorns and from The Company and arranged my own folk rock things. So this is a very early version of this, of The Squires. So it's instrumental based on, you know, the fact that - the gong and everything, you know.
Like in Winnipeg, Manitoba, we thought that, you know, that gong really was very sultanesque. So we put that on. That's what Winnipeggers think of when they think of the sultan, is a huge gong. So that was it. We did that. It's kind of the prairie version of, you know, "The Gong Show" or something. I don't know what it is.
GROSS: All right, so here is early Neil Young.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SULTAN")
GROSS: So that was Neil Young with his band from high school?
YOUNG: Yeah, high school and right after high school.
GROSS: And shortly after, a band called The Squires. And Neil Young and Crazy Horse have a new album called "Americana." Some of the songs that you do on here, especially songs like "Oh Susannah" and "Clementine," they're meant to be simple songs that anyone can sing. And Stephen Foster, who wrote "Oh Susannah," I mean he's from the parlor-song era, where songs were disseminated not through records but through sheet music.
And, you know, nice houses had a piano, and people would gather around their piano and sing songs that anyone could sing without musical training. And you've taken some of these simple songs and made them complicated.
GROSS: You know, I think you like changed the chords and, you know, made the melodies like more minor key and, you know, done unusual things to them.
YOUNG: Well, I guess. That's based on the Tim Rose arrangement of "Oh Susannah" is, you know, like I saw what he did to "Oh Susannah," and I said wow, I could do that to a lot of these songs, and it's really a cool thing to do to them because it gives them a new life.
And plus I have drums in my band, and The Thorns didn't have drums. So I knew we could really rock these things. So that's when I did all those arrangements.
GROSS: Some of these songs that you do I learned in assembly, like when we were in grade school. Once a week, we'd be in the auditorium, and one of the teachers would be at the piano, and another would conduct us in singing the same songs together. And again they were all, like, simple, sheet-music parlor kind of songs.
And I was wondering if you had any experiences like that when you were in school.
YOUNG: No, we didn't do that, but I sang those songs, and I heard those songs, although none of the verses that we - you know, a lot of the verses that we sing on "Americana" were not the ones that we were singing then, and I'm sure you weren't singing them either.
So they are the verses that we focused on, these are the original lyrics.
GROSS: Yeah, give me an example of a lyric that I wouldn't have sung in grade school.
YOUNG: OK, you would - how about in "Clementine."
GROSS: "Clementine," yeah, at the end, yeah, go ahead.
YOUNG: I missed her, I missed her, how I miss my Clementine. So I kissed her little sister and forgot my Clementine.
GROSS: We definitely didn't sing that.
YOUNG: You didn't sing that.
GROSS: It's a weird - that's a weird stanza.
YOUNG: There's a lot of words like that in that song. So yeah, you didn't sing those. In "This Land is Your Land," I'm sure probably - by the relief office I saw my people, you know, the whole verse there about people being, you know, going to the relief office in the Depression and all of that.
GROSS: Yeah, another verse we didn't sing was the one about, you know, on the land there was a sign, on one side it said no trespassing, and on the other side, it didn't say nothing, That side was made for you and me. We didn't sing that.
YOUNG: That's right, you didn't sing that, no. And you didn't sing, you know, after they heard about all the people in the Depression standing in the bread line, you didn't sing: It made me wonder, is this land made for you and me? None of that.
Those were protest songs when they came out, and they were, you know, cleaned up and milked down for the, you know, New Christy Minstrels et cetera, and everybody got to sing them like they were happy little songs.
GROSS: My guest is Neil Young. His new album is called "Americana." More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is Neil Young. His new album is called "Americana," and it features folk songs and songs many people learned as children.
One of the songs that you do is "God Save the Queen," which people in the United States of America wouldn't sing, though we would sing...
YOUNG: "My Country 'Tis of Thee."
GROSS: "My Country 'Tis of Thee," yeah, yeah, which is the same melody. So did you sing "God Save the Queen"?
YOUNG: Yes, I sang it every morning when I was a kid.
GROSS: In school?
YOUNG: Yeah, so that's the way we grew up, you know, it was "God Save the King," though. But the thing is, what that song represents is the American Revolution. You know, of course they wouldn't sing "God Save the Queen" in the United States. That's why they became separate from the British Empire. So that's what the song does.
They're all still people, and they're all still singing the same melody.
GROSS: Now, you have like a children's choir, at least a bunch of children, who sing on some of the tracks on the album, including "God Save the Queen." And I thought that was interesting since I associate some of these songs with my childhood. Like I said, they're simple songs to sing, and children often learn them for that reason. Why do you have a children's choir on some of the tracks?
YOUNG: You described it. You answered the question. It's just like, I had them on there because these songs are all usually sung by children, or they're usually sung in classes or something, you know, so it seemed logical to have the kids sing the Crazy Horse - the Crazy Horse arrangements.
GROSS: So there's like oohs that the children sing, like sustained notes, and it sounds almost - it sounds like processed. Is it, and did you want that effect?
YOUNG: There's no process.
YOUNG: No, they're just mixed in with the other ones.
GROSS: All right.
YOUNG: They're live recordings of a choir singing, and they're singing behind Crazy Horse. Yeah, there's no processing at all on it.
YOUNG: But when you put 12 people together, and they all sing the same thing, and you use two microphones, there's a phasing that happens when they move their heads back and forth. So you can hear, if you just listen to those two stereo tracks, you can actually hear people's heads moving back and forth, and sometimes when you blend that in with electric guitars that are like boiling and distorting and everything, it could give you some sort of a sound like that. It's just one of the natural things that happens.
GROSS: You know, when I was listening to your version of "God Save the Queen," I had this, like, flashback to my days singing in assembly in grade school, when what we sang to the same melody was our father's God to thee, author of liberty - this is how I remember it - to thee we sing. Long may our land be bright with freedom's holy light. Protect us by thy might, great God our king.
And I thought, like, wow, that's, like, not a secular song. You wouldn't be singing that today in a public school. Did you know that verse?
YOUNG: You know, I saw that verse when I was looking at it. I decided not to sing that verse. I decided to sing the one about throw off the politics...
GROSS: Yeah, that has a couple of great lines in it. It says confound their politics, frustrate their empty tricks. That sounds like 2012, confound their politics, frustrate their empty tricks.
YOUNG: We've come a long way, haven't we?
YOUNG: Makes you feel good inside.
GROSS: I'm glad you revived that verse. Who knew?
YOUNG: That is a great verse. That is a political statement. It's a, you know, survivalist statement, and I liked it.
GROSS: So let's hear from the album "Americana," Neil Young and Crazy Horse doing "God Save the Queen."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD SAVE THE QUEEN")
GROSS: That's Neil Young and Crazy Horse from their new album "Americana." And I have to say, Neil Young, that when I saw "God Save the Queen" on the track listings, I thought it was going to be the Sex Pistols.
YOUNG: Who are the Sex Pistols?
GROSS: So I was really surprised that it was actually the real "God Save the Queen." And is this an enjoyable melody for you to sing?
YOUNG: It's a great song. It's like "My Country 'Tis of Thee," you know. It's a great song.
GROSS: When did you start thinking this is a great song? Like when you sang it in grade school, did you think this is a great song, someday I'll do my version of this song?
YOUNG: No, no I didn't think that. I woke up one morning, you know, like a couple of months ago when I was recording "Americana," I woke up one morning, and I was hearing "God Save the Queen." I thought, well, this is probably just because - I was hearing it in my head. I wasn't hearing it on any player.
But I was hearing it in my head, and I thought, well, that's probably because, you know, like when I was a kid, I'd wake up in the morning, and I'd go to school, and I'd sing "God Save the Queen" because I did that every day. That's what happened. The kids all sang it, and you looked at the picture of the king or the queen or whatever.
And then we'd sit down and go to work. So, you know, I kind of had this thing driven into my head, so, you know, it randomly came back one morning, and I just happened to be recording "Americana," and I thought, well, I'll just do "God Save the Queen" today, and we'll see how that works.
GROSS: Neil Young will be back in the second half of the show. His new album is called "Americana." You can find links to two of my earlier interviews with him on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also watch his video for "Oh Susannah." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Neil Young. His new album "Americana" was released yesterday. It's his versions of folk songs and songs many of us learned to sing as children. "Americana" is his first album with the band Crazy Horse in nearly nine years.
Now another song that you do in "Americana" is "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain," which you call "Jesus' Chariot." I never heard it called that before and I've known this song I think ever since I've been alive and never actually thought much of it, didn't realize its roots are as a spiritual, didn't know it had anything to do with Jesus' chariot or the Second Coming. I thought it was about like somebody, a woman who arrives in a stagecoach with a bunch of white horses who is coming around the mountain and we'll all be happy to see her when she comes.
GROSS: Didn't - when did you learn this song and what were your initial impressions of it?
YOUNG: Well, I arranged the song back in 1964, not really drawing any huge conclusions. I was just using the words and melody and keeping the cadence and changing to the relative minors - using basically the same amount of chords as the same song, only they are minor relative chords because that creates a different type of feeling.
GROSS: That's what I meant before about how you've taken like simple-sounding songs and made them complicated... (Laughing) And added minor key...
YOUNG: I don't agree with that.
YOUNG: I don't agree with that.
YOUNG: I think that they are simple songs and they're still simple songs. They are repetitive songs, but they're repeating the minors...
YOUNG: ...instead of the majors. And it's just relative.
GROSS: And they're repeating more darkness. Yeah.
YOUNG: They're relative and they go to the darker side of the lyrics and that brings it out. But complicated is a word I'm having a little trouble with on describing it. It's very simple music to me.
GROSS: Fair enough.
YOUNG: And Crazy Horse is not known for doing complicated arrangements. There's really only four chords in these songs, you know, at the most. Sometimes three, sometimes two. So, you know, it's just a music thing.
GROSS: So while the songs, why this one? What did you like about it? Because like I said, when knowing it as child it just struck me as an utterly uninteresting song. I didn't know it had any connections to spirituals. Why were you drawn to it?
YOUNG: I heard that song back in 1964, and I was really into the groove and the melody and the fact that it was an old song with a new melody and old lyrics. And then, when I did it in 2012, I started relating more to the lyrics and did more research on the lyrics. And I actually got into what the lyrics were really about. So I chose a few verses that emphasized a certain darkness, but they were all the original verses. And so that "Jesus' Chariot" thing, I never knew that till I did the research and I just wanted to write interesting liner notes because I felt that the music was a kind of like a studious historic stuff. And I'm using the folk process to change it, you know, which is fair game - but I'm still keeping the message of the original songs.
So as I went through and I discovered that it was basically a very religious, kind of a Negro spiritual from back in the day and related to the Second Coming and that the chariot was actually a female - that the she is a chariot and Jesus is coming back in the chariot. It's a very interesting song when you see it for what it is. And then the fact that then there's a darkness. OK, we're going to kill a big red rooster now because Christ is coming back. What does that mean? I found this to be very stimulating. And she will take us to the portals. What does that mean? That's kind of a religious thing. We're going to go to heaven. We're going to go - where were we going? To me these songs are just full of images that are fascinating.
GROSS: Yeah. I'm really glad you did this song. So let's hear it. This is "Jesus' Chariot," also known as "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain." This is Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JESUS' CHARIOT")
GROSS: That's Neil Young and Crazy Horse from their new album "Americana."
So it's really been great to talk with you about this new album. But before you go, I just went to take a minute and ask you about another song called "Love and War," which is on your previous album "Le Noise." And you also do this in concert in your forthcoming documentary that was shot about a year ago, the performances at Massey Hall in Canada. And so one of the songs you do in that performance is called "Love and War," which like I said, is also on your album "Le Noise." It's a great song and I think it's a very touching anti-war song in the sense that it's about the damages of war, but it's not a self-righteous song in the sense that you're also singing about, you know, the lyric is also about cheating on a lover and breaking the lover's heart. So like, you know, the singer of this song admits, you know, his own guilt in something. And I don't know if this is autobiographical or not, that's why I'm saying the singer of the song.
GROSS: (Chuckling) But it strikes me as a very - it's a song about how, you know, individuals are guilty of things too even if they're anti-war.
YOUNG: Well, like, you know, the song says, when I sing about love and war, I don't really know what I'm saying. And I think that sums it up, you know.
YOUNG: You know, because, you know, they're very deep subjects. You can't possibly know what it means to somebody else. You know, war to one person may mean a justified thing that's happening for a very good reason, or another person may think that's a terrible thing and never should have happened. And another person will be thinking well, god, I lost my sister in the war, I lost my brother, you know, I lost my mother or my father and, you know, it was a waste of time. And another person could be thinking the exact opposite, you know, my brother went to war and gave his life for our country. You know, so it's very - you can't really have an opinion, although I have opinions and I've had them and I've made very loud statements about things. But that's the way I felt. That's the way I felt at the time. When I did the "Living With War" album, I was very outspoken about the anger that I felt about certain things that were happening at that time in history. But again, I was no more right than the people who believed in it because, you know, it's such a big thing - how can you know? How can you know all of the reasons and everything that's happening? I just don't enjoy war. I'm not like a fan of war. And love can be very damaging, and it can be very good. So you just don't know where to go with these things. So I wrote about that - about the quandary of not knowing how to deal with any of those things, really. It's kind of a useless point of view.
GROSS: It's a great song.
YOUNG: Didn't really contribute.
GROSS: No. I love the song. Just one more thing before you have to go. What have you done to keep your voice in such good shape? It still sounds so good.
YOUNG: Boy, I don't know. Well, we ought to can that, what you just said and I'll just, I'll listen to that over and over again.
GROSS: What, do you doubt that?
YOUNG: Well, no I don't doubt it. I just, you know, it's like, you know, I'm glad you're enjoying it. That's fantastic. I mean I've heard a lot of things about my voice over the last 50 years.
GROSS: Well, the things you heard at the beginning were probably more like that's weird. But after that it was like...
GROSS: What a great voice.
YOUNG: What is he doing?
YOUNG: What is that sound?
YOUNG: Well, anyway, you know, that's me. That's what it is.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking. It's so great to have you back on the show and I'm really glad you did this album "Americana." And what we're going to hear now is "Love and War."
YOUNG: All right. Thanks. Be well.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, IS "LOVE AND WAR")
GROSS: That's Neil Young. His new album is called "Americana." The concert documentary film "Neil Young Journeys," directed by Jonathan Demme, will be released at the end of the month.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.