Personal reflections based on the inspiration of songs. The 2016 series "Under the Big Top" was centered on the music of the Who. The “Forever Young” series in 2014 was inspired by Neil Young songs and “Stepping Stones” in 2012 was focused on the music of the Rolling Stones. The first 100 postings (the original "Gem Videos") emailed to friends and family and later added here are from 2008 and 2009; include songs from a variety of musicians. Bob Dylan and the Beatles are anticipated.
Forever Young # 47: "The Great North American Narrative"
Song:Peaceful Valley Boulevard Album: Le Noise Released: September, 2010
Often during the writing of this ‘Forever Young’ series I have
contemplated Neil Young’s place in the broader context of the ever-evolving
story of America.To this end, a term
has played out in my mind: “The Great North American Narrative”, the story of North
America in the modern era.To my
knowledge, nothing like it has been written.It may be to all-encompassing.There’s Mexico, and the United States, and Canada and the Caribbean, and
Central America and Native America, and the interplay between these entities.But despite all this diversity, there is a
commonality.There is a story there.It’s about trailblazing and risk and
opportunity.There are many subplots, a
number of which are centered on historic events.But the vast majority of the narrative is
about individuals; people who made a difference.
Neil Young is now an undeniable
piece of that Great North American Narrative, and so are several of his musical
contemporaries, including Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Yes, there is no doubt in my mind that this bluesman
(Johnson) and beatnik (Guthrie) and folkie (Dylan) and hippie (Young) are now a
part of the narrative, right up there with the likes of Henry Hudson, and
Samuel de Champlain and Alexander Graham Bell, and Tecumseh, and Lewis and Clark, and Harriet Tubman, and
Abraham Lincoln and Geronimo and Pancho Villa, and Charlie Chaplin and Judy Garland
and Joe DiMaggio and Al Jolson and, and Ernest Hemmingway and Crazy Horse and Babe
Ruth and Fred Astaire, and Martin Luther King and Teddy Roosevelt, and Walt
Disney and Albert Einstein and Andrew Carnegie and Mark Twain and John Wayne
and Thomas Edison and George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and Hank Williams.
Who would have thought?Forty
years ago, such a declaration would have been scoffed at.But the times, they have changed, and the contributions of these musicians, with others
on their heels, are getting recognized now as revolutionary in their own
way.Yes, these men have helped shape
the American experience.Dylan himself was
recognized in this regard with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, the
highest honor that can be bestowed on an American civilian.
Neil Young is certain to be a future recipient of this distinguished
medal. This long haired, flannel loving, self-proclaimed hippie has climbed to
the top of the mountain.He’s done this in
both the depth and breadth of his works, which has come with a boatload of
independent thinking.He’s done this by
taking his own personal story and thrusting it out there for all to hear.In the process, we have learned that Neil Young
is not proud.In fact, he’s just the
opposite, which has allowed those of us who listen to his music to relate, and
in turn see our place in the narrative as well.To know an open, honest musician the likes of Neil Young is, in many
ways, to know ourselves.
Neil Young’s story covers large chunks of the North American
narrative.He identifies himself as a
Canadian and a citizen of the United States.He connects with Native Americans too.One could even make a case that he has tapped into the New World
Hispanic experience (case in point, the ‘Freedom’ song Eldorado).Neil Young is
urban and rural, prairie and coastal, ancient and modern, and almost all of it traces
to those American roots.
I just finished the Levon Helm book, ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’, a fascinating story of The Band.One take-home was the role Canada (particularly
the Toronto region) played in the evolution of Rock and Roll in the early
60s.When we think of Rock and Roll
origins and its early evolution we think of the Deep South and Memphis and New
York and Chicago and San Francisco and Detroit and Cleveland.The intriguing thing about the Toronto region
is that they picked up on this new sound relatively early.This interest drew in the Southern rockabilly
bands.Musicians like Ronnie Hawkins and
Levon Helm found they could make more money north of the border.In turn, Canadian upstarts like Robbie
Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Rick Danko got a leg up on young
musicians in other parts of North America simply by being there.Soon, they were being recruited by those Southern
rockabilly bands that had made their way North.At the same time upstarts including Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and
Neil Young were establishing themselves in Toronto.A scene had been established in the Yorkville
district of the city and soon expanded to the entire region.
I bring this Toronto scene up because I believe it is where Neil Young began
connecting those North American dots.He
was in a very advantageous position to be living there at that time, albeit in
a precarious, almost day-to-day existence. I lived in Canada for a year, Ottawa, Ontario
to be specific, and in the process I made some great and lasting
friendships.At the time and in the
years since, I’ve come to gain a bit of insight into what Canada brings to the Great
North American Narrative table.It’s
about proximity to the USA, our common language (for the most part) and Canada’s
love of the good things that come out of this country.Where many of us in the States tend to take cultural
shifts a bit for granted, or simply not see the tide changing, the Canadians
hone in.Often, they become so enamored with
some of these trends, that they push the envelope and make the original concept
better.They’ve done it with comedy (i.e.
Second City improvisation), they’ve done it with baby-boomer self-absorption (i.e.
Trivial Pursuit) and, as explained above, they’ve done it with rock and roll.
From that original scene, Neil Young continued to make all the right
moves which ultimately tied him to the entire continent, both musically and geographically.This is what puts him in the narrative.
There are numerous songs in Neil Young’s catalog that dig deep into the
American psyche.A prime example is this
week’s Forever Young entry, Peaceful
Valley Boulevard ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kE9AwJtZ3gw&list=RDkE9AwJtZ3gw
).This song has historical context; that
being the struggles of the early western settlers.But it also delves into current events, namely
the heavy, overarching issue of global warming.Young ties it all together, in a way only he can do.It’s all about cause and consequence, despite
the passage of time that would have most of us thinking otherwise.There is outrage in this tune; however this
sentiment comes with an undertow of love for his home land, respect and
reverence mixed with anger.It’s this
ability to hit you from both angles that makes Neil Young a rare spokesperson
for his generation.