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Neil Young: Rewiring Folk Music

Reunited with Crazy Horse, the iconic rocker puts a controversial spin on campfire classics with 'Americana'

By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music

Neil Young (©AP)

"I just didn't want any new songs," says Neil Young. "I was not anxious to go down that road -- to have people analyzing them and comparing them to things I did 40 years ago. But I was very eager to play with Crazy Horse again."

Young's solution, triggered by a memory he had while working on his forthcoming memoir, "Waging Heavy Peace," was to record his versions of classic American folk songs, performed with the signature thrashing stomp of his most celebrated band. The resulting album, "Americana," reveals a broad interpretation of what constitutes a folk song, with selections including universal campfire favorites like "Oh Susannah" and "Clementine," the 1957 doo-wop hit "Get a Job" by the Silhouettes, and a stately concluding medley of "God Save the Queen" and "My Country 'Tis of Thee."

Though such other legends as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen have also explored this territory, the album instantly set off intense debate among Young's devoted following: On fan sites, responses to the first songs he posted ranged from "Neil's recorded some awful stuff in his time, but this is a career low" to "Neil Young and Crazy Horse hit it and take it to another level."

But this has always been the way for rock's most baffling and polarizing figure. To further complicate things, the scope of "Americana" reaches beyond the 11 songs on the album. First, Young wrote historical liner notes giving the background of each track. Artist Shepard Fairey (best known for the Barack Obama "Hope" poster) was commissioned to create a visual representation of each song, and Young has also overseen the creation of companion videos, built from archival footage, representing a lost and not always pleasant American past. (These elements were combined in a 40-minute silent film titled "A Day at the Gallery," which suddenly turned up on a few days before the album's release.)

"Americana," his first album with Crazy Horse in nine years, is the beginning of a busy period for Neil Young. In addition to the eagerly anticipated "Waging Heavy Peace" (which he is introducing at the Book Expo America convention this week in New York, participating in a conversation with Patti Smith), Young has announced several tour dates, including the Outside Lands and Voodoo Experience festivals, with a full tour announcement expected imminently. A second album with Crazy Horse, of original material, is planned for the fall, and "Journeys," the third in a series of Young documentaries built around single concerts (this one at Toronto's Massey Hall) by director Jonathan Demme, is set for release later this month.

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And if his listeners don't all immediately comprehend his vision for "Americana," Young maintains that it was no problem for his band. "They got it within the first 10 minutes," he says. "We were just playing them one at a time, not trying to make a huge statement. We were incredibly liberated by these songs, able to play in a free way, like when we first started playing. There was nothing about it that didn't feel great."

MSN Music: Were you initially interested in this material as songs or as historical documents?

Neil Young: I was writing a book, and I was remembering that the band I had way back in the '60s was doing a thing called folk rock, based on something a guy named Tim Rose did, this arrangement of "Oh Susannah." When I heard it, I went out and arranged a few songs for my band, the Squires, to play in the coffeehouses, with that as a template. So I was writing about that in the book. Then I got together with Crazy Horse and decided to record some of those songs. I told my friend Craig Kallman at Atlantic Records about it, and he supplied me with more songs to work with. I told him I wanted classic American folk songs that didn't have to be old, but that were describing life in America. So I took the songs he sent, listened to the way people like Mahalia Jackson and Odetta did them, and rearranged them to adapt the Crazy Horse sound.

So when did you know it was a record?

Well, then it turned into something else, since all of these songs obviously had a history. I played the album for Reprise, my label, about two months ago, and the president made a speech about the songs and what was going on in America today. He was making a connection between what I'd done and what people are feeling -- what are the values, the history of America, where do we come from. I wasn't really thinking about that.

Then I thought that I'd like to do videos for these songs, so I got together with my art director and said we should gather archival footage, very old, and put them out as an app. We found this huge well of information on the Internet on old film, really a history of America. So we just put it all together and it revealed itself. There was no need for me to write my own music -- I wasn't looking forward to that anyway. But these were songs that everybody knew, everybody had opinions about, so there was a chance to interpret them in a way that would turn those opinions upside down. It was very liberating.

Video: Neil Young's International Harvesters 

As you got inside these songs, did you learn anything about why they have survived so long, what it is that has made them so timeless?

Every one of these songs has verses that have been ignored. And those are the key verses, those are the things that make these songs live. They're a little heavy for kindergarteners to be singing. The originals are much darker, there's more protest in them -- the other verses in "This Land Is Your Land" are very timely, or in "Clementine," the verses are so dark.

Almost every one has to do with people getting killed, with life-or-death struggles. You don't hear much about that; they've been made into something much more light. So I moved them away from that gentler interpretation. With new melodies and arrangements, we could use the folk process to invoke the original meanings for this generation.

Since you grew up in Canada, do you think you have a different relationship to "God Save the Queen"? Is that why you included it on here?

Well, I did sing "God Save the Queen" in grade two, or maybe it was "God Save the King" then -- I don't remember -- but when I sang it for the record, I was looking at a picture of King George. Canada is part of the Commonwealth and that's cool, but the American Revolution happened for a reason. And "My Country 'Tis of Thee" has the same melody. I don't really know anything about it -- I think it dates back to 17th century, so it's earlier than the War of Independence. I'm up in the air about where it all came from, but it was out with the old, in with the new.

Where does "Get a Job" figure into all this?

Are you kidding? That's the whole thing. "Get a job" -- what the hell is everybody talking about? That's number one on the Huffington Post chart, on the MSNBC and FOX News charts. Everybody blames everybody else for not having a job. So here's this guy and his wife is blaming him for not working.

In "This Land Is Your Land," he's describing standing in line outside the relief office, and "Get a Job" is the same thing. It's what the whole country is working, forging new methods, taking a chance on things. "Get a Job" is right there in the middle of it; it's a traditional American folk song as far as I'm concerned. And doo-wop is not far from the slave songs they were singing in Florida. It doesn't sound much different from a chain gang song to me.

What can you tell me about the book?

It's been a great experience. I'm well into my second book already. I enjoy writing a lot. Any rocker that wants something to do should try it -- but do it by yourself, don't use a ghostwriter. That's the scariest thing I ever heard. Who would want that? Who would invite a ghost into their house?

It's just as personal as a song; there's nothing between the book and the reader. If they want to know what I'm thinking, it's all right there.

Alan Light is the author of "The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys." A regular contributor to MSN Music, he is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN, and was co-founder and editor-in-chief of Tracks. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.

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