Neil Young’s new album, his first with Crazy Horse in nine years, is a raw, heavily amplified interpretation of classic American folk songs of the kind many of us learned in elementary school, like “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” and “Oh My Darling, Clementine.”
But while the guitar chords may be distorted, the lyrics are not. As Young told Terry Gross this week on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” he wants listeners to hear the words as they were originally written. So, for example, he has restored the scathing protest-song elements of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” And in “Clementine” he sings a verse teachers didn’t want innocent little children to hear: “How I missed her, how I missed her, how I missed my Clementine. So I kissed her little sister, and forgot my Clementine.”
One of the best tracks on the new album is a rollicking version of “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.” (See the video above.) In the “Fresh Air” interview, Young explains the origin of his arrangement:
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.
Young was first exposed to a few of the songs on Americana when he heard Tim Rose and The Thorns play in Canada in 1964. He was deeply impressed by Rose’s rocking arrangement of “Oh, Susanna” (another song on the new album). “I saw what he did to ‘Oh, Susanna,’ and thought, wow, I could do that to a lot of these songs,” Young told Gross. “And that’s a really cool thing to do to them, because it gives them a new life. Plus I have drums in my band, and the Thorns didn’t have drums, so I knew we could really rock these things.”