Neil Young Releases a Never-Before-Heard Version of His 1979 Classic, “Powderfinger”: Stream It Online

If Neil Young proved any­thing in his feud with Lynyrd Skynyrd (actu­al­ly “more like a spir­it­ed debate between respect­ful friends,” writes Ulti­mate Clas­sic Rock), it’s that Cana­di­ans could play south­ern rock just as well as the South­ern Man, an argu­ment more or less also won at the same time by The Band’s Music from Big Pink. Young’s song­writ­ing con­tri­bu­tions to the tra­di­tion are just as well rec­og­nized as “The Weight.” Fore­most among them, we must place “Pow­derfin­ger,” cov­ered by every­one from Band of Hors­es to Cow­boy Junkies (below) to Rust­ed Root to Phish, and which Young sent to Ron­nie Van Zant, who might have record­ed it for the next Skynyrd album had he not died in 1977.

South­ern rock stal­warts Dri­ve-By Truck­ers, who’ve cov­ered “Pow­derfin­ger” fre­quent­ly, often sound like the son­ic equiv­a­lent of the Young-Skynyrd debate (they even wrote a song about it), chan­nel­ing their Alaba­ma roots and Skynyrd obses­sions through the sen­si­tive, sharply observed, char­ac­ter-dri­ven nar­ra­tives Young wrote so well. “Pow­derfin­ger” was penned dur­ing the Zuma era, when Young and Crazy Horse rede­fined psy­che­del­ic Amer­i­cana with bar­room weep­ers like “Don’t Cry No Tears” and “Barstool Blues,” and wan­der­ing gui­tar epics like “Cortez the Killer” and “Dan­ger Bird.”

The com­bi­na­tion of beau­ti­ful­ly loose, sham­bling gui­tars, lop­ing rhythms, and “bizarre and bril­liant” twists on Amer­i­cana themes defined what many con­sid­er to be Young’s great­est peri­od. “Between 1969’s Every­body Knows This is Nowhere and 1978’s Rust Nev­er Sleeps Young reached a lev­el of genius that few song­writ­ers have ever topped,” Rolling Stone writes.

“Pow­derfin­ger” rou­tine­ly tops best-of-Neil-Young lists. Though intend­ed for Zuma, the song did not actu­al­ly appear until four years lat­er, open­ing the elec­tric side of the live clas­sic Rust Nev­er Sleeps. Now we can cel­e­brate the unre­leased ver­sion at the top, record­ed dur­ing the Zuma ses­sions and just post­ed to the Neil Young Archives Insta­gram page.

Not only does “Pow­derfin­ger” show Neil Young and Crazy Horse at their duel­ing gui­tar best; it is a lyri­cal mas­ter­piece of lit­er­ary com­pres­sion, with a nar­ra­tive fans have often strug­gled to piece togeth­er, and have seen as rep­re­sent­ing every­thing from the Civ­il War to Viet­nam. But the gen­er­al inter­pre­ta­tion of the folk-poet­ic vers­es goes some­thing like this, notes Rolling Stone:

It’s about a fam­i­ly of boot­leg­gers (or some oth­er kind of back­woods crim­i­nals) some­where up in the moun­tains. They’ve been through many tragedies, and now the author­i­ties are mov­ing in on them – explain­ing why the approach­ing boat has “num­bers on the side.” The 22-year-old son has been forced to deal with the sit­u­a­tion because “Dad­dy’s gone,” “broth­er’s out hunt­ing in the moun­tains” and “Big John’s been drink­ing since the riv­er took Emmy-Lou.” The young man is stand­ing on the dock with a rifle in his hand when the boat begins fir­ing, so he rais­es the gun to return fire – but it back­fires and blows his head off. 

It’s a cin­e­mat­ic, dark­ly com­ic scene con­veyed with haunt­ing pathos and con­fused urgency. The track will appear on Disc 8, Dume, of the upcom­ing box set Neil Young Archives Vol­ume II, which cov­ers the pro­lif­ic peri­od between 1972 and 1976. “This 1975 ver­sion of the song was pro­duced by Young and David Brig­gs,” Brock Theis­sen writes at Exclaim!, and fea­tures all the orig­i­nal mem­bers of Crazy Horse. You can also stream the unre­leased ear­ly “Pow­derfin­ger” at the Neil Young Archives site. Fur­ther up, see an ani­mat­ed video for an acoustic ver­sion of the clas­sic Neil Young track and hear the orig­i­nal live record­ing from Rust Nev­er Sleeps below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Who Is Neil Young?: A Video Essay Explores the Two Sides of the Ver­sa­tile Musician–Folk Icon and Father of Grunge

Neil Young Per­forms Clas­sic Songs in 1971 Con­cert: “Old Man,” “Heart of Gold” & More

The Time Neil Young Met Charles Man­son, Liked His Music, and Tried to Score Him a Record Deal

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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  • Old galoot says:

    I always fig­ured it was the sec­ond shot from the boat that got him before he pulled the trig­ger. Also I thought the boat had some­thing heav­ier than rifles. Also thought that the set­ting was uni­ver­sal (sub­sti­tute any names from any eth­nic­i­ty for Big John and Emmy Lou). But what­ev­er. It’s out­stand­ing and one of my favorite NY songs.

  • Fred Johanson says:

    I agree. He was going up against com­bat pros. They saw him mount the gun and took him out, which was stan­dard pro­ce­dure. How could he have known. What a pow­er­ful song.

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