Photo by Carol M. Highsmith. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Journey through the Past: In the History Classroom with Neil Young
Zachary J. Lechner
For teachers who wish to enrich their students' engagement with the American past, allow me to recommend the catalog of Neil Young (b. 1945). Young is arguably one of the greatest singer-songwriters of his generation. Musically, he follows his muse wherever it leads him, without regard for genre loyalty; he has produced sounds ranging from the loud, lumbering hard rock of his work with backing band Crazy Horse, to the laid-back folk- and country-rock of his chart-topping Harvest LP (1972), to incomprehensible experiments like 2014's heavily orchestrated Storytone album.
Certainly, there is no shortage of artists whose music can help to illuminate their respective times: Stephen Foster, Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Odetta, Marvin Gaye, and Sam Cooke are just a handful. So why Young? I have found that Young's historical-minded music can prompt engagement and discussion from students in my history, American studies, and Latin American Studies classes. Like many other artists' work, much of the Canadian-born Young's music, especially from the 1960s and 1970s, serves as a time capsule of American history. Take, for example, the affecting 1970 song "Ohio" (about the shootings at Kent State), 1974's "Revolution Blues" (on the atmosphere of paranoia created by Charles Manson and his deranged followers), 1972's "The Needle and the Damage Done" and much of the 1975 album Tonight's the Night (both reflecting on the casualties of the drug culture), and "Campaigner" (1977), which features the memorable line, "Even Richard Nixon has got soul." But Young's interest in the distant (and usually American) past makes his work exceptionally beneficial for teaching students about the nature of historical interpretation.
Young is not a historian, and his works are rife with historical inaccuracies. Still, playing and discussing his music in the classroom has many payoffs. It's a "fun" way to introduce students to historical material and to talk about the responsibility, if any, that cultural producers have to accurately interpret the past. In addition, Young's tunes, with their frequent mid-song shifts in time and perspective, are particularly unique resources for acquainting students with historical inquiry, in part, as a conversation between the past and the present. Moreover, his music can provide students insight into the centrality of perception in shaping popular memories of historical events. The three songs from Young's extensive catalog that I have found to be especially useful in the classroom span the 1970s, when the artist was at his most inspired creatively: "Southern Man" (1970), "Cortez the Killer" (1975), and "Pocahontas" (1979).
"Southern Man" is Young's damning portrait of the American South and its culture of white supremacy and racial violence. Driven by a lacerating electric guitar, the piece features images of burning crosses, "bullwhips crackin'," "tall white mansions and little shacks," and religious hypocrisy. This is a gothic South: a degraded, backward place. "Southern Man" offers students an avenue for investigating how the region has been represented in popular culture, particularly during the civil rights era. Once students recognize that Young's (monolithic) South bears more resemblance to 1870 than to 1970, they can consider why this anachronistic version of the South remained culturally relevant in the late twentieth century.
Coupling the song with short excerpts—both critical and positive—from underground and mainstream publications can lend additional texture to the discussion. Following "Southern Man" with Lynyrd Skynyrd's defensive rejoinder "Sweet Home Alabama" (1974) ("Well, I hope Neil Young will remember / A southern man don't need him around anyhow") promises to familiarize students with historical (and historiographical) debates about the changing landscape of the post–World War II South and the fierce resurgence of white southern masculine pride in the 1970s. (For advanced studies, play the Drive-By Truckers' "Ronnie and Neil" (2001), a song that adds further historical context to the Young-Skynyrd "feud.") Young later admitted that he erred when defining racism as a distinctly southern trait. As he told biographer Jimmy McDonough, "It's not 'Southern Man'—it's 'White Man'. . . . It's much bigger than 'Southern Man'" (1).
That's not the only time Young has questioned the veracity of his songs' historical interpretations. When McDonough asked him about "Cortez the Killer," the artist's tribute to the Aztec people of central Mexico, he admitted, "A lotta the shit I just made up because it came to me" (2). Through Young's rose-tinted lenses, the combative society of the Aztecs becomes one in which "war was never known" and people willingly "offered life in sacrifice / So that others could go on" (in reality, many victims of human sacrifice were war captives).
Time-conscious instructors might be tempted to skip over the introduction of "Cortez the Killer" (the studio version runs seven-and-a-half minutes), but that would be a mistake. The slow burn of Young and Crazy Horse's instrumental interplay creates a mournful, mysterious backdrop that suits the lyrics perfectly. Plus, analyzing the song's sound via such questions as, "How does this music make you feel?," gives students an easy entry point into the material.
"Cortez the Killer" may be difficult to work into an U.S. history survey course, in which the discussion of the Spanish conquest of the Americas is necessarily truncated. It is certainly possible, though, to utilize it in a world civilization class after students have read about the Black Legend, the Iberian background to the conquest, and Aztec society and culture. Students are adept at recognizing how Young's fantasy of pre-Hispanic Mexico functions as an overcorrection of Spanish accounts that castigate the supposed barbarism of the Aztecs. This exercise also pushes students to understand why in the 1970s Young, like others on the political left, sometimes made understandable but misguided attempts to promote better treatment for Native Americans in the present by casting their ancestors in a fictionally idealized way.
One of the most fascinating parts of "Cortez the Killer" is its final verse, in which the narrator shifts to the first person and describes an unnamed woman, apparently a lost lover: "And I know she's living there / And she loves me to this day / I still can't remember when / Or how I lost my way." Students are typically baffled by this line and few seem convinced by the suggestion that the speaker might be conquistador Hernán Cortés describing his relationship with his Nahua mistress La Malinche, the mother of his mestizo child (and thus, symbolically, of the modern Mexican people). (One of my students once joked that the jarring shift in perspective might be attributed to Young having "switched to a different kind of drug" during the writing process.) Regardless of what they think these lines mean, analyzing the lyrics can help sharpen students' recognition both that historical interpretation is influenced by the cultural and political milieu of the interpreter and that the very nature of historical scholarship requires us to contend with multiple, frequently unresolvable, narratives.
Young's fascination with Native American culture and his interest in playing with historical perspectives is integral to one of the most intriguing of his historical compositions, "Pocahontas." The song has nothing to do with seventeenth-century Virginia. Instead, it is a reflection on the human costs involved in the settling of the American West. Driven by a lone acoustic guitar with intermittent sound effects, Young sings the first part of the song from an Indian's perspective. The speaker details the "long and hurried flight" of Native Americans "from the white man." A particularly compelling series of lines describes an assault on an Indian village ("They killed us in our tepee / And they cut our women down / They might have left some babies / Cryin' on the ground"). "Pocahontas" further details the systematic destruction of native culture, an event it juxtaposes against the rise of capitalism. "They massacred the buffalo," Young sings, "Kitty corner from the bank." It's an evocative line and one that allows students to think about the native plight and its relationship to larger economic developments in Gilded Age America. Guided by such lyrics, students see the song not merely as a denunciation of white exploitation of Native Americans, but also as a critique of American Progress.
In the final two verses of "Pocahontas," the perspective changes; the speaker curiously states his desire "to sleep with Pocahontas / And find out how she felt." Embedded in these lines (and their awkward double entendre) is a seemingly unconscious promotion of sexual imperialism, which feels incongruent with the otherwise empathetic tone of the song. Here Young seems to fall into the trap of fetishizing the very people he seeks to defend. The tune's last verse, featuring the narrator sitting around a campfire with Pocahontas and Marlon Brando, will send your students running to Wikipedia to learn about Brando's acting career—which included roles in westerns—and Indian rights activism. The trio's imagined discussion about "Hollywood / And the good things there for hire / And the Astrodome and the first tepee" brings the past and present together, extending the progress theme, with a nod to the role of technology (Houston's Astrodome) in transforming the West and the film industry's contribution to shaping our perceptions of the region and its inhabitants.
Neil Young would probably find all of this analysis a bit much. As he said in 2012, "Thinking is the worst thing for writing a song. So you just start playing and something new comes out. Where does it come from? Who cares? Just keep it and go with it" (3). He evidently seeks emotional truth in his recordings without concern for the historical inaccuracies they may contain. It is that emotional truth, after all, that makes Young's music—whether it's his calmer acoustic solo material or his highly amplified work with Crazy Horse—so compelling. At the center of this truth is the notion that perception matters and that historical narratives are multiple, ever-shifting, and always attuned to the concerns of current thinkers. For these reasons, Young's music is a worthy addition to the history classroom.
Zachary J. Lechner (Ph.D., Temple University) is a historian of post–World War II U.S. culture. He is an instructor of humanities at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, where he teaches American studies and Latin American studies.
(1) Jimmy McDonough, Shakey: Neil Young's Biography (2002), 338.
(2) Ibid., 128.
(3) Will Fifield, "Comes a Time: Neil Young Riffs on His Music and His Muse," The Costco Connection (Nov. 2012), 51.