Neil Young to Listeners: ‘Make Friends in Alabama’
Neil Young was on the rock and roll career path. And he was making tracks. Upon leaving Buffalo Springfield, he launched a solo career and still found time to start an on again, off again partnership with Crosby Stills and Nash. The super group glow of that association brought more attention to his solo efforts. His third album, After The Gold Rush, released little more than a year after CSNY”s Woodstock appearance, peaked at number eight in Billboard. One had to take notice. The guy was only 25 but had already produced a body of brilliant work.
In the late winter of 1972, Young delivered his long awaited (a year and a half then qualified for “long awaited”) fourth album, Harvest. There were similarities to After The Gold Rush. Most of the material was melancholy and delivered softly, although pointedly. The songs went beyond the dark moods of the previous album. There was an all-alone-late-at-night weariness about the songs, as if life’s opportunities moved on and knocked at someone else’s door. As with the previous album, the new songs had pretty and resonant melodies. The songs may have been sad but they were comforting. Most of the tracks were recorded in Nashville and in a barn at Young’s California ranch, adding to the album’s country sensibility. But this was not the world of country music that official Nashville embraced. All would not be right in the end. The listener could acknowledge the bleakness and just hum along.
It was also clear Young was not finished addressing the matter of race in the American South. So did the rocker from Winnipeg wag his finger at Southerners once again? Well, not entirely. One looked at the album’s list of songs, saw “Alabama” and knew it was a continuation of the theme covered with such fury on the previous album’s “Southern Man.” But Young’s approach was not as heated as before. He inveighed against the sins of George Wallace’s Alabama but reached out to the state as well.
“Alabama” rocks at a slower pace than “Southern Man.” The Devil is acknowledged as being in the details but the images in this song are not as torrid. The tone toward the people of Alabama is sympathetic. Yes, bad things have been done but they’re bad things the people have done to themselves as well as to others. Young sings of the weight on Alabama’s shoulders that’s breaking its back. He offers a generational appeal, referring to “the old folks tied in white ropes.” He sees the “ruin” of Alabama and even though he’s “from a new land,” he can sense what’s going wrong. He asks the people on the racial divide to shake hands; “make friends down in Alabama.” The song is as much about reconciliation as it is a review of old hatreds.
The politics of “Alabama” may have made some fans uncomfortable (not necessarily a bad thing) but politics did not keep the Harvest album from being a nationwide success. Harvest topped the Billboard album charts for two weeks. The album featured two hit singles, “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold,” which made it to number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
Speaking of uncomfortable, Neil Young was concerned that he was regarded as too mainstream. In liner notes he penned for his Decade collection, he wrote about “Heart of Gold,” saying, “This song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.” The time Young spent in the ditch made for interesting recordings. This was also when the debate over his songs of the South increased. The people debating were quite interesting themselves. That will be covered in a future posting.
Note: This story is another in the continuing series, “Southern Song of the Day.”