Nothing says ‘festive’ like a hearty reckoning with America’s ugly racial legacy. It’s hard to say how much one protest song can turn people’s minds where social issues are concerned, but sometimes it takes a Canadian dude to point out some of the massive flaws in the American “way of life” in such a way that dorm-room rock fans are moved to care. Young, like many foreign visitors to the United States, was horrified by the blatant hypocrisy between the party line about “freedom” and “equality” and the all the virulent entrenched racism. For Young, it was the beginning of a lifetime of activism, across a very broad spectrum of issues. He saw early on that his visibility and wealth were not only an opportunity, but a responsibility, to create changes for good. He has been able to use his money in concrete ways, such as when, seeing a lack of educational resources for his disabled son, he founded a school for children with disabilities. Fixing a centuries-old culture of systematic racism is not as easy as building a school, and is beyond the good intentions of one man – even one with a lot of money – but in this department the role of someone like Neil Young is just to be enough of a figurehead to inspire people to listen, learn more, join the fight in whatever small way they can, teach their peers and pass their values to their children. It’s just a nudge to move people’s minds and hearts in the right direction. It’s not enough on its own, but it’s not supposed to make change all on its own. It’s supposed to unite the likeminded and inspire them to make a movement powerful enough to really affect the culture.
It’s a very tough field, but it’s decided; this is my favorite Neil Young song. It is, I think, a very profound message, delivered in the structure of a nursery rhyme. I’ve always understood it as a simpler statement of the famous bit in Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H. (‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.) Tennyson’s poem, obviously, is the more refined iteration of the sentiment, but one can’t go around quoting Tennyson, not least because one has never read Tennyson and thus doesn’t understand the context of the lines. You can quote Neil Young, though, because Neil Young doesn’t offer more than you can understand. In a barrage of dumb platitudes that comes at you when you’re feeling your lowest, it’s hard to find words that you can actually hold on to. To me, these lines – so simple, so basic – have always been rewarding to dwell upon.