Neil Young’s Americana

Neil_AmericanaIn 1985, after two years of commuter college life at Penn State’s Abington campus, I headed to the Motherland – University Park in State College – to finish my studies. Among the first things I did: sign up to deejay on the student-run college radio station, which at the time was WPSU-FM. The slots for the shows that most interested me (rock and oldies) were already filled by returning talent, so I took what I could get: the Folk Show, which aired from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday. The hours were broken into shifts – 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. or 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. – and the music …

It’s not that I didn’t like folk music. I was ignorant about it. Though I’d seen (and briefly met) Peter, Paul & Mary at a Walter Mondale rally the year before, my notion of the form basically began with Bob Dylan and the folk-rock boom of the 1960s and ended with the singer-songwriters of the early ‘70s, many of whom got their start on the coffeehouse/folk-club circuit. So I learned as I went, immersing myself in the various folk styles, from the expected (Woody Guthrie) to the urban (Suzanne Vega) to bluegrass, progressive bluegrass, Appalachian and more. Of course, I also played folk-rock past (Buffalo Springfield) and present (Long Ryders), and threw in esoteric non-folk fare that, at least to my ears, fit with the proceedings – Elvis Costello’s rendition of “ A Good Year for the Roses” and Neil Young’s take on “Home on the Range” are two examples.

I also made my share of gaffes and mistakes. The funniest: I introduced Dylan’s “Lay, Lady Lay” from his 1976 Hard Rain live album, left the studio for a bathroom break only to return to find the song skipping at what must have been the 50-second mark: “Lay, lady…” SKIP … “Lay, lady…” SKIP. I grabbed the next LP from the stack, plopped it on the second turntable and dropped the needle, not even looking at the song – and Pete Seeger’s rendition of “We Shall Overcome” kicked in!

Talk about your serendipitous moments.

I thought of those years this past week while enjoying Americana, the first Neil Young and Crazy Horse album since 2003. At first glance, the concept seems somewhat bizarre – nine time-worn folk songs, plus the Silhouettes’ “Get a Job” and the traditional “God Save the Queen” redone in the classic Crazy Horse style. That means, on some songs, heavy bass and drums laying down thud-thick grooves while Young’s guitar jukes and jabs, the collective stretching the melodies until they’re about to break then snapping them back into place. “Oh Susannah” and “Jesus’ Chariot (She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain)” are good examples of that. I would have played the songs on my show without a second thought.

But how would the listeners react? I wasn’t playing music into a void, after all. On the early shift, which I generally worked, they were a mix of Deadheads who’d yet to turn in from the night before, actual non-student adults easing into their day and, by about 8:30 a.m., hardcore folkies who – laidback stereotype aside – could be rather mean. Once, a woman called to complain (in rather uncivil language) about the Joni Mitchell song I’d just introduced. I placated her with “It Could Have Been Me” by Holly Near, which was next on my pre-planned playlist, anyway. But for every one like her, there were two or three who requested songs I’d played the last time I was on. (Not that the phone rang off the hook – it was more like one call an hour, and more often than not from one of the aforementioned Deadheads who wanted to hear a tune from Workingman’s Dead or American Beauty.)

As a result, I’m fairly certain the Deadheads and non-student adults would have embraced the songs with open ears, if not open hearts. As for the folk aficionados? Some would undoubtedly have been turned off by the ominous rumblings that underscore much of the music while others would appreciate the way Young and the Horse inject new life into the moribund songs many of us sang in kindergarten and camp. It’s for the latter reason, in fact, that I heartily recommend it to one and all.

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