Down by the River
|"Down by the River"|
|Single by Neil Young|
|from the album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere|
|B-side||"The Losing End" (US)
"Cinnamon Girl" alternate version (UK)
|Released||May 14, 1969|
|Recorded||January 17, 1969|
|Genre||Blues rock, hard rock|
|Neil Young singles chronology|
"Down by the River" is a song composed by Neil Young. It was first released on his 1969 album with Crazy Horse, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Young explained the context of the story in the liner notes of his 1977 anthology album Decade, stating that he wrote "Down by the River," "Cinnamon Girl" and "Cowgirl in the Sand" while delirious in bed in Topanga Canyon with a 103 °F (39 °C) fever.
Lyrics and music
The lyrics are apparently about someone who kills his lover by shooting her, like a murder ballad, or in the tradition of the mid-60s song "Hey Joe." The reason he gives for the killing is that she takes him to emotional heights from which he cannot bear to go on. Young has provided multiple explanations for the lyrics. In an interview with Robert Greenfield in 1970 Young claimed that "there's no real murder in it. It's about blowing your thing with a chick. It's a plea, a desperate cry." Introducing the song in New Orleans on September 27, 1984 Young claimed that it depicts a man "who had a lot of trouble controlling himself" who catches his woman cheating on him, then meets her down by the river and shoots her. A few hours later the sheriff comes to his house and arrests him.
"Down by the River" begins with electric guitars followed by bass guitar and snare drum before the vocals begin. The vocal sections are taken at a slow tempo. There are long instrumental passages after each of the first two refrains, during which Young plays short, staccato notes on his guitar and incorporates distortion.
Rolling Stone critic Rob Sheffield calls "Down by the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand" the "key tracks" on Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, calling them "long, violent guitar jams, rambling over the nine-minute mark with no trace of virtuosity at all, just staccato guitar blasts sounding as though Young is parachuting down into the middle of the Hatfield-McCoy feud. In one solo, the same staccato note is repeated 38 times. Allmusic critic Bill Janovitz describes the groove as "lazy, almost funky," stating that this helps partially obscure the "malevolence in its lyric." However, Janovitz goes on to note that the "very sparseness on 'Down by the River' only acts as a haunting void for its blues, like John Lee Hooker's 'Tupelo.'"
- Neil Young – electric guitar, vocal
- Danny Whitten – electric guitar, backing vocal
- Billy Talbot – bass
- Ralph Molina – drums, backing vocal
Performances and covers
Live performances vary from shorter solo acoustic performances, as on the Crosby Stills Nash & Young release Four Way Street, to twelve minutes long, as on the Live at the Fillmore East release featuring Crazy Horse. At the Rock Am Ring in Germany in 2002, Young, backed by Booker T Jones, Donald "Duck" Dunn, and Frank Sampedro, played "Down by the River" for over 27 minutes. At Farm Aid 1998, Young joined Phish—who headlined that year's festival—during the band's jam out of "Runaway Jim", leading them into a 20-minute version of "Down by the River". The Boston-based band SHED recorded a live 33 minute version that was included on their EP "5 Sticks", recorded in August 2011.
Guitarist Roy Buchanan recorded a cover version of "Down by the River" on his 1971 album Buch and the Snakestretchers, and on his 1978 album You're Not Alone. The Meters, The String Cheese Incident, Dave Matthews Band, Indigo Girls, Low/Dirty Three, Tall Firs, McKendree Spring, Michael McDonald, The Mother Hips, The Sheepdogs, Norman Whitfield & The Undisputed Truth and Buddy Miles also cover this song. The song appears on the Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds 2007 live release Live at Radio City. Robert Plant borrows the line, "Be on my side, I'll be on your side, there is no reason for you to hide," in the live versions of "Dazed and Confused" and "How Many More Times" recorded in 1970 at Royal Albert Hall (from the "Led Zeppelin DVD").
Canadian musician Edwin borrows elements of the song in his 1999 song, "Trippin'".
Big Mama Thornton recorded a cover version of "Down by the River" on her 1973 album Saved.
- Rogan, Johnny (2000). Neil Young, Zero to Sixty: A Critical Biography. Music Sales Distributed. p. 187. ISBN 0-9529540-4-4.
- The Mojo Collection: 4th Edition. Canongate. 2007. p. 164. ISBN 9781847676436.
- Williamson, N. (2002). Journey Through the Past: The Stories Behind the Classic Songs of Neil Young. Hal Leonard. p. 27-29. ISBN 9780879307417.
- Bielen, K. (2008). The Words and Music of Neil Young. Praeger. pp. 11–12. ISBN 0275999025.
- "An Introduction to "Down by the River", by Neil Young".
- Sheffield, R. (2004). Brackett, N. & Hoard, C., ed. The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (4th ed.). Fireside. p. 899. ISBN 0743201698.
- Janovitz, B. "Down by the River". Allmusic. Retrieved 2012-08-06.
- "HyperRust: Tour 2002". HyperRust. Retrieved 2009-05-12.