Helpless (song)

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Song by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
from the album Déjà Vu
ReleasedMarch 11, 1970
RecordedNovember 7, 1969
GenreFolk rock, country rock
LabelAtlantic Records
Songwriter(s)Neil Young
Producer(s)Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

"Helpless" is a song written by Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young, recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY) on their 1970 album Déjà Vu.

"Helpless" was originally recorded with Young's band Crazy Horse in early 1969, before Young's new CSNY bandmates (he had joined the then-trio in mid-1969) convinced him it would suit them better. The song was simple, at its core effectively the repetition of one melody over a descending D-A-G chord progression. The group found difficulty deciding on an arrangement, and many different versions of the song were recorded before the group finally decided on the slow-paced version that appeared on the album.

On this final version Young was in the foreground, singing the verses and the chorus with his bandmates providing the "helpless" refrain, while the instrumentation came in the form of acoustic guitar, electric guitar (with volume pedal and tremolo), piano, bass and drums.

It became one of the most revered songs from the Déjà Vu album (Q magazine's Peter Doggett regards it as "one of (the album's) showpieces"), and has remained a live favorite of Young's for over forty years. An alternate mix of the CSNY version was released on Neil Young's The Archives Vol. 1 1963–1972. It features Young playing harmonica and electronically treated percussion.

Young played the song with The Band in the group's final concert with its original lineup, on American Thanksgiving Day 1976 at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom, with Joni Mitchell providing backing vocals offstage.[1] The performance was featured in the Martin Scorcese concert film The Last Waltz.

The "town in North Ontario" referred to in the opening line of the song is often presumed to be Ontario native Young's hometown; Young himself cleared up the rumors in a 1995 Mojo interview with Nick Kent:

"Well, it's not literally a specific town so much as a feeling. Actually, it's a couple of towns. Omemee, Ontario, is one of them. It's where I first went to school and spent my 'formative' years. Actually I was born in Toronto..."

Omemee lies just west of Peterborough and 128 km (approx. 80 miles) northeast of Toronto.


Additional musicians

Appearances in media[edit]

It appeared on the background of Paul Schrader's 1979 crime drama, Hardcore, in a scene filmed in Los Angeles.

Cover versions[edit]

  • In 2004, Canadian band Cowboy Junkies recorded a studio version for 'neath Your Covers, Part 1, a bonus disc of covers that accompanied some orders of their album One Soul Now; a live version appears on their 2006 album Long Journey Home.

Live cover performances[edit]

  • Ryan Adams performed a duet version with Gillian Welch at Nashville's Exit/In[3]
  • Over the Rhine recorded a live version during a winter 2001 concert at Cincinnati's Taft Theatre, which was released on the band's 2002 rarities compilation, "The Cutting Room Floor."
  • The Spring Standards & Joey Ryan recorded a live version.
  • Elton John, Leon Russell, Sheryl Crow and Neko Case performed a version in 2010.
  • Case/Lang/Veirs performed a version at the Ryman Theater, Nashville in August 2016.
  • Perfume Genius performed a version at the Imperial, Vancouver in July 2017.
  • k.d. lang performed a version at Toronto's Massey Hall in September 2017 as part of Neil Young's induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.


  1. ^ Kinos-Goodin, Jesse (November 24, 2016). "10 things you should know about the Band's Last Waltz".
  2. ^ Tahlia Rose (13 March 2011). "Helpless - One for the Road Tour with Old Man River & Passenger". YouTube. Retrieved 14 December 2017.
  3. ^ "". Retrieved 14 December 2017.

External links[edit]