Pocahontas (Neil Young song)
|Song by Neil Young and Crazy Horse|
|from the album Rust Never Sleeps|
|Released||July 2, 1979|
|Rust Never Sleeps track listing|
"Pocahontas" is a song written by Neil Young that was first released on his 1979 album Rust Never Sleeps. It has also been covered by Johnny Cash, Everclear, Emily Loizeau, Crash Vegas, Gillian Welch and Ian McNabb.
Young originally recorded a version of "Pocahontas" in the mid-1970s for his planned but unreleased album Chrome Dreams, and an early recording of the song is included on Young's 2017 release Hitchhiker.
Young may have been inspired to write the song after reading Hart Crane's 1930 poem The Bridge, which Young read in London in 1971. The seventeenth-century Native American princess Pocahontas is a central character in The Bridge.
Commentators over the years have noted the song's similarity to Carole King's "He's a Bad Boy."
Lyrics and music
Rolling Stone contributing editor Rob Sheffield finds "Pocahontas" to be "an agonizingly lonely ballad." The themes of "Pocahontas" include passage of time, travel through space and companionship. Rolling Stone critic Paul Nelson claims that "Young sails through time and space like he owns them." The lyrics of "Pocahontas" primarily describe the massacre of an Indian tribe by European settlers. However, by the end of the song the lyrics have jumped to modern times, with a fictional meeting in the Astrodome between the narrator, Pocahontas and Indian rights activist actor Marlon Brando.
"Pocahontas" begins with an image that evokes "a cold breeze whistling by":
- Aurora borealis
- The ice sky at night
- Paddles cut the water
- In a long and hurried flight
It then describes the massacre. According to music critic Johnny Rogan, Young describes the tragedy with restraint. The narrator appears to be in the middle of the situation with the word "might" in the lines "They killed us in our teepee," but then undercuts that appearance with the lines "They might have left some babies/Cryin' on the ground." Rogan discusses the disorientating effect of these lines. While the tragedy is described in the first person, the word "might" also creates a more disinterested tone. The listener is also unsure whether to be relieved that the soldiers might have shown some small degree of mercy to these babies, or whether to feel even greater anger that the defenseless babies were left to probably die slowly out in the open. According to Rogan, Young's "casual" delivery adds to the horror even more.
The time period fast forwards, moving from the settlers massacring the buffalo to a bank on the corner in a single line, and then to the present day where the narrator sits in his room with an Indian rug and a "pipe to share." The following verse then provides a flashback, which Nelson calls "so loony and moving that you don't know whether to laugh or cry," and challenges the listener to try to reduce that verse to a single emotion:
- I wish I was a trapper
- I would give a thousand pelts
- To sleep with Pocahontas
- And find out how she felt
- In the mornin'on the fields of green
- In the homeland we've never seen.
Nelson and others have commented on the effect of the "bawdy pun" on sleeping with Pocahontas to "find out how she felt." Finally, in what critic Jim Sullivan calls "a biting surrealistic twist", in the last verse the narrator sits with Pocahontas and Marlon Brando in the Astrodome discussing Hollywood.
Rolling Stone critic Nelson describes "Pocahontas" as being "simply amazing, and nobody but Neil Young could have written it." Music critic Johnny Rogan called the song "one of Young's most accomplished acoustic tracks from the period and a perfect example of his ability to mix pathos and comedy." Author Ken Bielen calls it "a classic piece of music in Young's body of work. Bob Bonn of the Beaver County Times compared it unfavorably to Young's earlier song about European conquest of the Indians, "Cortez the Killer," in that the lyrics do not match the "brilliant, melancholy and haunting" quality of the earlier song, nor is Young's guitar playing as evocative. But music critic Robert Christgau counters that due to the "offhand complexity of the lyrics...'Pocahantas' makes 'Cortez the Killer' seem like a tract." Critic Dave Marsh claimed that Young "found an amusing new way to tackle his romanticized fantasies of the Indians." Jim Sullivan of Bangor Daily News calls "Pocahontas" "the most intriguing song" of Rust Never Sleeps.
A live version of "Pocahontas" was included on Young's 1997 album Year of the Horse. Everclear covered the song on their 2008 album The Vegas Years. Emily Loizeau covered the song on her 2005 album L' Autre Bout Du Monde. Gillian Welch covered the song on The Revelator Collection.
Johnny Cash, backed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, covered "Pocahontas" on his 2003 posthumous album Unearthed. Allmusic critic Thom Jurek called Cash's version "visionary" and a "sage read." Entertainment Weekly critic David Browne described it as a "quasi-psychedelic" take on Young's already surreal song.
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