|Song by Neil Young|
|from the album Harvest Moon|
|Producer(s)||Neil Young, Ben Keith|
"Unknown Legend" is a song written by Neil Young that was first released on his 1992 album Harvest Moon. Although it was not released as a single, it reached #38 on the Billboard Magazine Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.
Music and lyrics
Although "Unknown Legend" was not released until 1992, it was written earlier, closer to the release of Young's 1978 album Comes a Time, and several critics have noted a similarity between the style of "Unknown Legend" and the material on Comes a Time, particularly the song "Motorcycle Mama." Allmusic critic Matthew Greenwald describes the song as being based on a "simple, folksy guitar riff and melody." As with several other songs on Harvest Moon, Linda Rondstadt provided backup vocals in the refrains. Ben Keith plays pedal steel, in a performance that Young biographer Jimmy McDonough describes as providing "proud but sad" accents.
The lyrics describe a woman who had worked in a diner and rode a Harley Davidson, but now is raising two children. The lyrics were inspired by multiple people. Nigel Williamson feels that the lyric about how the woman used to work in a diner was inspired by Young's first wife Susan Acevedo and that the lyrics about an "unknown legend" who is raising two kids but still has "the far away look in her eyes" were inspired by his later wife Pegi Young, and music critic Johnny Rogan agrees that the character described by the lyrics seems to be a combination of the two. Young biographer Glen Boyd similarly sees a portrait of Pegi in the lyrics about working in a diner and raising two kids, as well as in a line about "her long blonde hair flowin' in the wind." Nonetheless, Young has described his inspiration as being more expansive, stating:
It's inspired by some people I know and some people I don't know and all kinds of things put together...They're just pictures, people's lives. A lot of the common thing is survival, not losing what it is you were when you were young, but take it with you, take it with you into your own age. Don't leave it behind.
Allmusic critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine considers "Unknown Legend" to be one of Young's best songs, describing it as "lovely." McDonough describes it as "perhaps the empathetic portrait of a woman [Young has] ever created. Greenwald calls the arrangement "exquisite" and comments how the lyrics provide a "clear" and "cinematic" picture of the female protagonist.
Young performed "Unknown Legend" for his 1993 MTV Unplugged concert and it was included on his Unplugged album. For the Unplugged concert, Astrid Young and Nicolette Larson performed the backing vocal that Rondstadt performed on the Harvest Moon album. Young later played the song live on his 2015 tour.
- Williamson, N. (2002). Journey Through the Past: The Stories Behind the Classic Songs of Neil Young. Hal Leonard. p. 128. ISBN 9780879307417.
- Rogan, Johnny (1996). The Complete Guide to the Music of Neil Young. Omnibus Press. p. 145. ISBN 978-0711953994.
- Greenwald, Matthew. "Unknown Legend". Allmusic. Retrieved 2019-01-20.
- Bielen, K. (2008). The Words and Music of Neil Young. Praeger. pp. 74, 77. ISBN 9780275999025.
- McDonough, Jimmy (2003). Shakey. Anchor. pp. 520, 662. ASIN B000Q67KGU.
- Boyd, G. (2012). Neil Young FAQ. Backbeat Books. ASIN B008RYZ7WM.
- Downing, David (1994). A Dreamer of Pictures: Neil Young, the Man and His Music. Da Capo. p. 219. ISBN 9780306806117.
- Greene, Andy (March 9, 2016). "Readers' Poll: The 10 Best Post-1970s Neil Young Songs". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2019-01-20.
- "Neil Young Chart History: Mainstream Rock Songs". Billboard Magazine. Retrieved 2019-01-20.
- Erlewine, S.T. "Harvest Moon". Allmusic. Retrieved 2019-01-20.
- Ruhlmann, William. "Unlugged". Allmusic. Retrieved 2019-01-20.