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Neil Young's Use of North American History

A College Essay by Kyle Bichan

"The facts of history are bad enough;
the fictions are, if possible, worse
                - Henry James, author

Throughout the ages, societies have been fascinated with history. History reveals where societies have come from and gives insight into important figures of the past. Popular culture has embraced its roots and that is evident in its music. Iron Maiden delved into the mind of anonymous man on death row during Medieval England in Hallowed Be Thy Name. Led Zeppelin dealt with ancient Celtic history in Battle Of Evermore. U2 looked back at their violent Irish roots in Sunday Bloody Sunday. Throughout his career, Neil Young has focused on important figures and events of North American history. This is clearly shown in Cortez The Killer, Pocahontas and Southern Man. The purpose of looking back at history and setting these songs in the past is to bring attention to important events and people in history that have been forgotten or overlooked and to shed light on the darker aspects of North American history.

Hernan Cortes was born in 1485. Cortes discovered his love of exploration at the University of Salamanca. By the time he was in his twenties, Cortes had become an important figure in the European Renaissance(1). In 1519, he embarked on the conquest of the Aztec Empire, sailing from Cuba to what is now Mexico. Once there, he trekked to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, where Emperor Montezuma ruled. Cortes' arrival happened to coincide with the foreseen return of the Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl. Cortes was expecting to have to battle for power of the Aztec capital; however, when he arrived in Tenochtitlan, Emperor Montezuma believed that Cortes' arrival was the coming Quetzalcoatl, and treated Cortes as such. Cortes ruled the land, causing havoc by replacing Aztec religious images and monuments with Christian ones. Eventually a war broke out between the Aztecs and the Spaniards. In the end, Cortes vanquished Tenochtitlan, having killed all of the Aztec people in the process.

Cortez The Killer was released on Young's 1975 album, Zuma. The main point that Young is trying to get across in Cortez The Killer is that while Cortes is regarded, by the Spanish, as a great explorer who colonized the New World, there is another darker side to Cortes' legacy. The first verse of the song is an introduction to its theme. The opening lines,
"He came dancing across the water
With his galleons and guns"
are interesting because of the use of the word "dancing". Young could have written, "He sailed across the water" or "He travelled across the sea", but Young chose to use the word "dancing" specifically. The use of this word signifies that Cortes had a joyous and self-righteous attitude about him, carrying "his galleons and guns" off to conquer the New World with no problems on his mind.

The next verse,

"On the shore lay Montezuma
With his coca leaves and pearls
In his halls he often wondered
With the secrets of the world"
reveals the paradise that was the Aztec world before the arrival of Cortes and is in stark contrast to the state of the Aztec world after Cortes' reign. The third verse,
"And his subjects gathered 'round him
Like the leaves around a tree
In their clothes of many colours
For the angry gods to see"
deals with Cortes' first arrival in Tenochtitlan, when the Aztecs believed that he was the god Quetzalcoatl. The first line, "And his subjects gathered 'round him", does not signify that Montezuma's subjects gathered around Montezuma, but gathered around Cortes. Cortes described this situation in one of his letters to Spain:
"Montezuma came down the middle of this street with two chiefs, one on his right hand and the other on his left. When we met I dismounted and stepped forward to embrace him, but the two lords who were with him stopped me with their hands so that I should not touch him; and they likewise all performed the ceremony of kissing the earth. When at last I came to speak to Montezuma himself I took off a necklace of pearls and cut glass that I was wearing and placed it round his neck; after we had walked a little way up the street a servant of his came with two necklaces, wrapped in a cloth, made from red snails' shells, which they hold in great esteem; and from each necklace hung eight shrimps of refined gold almost a span in length. And after he had given me these things he sat on another throne which they placed there next to the one on which I was sitting."(2)
The next verse deals with the struggle between the Aztecs and the Spaniards. The lines,
"They offered life in sacrifice
So that others could go on"
alludes to those who fought against the Spaniards so that the future generations of Aztecs could live on without Spanish oppression. The next two verses,
"Hate was just a legend
And war was never known
The people worked together
And they lifted many stones

"They carried them to the flatlands
And they died along the way
But they built up with their bare hands
What we still can't do today"

in the same vein of the second verse, show the great Aztec civilization that existed before the arrival of Cortes. These verses bring about the idea that violence and conflict were just a thing of myth amongst the Aztec people until Cortes brought those qualities out in them in the lines, "Hate was just a legend/And war was never known." These verses also suggest that the Aztec civilization was one of the greatest in history that has yet to be surpassed, in the lines "But they built up with their bare hands/What we still can't do today."

The next verse,

"And I know she's living there
And she loves me to this day
I still can't remember when
Or how I lost my way"
is very interesting because it can be read in several different ways. One possible explanation of this song is that Young is writing about a woman that he met during his travels and misses her. However, a more plausible explanation of this verse is that Young was writing from the perspective of Cortes himself. The woman in question is Maria de Cuellar; an Aztec woman that Cortes fell in love with and eventually married. This verse suggests that Cortes was not just a ruthless savage, but a normal human that was capable of love. As well, Young suggests in the last two lines of that verse, "I still can't remember when/Or how I lost my way" that Cortes was not responsible for the actions of himself and the Spaniards. However, in the final lines of Cortez The Killer, Young does an about-face and states,
"He came dancing across the water
Cortez, Cortez
What a killer"
The effect of this is that the listener is not caught up in the legend of Cortes as the great explorer, but the reality that he was a ruthless leader who destroyed a once great civilization. In live performances of Cortez The Killer, such as the one that appears on Live Rust, Young sums up his feelings towards Cortes in one line. In Young's eyes, Hernan Cortes was a "plenty bad man".

Although the story of Pocahontas has been exaggerated and romanticized by Hollywood, and that the actual facts about her life remain sketchy, there are some aspects of Pocahontas' life that are rooted in historical fact. Pocahontas was born around 1595, in what is now Virginia. In 1607, when Englishmen landed at Jamestown, Pocahontas became attracted to one Englishman in particular, John Smith. They soon became friends. However, in 1609, John Smith was wounded by a gunpowder explosion and had to return to England. Pocahontas was told that he was dead. In 1610, Pocahontas was kidnapped by the English Captain, Samuel Argall. She was eventually returned and married an Englishman, John Rolfe, in 1614. The marriage resulted in peace between the Natives and the English. In 1616, Rolfe and Pocahontas sailed to England in order to acquire financial support for America. However, on the journey back, Pocahontas became very ill and died in 1617, at the age of 22.

Pocahontas was released on Young's 1979 album, Rust Never Sleeps. As with Cortez The Killer, Pocahontas deals with the historical struggle of the indigenous peoples of North America. Young's main goal in Pocahontas is to shed light on the injustices done to the Natives of North America and how those injustices have not been rectified to this day. The narrative in Pocahontas is told from the perspective of a present day Native North American reflecting on the past and commenting on the present situation of the Natives of North America. The first verse of Pocahontas,

"Aurora borealis
The icy sky at night
Paddles cut the water
In a long and hurried flight
From the white man to the fields of green
And the homeland we've never seen"
begins with beautiful imagery but then quickly shifts context to that of the Natives of the past who are fleeing from the Europeans. The line, "the homeland we've never seen", refers to present day Natives not being able to observe the homeland of their ancestors due to the early European settlers who stole their land and transformed the land into its present state.

The second verse,

"They killed us in our tepee
And they cut our women down
They might have left some babies
Cryin' on the ground
But the firesticks and the wagons come
And the night falls on the setting sun"
reveals the injustices done to the Natives during the time of European colonization and that theme continues into the third verse,
"They massacred the buffalo
Kitty corner from the bank"
The remainder of the third verse,
"The taxis run across my feet
And my eyes have turned to blanks
In my little box at the top of the stairs
With my Indian rug and a pipe to share"
is the narrator talking in the first person about the current situation of the Native people. The line, "taxis run across my feet", is a metaphor for the modern Western technology (i.e., a taxi), that has destroyed the homeland of his ancestors. All he is left with is a "little box at the top of the stairs" and a precious few remaining artefacts from his ancestors; those being an "Indian rug and a pipe to share".

The fourth verse of Pocahontas,

"I wish a was a trapper
I would give 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"
deals with the narrator's desire to live in the time of the ancient Native people. The implied sexuality in the lines, "To sleep with Pocahontas/And find out how she felt", is merely a metaphor for the narrator's aspiration to have a sense of what North America and the life of the Natives was like before the European settlers came. The lines, "I wish a was a trapper/I would give thousand pelts", contrasts the modern Western view of commercial values (i.e., one must give something to get something), with the Native view that the land belongs to everyone and no single person holds title to it. This theme is continued in the final verse,
"And maybe Marlon Brando
Will be there by the fire
We'll sit and talk of Hollywood
And the good things there for hire
And the Astrodome and the first tepee
Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me"
Marlon Brando is an icon of American popular culture who is sympathetic to the plight of the Native people. This was evident when Marlon Brando won an Oscar in 1972 for his performance in The Godfather. Instead of accepting the award himself, he sent Apache Sacheen Littlefeather to accept it for him. Brando did this to protest the standoff at Wounded Knee and the treatment of the Native people in film. The line, "And the Astrodome and the first tepee", refers to the technological advancement made in North America. Building structures have gone from simple tepees large enough to fit one family, to huge stadiums, like the Astrodome, capable of holding tens of thousands of people. The narrator wants to go back into the past when life was simpler.

Black slaves first appeared in North America in the early Seventeenth Century. Most were sent to cotton plantations in the Southern United States where they worked in the fields, picking cotton. In the Northern United States, labourers were free people who were paid for their work. With the American Empire expanding, disputes arose over whether newly admitted states to the union would be "free" or "slave" states. Eventually, these conflicts led to the American Civil War. In the end, the North won and slavery was abolished.

Southern Man was released on Young's 1970 album, After the Goldrush. While Cortez The Killer and Pocahontas dealt with the rights of the Native people of North America, Southern Man deals with the rights of black Americans. The first verse of Southern Man,

"Southern man better keep your head
Don't forget what your good book said
Southern change gonna come at last
Now your crosses are burning fast
Southern man"
is taken from the perspective of the narrator speaking directly to the people of the Southern United States. This verse talks about the hypocrisy that exists in the Southern United States today. The line, "Don't forget what your good book said", refers to the word of the Bible (the "good book") and Southern United States which has very strong Christian ideals. Yet the Ku Klux Klan, which is primarily based in the South, burns crosses, a symbol of Christianity, and kills people of minority groups, going against the teachings of Christianity. This verse is repeated later in the song to make the point of the hypocrisy that exists clear.

In the first lines of the next verse,

"I saw cotton and I saw black
Tall white mansions and little shacks"
Young makes good use of juxtaposition in the same way that Charles Dickens did in his historical novel about the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities. The famous opening lines, "It was the best of times it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness..." show the contrasting nature of the environment at the time and, in the first lines of the second verse of Southern Man, Young shows the contrast between the whites and blacks (i.e., the rich and the poor) at the time of slavery. In the next line of the verse, "Southern man when will you pay them back?", Young brings about the idea that the Southern people of today owe something to the black people of today for the acts of their ancestors.

The final verse of Southern Man,

"Lily Belle, your hair is golden brown
I've seen your black man comin' round
Swear by God I'm gonna cut him down!"
is taken from the perspective of and actual Southern man talking to his daughter and is a satire of the ideals of the people of the Southern United States today. This verse deals with the prejudicial attitudes towards black people that the Southern people carry today from the time of slavery. This verse shows how absurd it is to have a hateful attitude towards someone because of the colour of their skin.

History has a way of evoking strong emotions in people. People look back at history and the injustices that states, races and cultures have had to endure and feel sympathetic for them, and at the same time feel antagonistic towards the oppressors. However, much of the injustice done towards certain groups of people remains hidden because history is often written by the oppressor, not those being oppressed. Neil Young, in Cortez The Killer, Pocahontas and Southern Man, has successfully brought to light the historical injustices that have been done to the Native North Americans and the black Americans. Young has brought these issues to the masses by introducing them into popular culture. Had he not, these struggles might have gone unnoticed by the populous.

Neil Young, to this day, continues to write about issues concerning the injustices done to certain historical groups and stands as an icon of human rights activism.

End Notes

(1)Miguel Leon­Portilla, ed., The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962), p. 64.

(2)Hernan Cortes, Letters from Mexico, trans. Anthony Pagden (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 67.


Leon­Portilla, Miguel, ed., The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Boston: Beacon Press, 1962.

Cortes, Hernan. Letters from Mexico. trans. Anthony Pagden. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

Barbour, Philip L. Pocahontas and Her World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970.

De Gomara, Fancisco Lopez. Cortes. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966.

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