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Song You Need To Know: Neil Young ‘Alabama’ (Live)

In 1973, a Canadian singer/songwriter asked his Southern neighbors WTF was up with their state. 46 years later, the question persists.

INGLEWOOD, CA - APRIL 1:  Canadian musician Neil Young performs with his band The Stray Gators at the Forum on April 1, 1973 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Neil Young had already decided to release Tuscaloosa — a primo live set documenting a hot February, 1973 gig with his then-current band the Stray Gators — when Alabama’s current governor signed a new anti-abortion law on May 15, and when GOP sleazebag Roy Moore threatened to re-up his Senate bid soon thereafter. The LP’s timing, it turns out, was serendipitous.

Unlike the boozy, unhinged performance on last year’s vault release Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live, recorded seven months later with a different group, this is laser-focused Young, roughing up songs from his 1972 set Harvest, a #1 pop LP in both the U.S. and the U.K. that elevated him to a level of fame he wasn’t especially keen on. This show also introduced gnarlier songs from the yet-to-be-released Time Fades Away (notably the autobiographical “Don’t Be Denied”).

But the money shot is Harvest‘s “Alabama,” Young’s alternately questioning, pleading and raging missive to a problematic state that, at the time, was still being run by Governor George Wallace, whose racist ’72 presidential campaign had been gaining strength when an assassin’s bullets took him out of the race, if not out of office. “Oh Alabama — can I see you and shake your hand?,” Young beckons, in what seems a sincere gesture, wanting to “make friends in Alabama.” Unlike his early indictment “Southern Man,” the mood here — with Young’s electric guitar glinting alongside Jack Nietzche’s hammering piano chords and Ben Keith’s snaky pedal-steel coils — is less about division than forging progressive coalition, even as Young targets a legacy that includes the Klan (“old folks/tied in white robes”). “What are you doin, Alabama?/ You’ve got the rest of the union to help you along. What’s going wrong?,” he asks. Sometimes it takes a Canadian to zero in on American truth.

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