By the fall of 1970, after the enormous success of After the Gold Rush and CSNY’s Déjà Vu, Neil Young finally had enough money to buy his dream home: a 140-acre ranch in La Honda, California that he paid for with $340,000 cash. “I just poured all my money into it so that I knew it could never be taken away from me,” he later told his father.
He spent the next year making his fourth solo album, Harvest. While most of the album was recorded in Nashville and London, he brought his new band the Stray Gators — steel-guitarist Ben Keith, bassist Tim Drummond, pianist Jack Nitzsche and drummer Kenny Buttrey — into an old barn on the ranch to cut “Words,” “Are You Ready for the Country?” and “Alabama.”
The latter song, which you can watch the group record above, is essentially a sequel to Young’s After the Gold Rush song “Southern Man,” a brutal criticism of racism in the American South. “See the old folks/Tied in white robes,” he sings. Needless to say, labeling an entire region of the country as racist upset a great many people. The most famous reaction to the songs came from Lynyrd Skynyrd, who responded with “Sweet Home Alabama”: “Well, I hope Neil Young will remember/A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” (Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant claimed that the band meant no actual ill will: “We wrote ‘Alabama’ as a joke,” he said in 1977. “We didn’t even think about it — the words just came out that way. We just laughed like hell, and said ‘Ain’t that funny’ … We love Neil Young, we love his music …”)
The Harvest footage has surfaced here and there over the years, most recently in August when Young posted some of it on his Archives website along with a personal essay describing the creation of the album and the sad fact that every member of the Stray Gators is dead. “I miss my old friends, all of whom are gone, except for the wonderful music they made while they were here together on Earth,” he wrote. “I was so lucky to know them and make our music together.”
Young recently played six East Coast shows that featured songs he hasn’t played in years, including “The Last Trip to Tulsa” and “See the Sky About to Rain.” Though he didn’t play “Alabama,” he revived the song in 2015 after a 38-year hiatus.