“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming.”
To baby boomers this is a familiar lyric from one of the most influential political songs of their youth. “Ohio,” as the song is simply titled, is an elegy for four student protesters who were shot dead by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University in 1970 National Guard at Kent State University in 1970. It is an anti-government rallying cry for a generation of Americans that was penned and sung by a Canadian — Neil Young.
For 45 years Young has been in the business of periodically entering big political debates and writing conscience-ridden anthems aimed primarily at his adopted America. He does so sparingly, when he is truly enraged by injustices he sees around him. Mostly he’s been on the right side of history. Almost always his protest songs have been influential and popular if not major hits.
It was Neil Young who reminded Americans that official racism remained alive and well in the south years after the passage of the Civil Right and Voting Rights Acts. His two brilliant anti-racist tunes of the early 1970s — “Alabama” and “Southern Man” — shone a bright light on racism in the age of George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama. When Young reminded Alabamans that “your Cadillac has a got a wheel in the ditch and a wheel on the track,” he had more impact with one sentence than many in the civil rights movement had with thousands of words.
Fast forward to 1980s America, a period symbolized by Gordon Gekko, the fictional character in the film Wall Street, who famously summed up his version of the American dream with the phrase “greed is good, greed works.” The Reagan and Bush administrations were in power then and believed America’s less fortunate citizens could be best helped through “trickle-down economics” rather than government programs.
Young was evidently incensed with this thinking and responded with “Rockin’ in the Free World,” a blistering anthem that paints a vivid picture of a decaying, soulless survival of the fittest America. Again, Young summed up the state of affairs with one powerful line — “We got a thousand points of light for the homeless man” — making a mockery of the metaphor George H.W. Bush used to convey the notion that clubs and community organizations offered the road to a “kinder, gentler America.” “Rockin’ in the Free World” reached No. 2 in the U.S. charts, is now considered a classic and still receives regular airplay.
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In 1985, amidst a financial crisis among American farmers, Young spearheaded Farm Aid, a benefit concert designed to raise money and awareness for the beleaguered family farmer. As well as producing early legislative changes in Washington to provide better financial support to small farms, Farm Aid became an annual political statement and is now entering its 30th year.
Today Young is outraged again, only this time it’s with his home country. He hates the oilsands. He thinks it’s the world’s greatest environmental disaster and he believes the health of First Nations peoples, who live near the projects, is threatened.
On a recent visit to northern Alberta, Young gave voice to these opinions. The oil industry and their supplicants summarily dismissed his views. The aging rock star was said to have his facts wrong (even though we lack a widely accepted set of facts about the environmental and health effects of the oilsands). He was characterized as just another in a long list of celebrity activists who uncritically accept the views of those opposed to the oilsands.
The oil industry and its supporters have made a strategic error here. Young is vastly different than other celebrities who have shown their opposition to the oilsands. Young has been a household name in Canada and America (where he is probably thought by most people to be American) for two generations. Musically and politically, he is an icon to the baby boom generation. He is the father of Generation X’s signature “grunge rock” genre, and he remains influential on contemporary musicians as a beacon of originality, professional integrity and longevity.
Big oil has spent tens of millions of dollars in advertisements and public relations gimmicks to convince Canadians and Americans of the unambiguous merits of the oilsands. This has been done in part to pressure the Obama administration to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline project. Whatever positive effect this expensive PR effort has yielded, Neil Young could wipe out in an afternoon of inspired song writing.
The message to Big Oil should be clear. When an angry Neil Young shows up on your doorstep, don’t dismiss him the way you do all your other critics. Give him the respect he deserves and consider his views carefully, lest he train his formidable lyrical and melodic arsenal on you.