Out of the blue

And into the black -- renaissance via Neil Young's Archives
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a&eletters@sfbg.com

ESSAY This is the briar patch, the place from which all funky thangs flow. On the anniversary of the death of my Afro-Algonquin Southern (re)belle mother, my bare feet are planted in the dirt. Since it's also the last days of Black Music Month, I am out of my head, thoughts swirling across the amber waves pondering the intersections of family, flesh, and funk, questing after new sounds and cultural concepts even as I journey into my sonic past. The last time it seems I was so enmeshed and empowered by cultural renaissance was just over 21 years ago, when Neil Young first heralded his now released Archives project, and I embraced the notion that Neil Young's work is black music.

My late mother was a restless adventurer born in Virginia — and I perceive Neil Young as the same via osmosis from his maternal grandfather, Bill Ragland, a Virginian émigré to the Great North and scion of the Southern planter class from Petersburg. The Neil Young I love most is the direct heir of aspects of Daddy Ragland's personal lore: he had the first radio and gramophone in Winnipeg, Canada; he fiercely retained his American citizenship while big pimpin' in Manitoba (foreshadowing his grandson's famous Canadian retentions despite residing in California).

Daddy Ragland boasted that his grandfather had freed the enslaved Africans on the family plantation. But he was also descended from the original British invaders who established Virginia Colony, destroying my people's lifeways and ecology in process, setting precedents for America's current crises around violence, resources, and the environment. The glories and tensions in Young's family fables would appear to be the benefactor of much of his catalog's leading lights: "Southern Man," "Cortez the Killer," "After the Gold Rush," "Country Girl," "Pocahontas," "Here We Are In the Years," "Alabama," "Broken Arrow," "Powderfinger," and "Down By the River."

Young's internal narrative of ur-Americana (literally carried on the blood) is enacted again and again and refashioned throughout Reprise's 10-disc Neil Young Archives — Vol. 1 (1963-1972), a collection that traces his odyssey from Ventures acolyte and early earnest folkie to embryonic trickster of eco-metal. The epic nature of Young's work, akin to a late modern, machine age substitute for Greek myth — at least for the hippie, Coastopian jet-set — was once lost on me. The voice beaming over the radio waves in "Helpless" and "Sugar Mountain" was repellent to these ears, raised in the 1970s when Mother Nature was on the run and the last universally-recognized golden era of black music abounded with diverse male songbirds (Ronnie Dyson, Carl Anderson) and badass lovemen (Teddy Pendergrass, Eddie Levert). But one day, after yet another wearisome visit to a coffeehouse festooned with Harry Chapin songs and some showoff girl's fey rendition of "Helpless," I encountered three Neil Young masterpieces that forever altered my hearing: "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing," "Broken Arrow," and "Cinnamon Girl." I became a Buffalo Springfield devotee for life.

What also went down? Somehow, pre-Web and locked away in the wilds with limited resources, I discovered my favorite bit of rock trivia: Neil Young was in a band with Rick James signed to Motown for a seven-year deal, the Mynah Birds. Young's engagements with psych, punk, and grunge are well-documented — even if most shirk the challenge of unpacking his electro output — but the lurking presence of the funk in his aesthetic is often ignored.

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