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Neil Young: A Pop Culture Essay

1000 words - 4 pages

Pop Culture Essay

Neil Young has made a career out of writing intelligent, poetic music that has

related to a wide range of people for 40 years. His songs consist of insightful storytelling

and music that conveys the intended emotions of that song, appealing to the variety of

human emotion, thus making his music accessible to so many people. One of his

favorite themes is exposing social inequalities and injustice. In a song he released in

1970 titled "Southern Man", he sings of racial prejudice in the southern states of the

United States. More specifically he refers to the era of black slavery and the hypocrisy of

these slave traders, owners and their entire society that either supported these atrocious

practices, or merely turned a blind eye to the truth of the situation.

In the first verse of Southern Man, Neil sings "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." The vast majority of southerners during the slavery

period, and even now, are devout Christians. With this verse, the contradictions of action

versus faith are exposed, providing a basis for his argument against southern racism, and

suggesting damnation as punishment for their actions. Hypocrisy within religion has

always been a main theme surrounding social issues, as countless atrocities have been

committed on the supposed basis of religion, or despite contradiction of ones own

religion. Despite preaching higher moral values, and civilized society, these do not align

with the actions of those responsible.

The second verse provides rich, but simple imagery for the listener, enabling a

clearer presentation of the quality of life for both sides of the slave industry. "I saw

cotton and I saw black. Tall white mansions and little shacks. Southern man when will

you pay them back? I heard screamin' and bullwhips cracking." The vast difference in

living conditions is brought to light here very simplistically as the rich slave and cotton

farm owners lived in luxury, as their Negro slaves worked their land for them, forcibly if

necessary and with no retribution, nor any in sight for these gross inequalities. Even

now, nearing 150 years since slavery was abolished, relatively little in reparations have

been paid out to the families of those that suffered, or even the black community as a


Verse four, the final verse of the song, hits upon a tender note for many genuinely

racist individuals. "Lily Belle, your hair is golden brown. I've seen your black man

comin' round. Swear by god I'm gonna cut him down." This verse provides an example

of perhaps a wife, sister, or daughter, of a slave owner, who sought love from a slave.

There would have to have been extremely prejudiced racial attitudes prevalent within

slave owners for them to have been slave owners. These characteristics, not to mention

the great social disparity between owners and their...

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