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Powderfinger by Neil Young

Album: Rust Never SleepsReleased: 1978
  • There's no small controversy over the meaning of this song. Some think it is set during the Civil War, with the attackers being Union soldiers. Others say that the "White Boat" is actually a Coast Guard Cutter, and the family being attacked are involved in drug running or operating an illegal distillation business.

    Young himself might not know. He wrote two other songs around this time that were also filled with imagery from early America: "The Old Homestead" and "Captain Kennedy." He told the New Musical Express: "Those songs are like a landscape, I don't think with those songs – I get myself to a certain place, open up and they just come to me."
  • Young offered this song to Lynyrd Skynyrd, but they never recorded it. Skynyrd and Young have a history of mutual admiration that is often misunderstood, as "Sweet Home Alabama" is sometimes thought to contain a dig at Young ("I hope Neil Young will remember, a southern man don't need him around anyhow"). Any "feud" was good-natured - the line in "Sweet Home Alabama" was really Skynyrd making the point that not everyone from the South is a regressive redneck.

    In 1977, the band's plane crashed, killing their lead singer, guitarist and a backup singer. It's possible that they would have recorded "Powderfinger" for their next album, but after the crash, Young decided to record it himself and included it on his Rust Never Sleeps album.
  • Young recorded this with Crazy Horse. It was the first time since 1975 that he had recorded with the band.
  • This starts the electric side of Rust Never Sleeps. The first side of the album (or first five songs on the CD), are acoustic.
  • Powderfinger are an Australian rock band, originally from the city of Brisbane in the state of Queensland. They started out playing music from other bands like The Doors and Led Zeppelin. They also played Neil Young songs, and got their name from this song. Double Allergic (1996) was their breakthrough album in Australia, particularly because of the singles "Pick You Up" and "D.A.F" (which was named because of the first three guitar chords of the song).

    When they were dating, Australian Mary Donaldson gave Prince Frederick of Denmark some of Powderfinger's music because it was her favorite Australian band, and he hadn't heard it before. They later married, making her Australia's first princess. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Eliza - Sydney, Australia
  • The song's title is directly referenced in the line "Shelter me from the powder and the finger." This can be read as a critique of the prevalence of violence in American society.
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Comments: 52

This is just Americana little guy against the gov. There is no more. People trying to love and live free and don't understand when they're messed with. I am like Neil from Canada where we still live like that.Cliff Hanger - Toronto, On
On the acoustic version he doesn't say "red men run son", he says "red meant run son". The same meaning as "red means run son" only in a different tense. Sorry, but I still haven't found an interpretation of this line that I'm comfortable with. And I disagree with the notion of his musket blowing up or back firing in his face and absolutely disagree with him shooting himself. "When the first shot hit the dock, I saw it coming", and seeing the shot fired, he instinctively "raised my rifle to my eye" to aim and return fire just before the round hit and exploded.Jeff - Rock Stream, Ny
Much has been said about the historical context. It feels as if it's taken from a real incident. My feeling has always been that it's a self-sufficient family living out in the wilderness and perhaps involved in something considered illegal by the authorities, for example making moonshine. They've had a previous brush with the law and now the authorities have gotten serious about imposing law on them. I have a different take on "Red means run, son, numbers add up to nothing," That feels like a father telling his son with some bravado that when you shoot someone and the others see blood, they will run--no matter how many of them
there are, you can turn them back. (Just like if there are a group of guys and you punch one out, the rest will back off). Maybe the father had a previous battle with the authorities or was in the Civil War and experienced that
in battle, but he has that cockiness. The son doesn't have that same confidence. He's always had Dad, brothers, Big John, but now he has to step
up and defend the home himself. I think the comment made above that "my face splashed in the sky" is him falling into the water after being shot
is a very nice interpretation. I don't accept that he shoots himself with a backfire. I don't think that suits the romantic feeling of the song to have it
end that way. I think that bullets are flying in fast and furious as he tries futilely to fight back and one hits him right as he raises his rifle. Anyway,
that's just my take on it, but I'm surprised that "red means run, son" is interpreted so many ways, but no one seems to hear it like I do. Thought
there would be someone who heard it the way I did. Don't think every song has to be interpreted as an inside reference to drugs, though, and I
don't think great artists write a song that only has such a narrow meaning.
Ag - Philadelphia, Pa
I've always believed it to be an anti-war songKristina - Salt Lake City, Ut
I don't know how old the comments above are, so hope somebody is still interested. I have always assumed (knowing the old saying that when I assume I make an ass out of u and me) that this song involved an approach by a British boat in the War of Independence. I took the symbolism of the very organised boat (white, numbers, gun, man on rail) to indicate a British ship which at the time were considered to be state of the art - and I took 'Red means run, son, numbers add up to nothing' to mean however many redcoats you're up against they are so well drilled and efficient that you should run, no matter what numbers you have up against them.
Now that I've read the opinions above, I see that my assumption was naive, but I'm surprised that nobody mentioned the possibility, if only to argue against it.
Peter - Adelaide, Australia
I disagree this was Civil War era. Several things are wrong for that. One is the "big red beacon". Would not have existed in that era. White boat. ..much to noticeable for a wartime craft. Numbers on the side...nope, might have had a name in that era but not numbers that could be read a mile away. Making big waves. That refers to the bow wave. Takes lots of horsepower which they didn't have back then.

I like the acoustic version much better than either of the others. Different lyrics in a couple of lines too, which I think are likely relevant. Instead of "red means run" he says "red man run" in that version. Also in the acoustic version he says...never stopped to wonder why, then I saw a flash and my face splashed in the sky.

I'm pretty sure this song is about a backwoods family, likely NA, living on a river, also likely in the south...but there are mountains near by. Probably involved in some illegal activity that's gotten the attention of some authority. The narrator in the song has been abandoned to face the music alone...maybe by circumstance or maybe intentionally. he sees the threat, is indecisive, gets fired on and then reacts by starting to shoot back. Then he's either hit in the face by the next shot from the boat (big gun, not just a rifle...small cannon) or his gun blows up in his face. I prefer the rifle blowing up line...works best with the closing verse. Shelter me from...a plea for safety from the awful results of one human shooting another. Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger...he was just doing what was right from his position in life. Resisting an attack on the home place.
Wes - Walton, Wv, Wv
Thanks for the insight Jack form Dauphin. I had heard about this, but did not know the details of these relocations. This seems the most logical setting for the song's events. The song's message is universal to all times.Bob - Little Rock, Ar
Coast Guard patrol boats and ships are white (other work boats are black), during Prohibition Era they only had numbers painted on the bow, we enforce US Laws on navigable rivers throughout the US, have since 1790. We in the US Coast Guard, see this as a description of us, the CG was heavy on enforcement during Prohibition (tho' it must have really bothered those formerly hard-drinkin' sailors!) We usually fire warning shots, after hailing someone over loudspeaker, then more shots..I like the song, even if Coasties are the bad guys.
Not a lot of songs with us mentioned..
Rob - Tacoma, Wa
It's set in the early 1980's, when LA Count Marshals repossessed Neil's yacht. Emmy Lu was one of Neil's runaway prostitute groupie girlfriends. She was an early Springsteen fan who found "The River" so ponderous and pretentious she killed herself. "Big John" is Jon Landau, who blamed himself for "The River"'s flaws that so anguished Emmy Lu. "Red" (means run) refers to Red Buttons one of Neil's neighbors in Malibu. Red in his later years was a fitness freak who used to drop by every morning to drag Young out of his drug-induced stupor and force him to jog on the beach for a certain number of minutes, generally only four, which was more than enough for Neil. Thus, "Red means run, son, numbers add up to nothing" is pretty self-explanatory and not at all the gratuitous hatchet job that Rolling Stone thought it was.Tom - Los Angeles, Ca
I believe the history is a play on themes, and this song is about heroin use. red means run, when blood is drawn. numbers add up to nothing, numbers on a syringe are insignificant, compared to the amount and strength of the drug. White boat, of course.obvious is the powder pushed by the finger.hunting is the act of trying to cop drugs,and the river taking Emmy Lou is an overdose. when the first "shot" hit the deck I saw it coming. blacking out, it all fits heroin lifestyle and cultureKeith - Centerport, Ny
This song is clearly about the Canadian Government "rounding" up the native kids for the numerous residential schools built to assimilate the "Indians"... remember neil grew up in Winnipeg (arguably the central organizational point for this ill-fated scheme), where government boats went north up the Red River and onto Lake Winnipeg and points north to bring all children between the ages of 5-16 south to the church run residential schools...gutting the reserves of the next generation of children. The reference to "look out momma" is obvious as was father hunting in the mountains likely with the younger children in tow so they wouldn't be taken away. He just turned 22 and left to protect his family...the Prime Minister of Canada has just recently apoligized for the many atrocities associated with this horrific government experiment...thank-you neil young for the great song!Jack - Dauphin, Mb
Oh, lighten up, Eve(n). I actually like the song.Mike - Matawan, Nj
Oh my gosh mike, you are just sooo funny! If you dont like the song, then just refrain from commenting on it at all! The rest of us (with real musical taste) enjoy this Neil Young Classic!Evan - San Clemente, Ca
Hey Evan!!! I heard this song was only written 85.6235% for Lynard Skynard (not offered to them as a gift in lieu of dental insurance). They asked Neil to write them a song while he was hopped up on airplane glue and this is the crap he turned out!!! Oh, the other 14.3765 was for Devo.Mike - Matawan, Nj
This song was actually 100% written for Lynard Skynard (not offered to them as a gift). They actually asked Neil to write them a song for their album and this is what they got!Evan - San Clemente, Ca
This song was actually 100% written for Lynard Skynard (not offered to them as a gift). They actually asked Neil to write them a song for their album and this is what they got!Evan - San Clemente, Ca
I think Robert from Philly gets it about right. Young left the specific details out for a reason, he did not intend the listener to get hung up about this being period song or a song about a specific event. Over analysis does not add anything to the meaning of the song.

It is song of mood and emotion. In a nutshell, the ill-prepared innocent is called to face unstoppable monster (ie the government, corporations, imperialism, "the Man", the establishment - take your pick) with awful consequences. The specific locale is unimportant. I tend to think Young presents the narrator as so young, or even mentally retarded or undeveloped; he his incapable of dealing rationally with the situation. He responds by shooting at the boat, the only response he can muster.

That said, I will speculate "Red means run, son, numbers add up to nothin'" is simply saying trust your instincts over analysis. "Then I saw black, And my face splashed in the sky." Is his ultimate loss of innocence as he shoots back, and ultimately being gunned down in response.
Bob - Little Rock, Ar
Interesting comments; I am with Robert in Chicago. I always thought it was set in 20th century America and the ill fated young man came from a family of bootleggers.Steve - Philadelphia, Pa
Not sure where people are getting stuff about Indians or gun safeties or drugs or blood. The meanings are right there in the song: "it's got a big red beacon" / "red means run, son" and "it's got numbers on the side" / "numbers add up to nothing". The boat, whatever it is, is a representative of a government not trusted by the protagonist's family. The setting is pretty clearly somewhere in Appalachia -- the protagonist's brother is "out hunting in the mountains", and they live alongside a river (perhaps prone to flooding.) That only leaves the time period up for debate; best guesses are either the Civil War (when a ship just pulling up and opening fire would make most sense), or Prohibition (when a ship might be more likely to have a "big red beacon".)Robert - Chicago, Il
red means run talks about blood no the safetys that old rifles did not even have. numbers add up to nothing means that no matter how many people are on your side people can still be killed so he should runApeek19 - Atlanta, Ga
I think red means run refers to taking the rifle off of safety and numbers add up to nothing refers to zeroing the sights.John - Aberdeen, United Kingdom
Just a quick note - "Raised my rifle to my eye" doesn't mean he shot himself, thats how you sight a target with a rifle.Lance - Portland, Or
Great song, Great guitar playing (Neil you are so underrated), great lyrics.David - Huntington Beach, Ca
Look. In my eyes this song can have multiple meanings, but in my mind it is one that stands out.
If you've ever used needles to administrate drugs you know this "if it's red, danger ahead! if it's black, whack it back!".
This is because if you hit a artary the blood that goes into the syringe will be red, if you inject now, you will either die or lose your f***ing limb.
If it's black, it means that you got into a vein, this is what you want.
Neil sings "red means run, son", and later "then I saw black, and my face smashed in the sky".
And this is exactly how it feels when you push the drugs into your vein, its an instant rush.
I was amazed that there were no comments about this, but I guess it's not something everyone knows, but now you know.
Anton - Boras, Sweden
In the version I have, instead of the lines: red means run, son, numbers add up to nothin', Neil is definitely saying: red man run, numbers add up to nothing... It's clear. I have no idea which album this version is from originally. But that says to me this song is about a modern Native American family that somehow got crossed up with the law. One or more members anyway. White boat with numers on the side and a red beacon = probably a Coast Guard boat. Man on the rail...cops are "the man" or were in the era this was written. Coast guard boats sometimes assist law enforcement people by providing transportation and a back up "intimidation factor." Many have guns mounted on the bow. Guns big enough to blow up a dock. I'm convinced this is about a real event, probably on the Missouri River and possibly on one of the reservations. Neil isn't talking about it to protect the privacy of those involved.
Listen to a clip at: http://users.wildblue.net/wesjones/misc/powderclip.wav
Best, wes
Wesley - Walton, Wv
I agree with the time period being somewhere in the 19th century. But, lets not forget NY is a Canadian. This might have to do with fur traders, Hudson Bay Co., the Imperial navy. It seems that we automatically interpret anyones' lyrics colloquially to our experiences/geography. Glad that there's a bigger world out there.Dan - Hot Springs, Ar
Don't have a clue as to the meaning behind the song but for all of you that think it's from the 1800's or the civil war, "Big Red Beacon"????????Gene - Susquehanna, Pa
Love the song. Here's my thoughts:

Civil war. These folks live on a big river in the border area between north and south. They are Northerners.
(Note: "Red means run son")
(Note: Confederate boats were sometimes painted with white hulls)
It's the beginning of the war or the end, when things are kind of confused about what's happening.
(Again note: "Red means run son, numbers don't add up to nothin.")
Here is an important point that I haven't heard mentioned: In the end he raises his rifle to his eye, and then sees black and his face splashes into the sky. I think he pulled the trigger, his weapon backfired (common with old guns), and exploded into his face, killing him. He wants to be "covered" by the bravery that led him to pull the trigger, not the indignity of accidentally killing himself. Shelter me from the finger and the powder. He means his own finger and his own powder exploding in his face.
Robert - Asheville, Nc
I'm sure Neil played both solos in the song on the studio version, because he played the solos in concert when I saw him perform it with Crazy Horse.Steve - Fenton, Mo
My own opinion is that the song time period is middle to late 1800's and the area is in on the eastern end of the Ohio River Valley. I always thought that the people talking were of Scotch Irish descent whose ancestors came through the Cumberland Gap.

What I would like seen done is for an Amercian History professor to look at the song and try to date the time and place the location. "Hunting is the mountains." has to be a big clue. We are not talking about Wisconsin. Also, where was mail delivered by river. The language and imagery has always made me think of eastern Kentucky or Tennessee.

A college history class could have fun with this song as a project. I have always been convinced that there is a source for this song.

John Naperville Illinois
Juan Ombez - Naperville, Il
I agree that this is one of Neil's most evocative songs.The fact that it leaves you to decide what the event is that's taking place is part of it's magic.For a real treat fans should check out Margo Timmons version with Cowboy Junkies.Her always haunting voice adds a real beauty to an already beautiful song.Jim - Syracuse, Ny
Neil Young usually plays his own guitar, he is ranked as one of the top 100 best guitarists ever on most lists. His uniquely stylized riffs and idiosyncratic soloing in acoustic and electric songs set him apart.Jonathon - Clermont, Fl
Truly magnificent songwriting, one of Young's greatest and most powerful songs. From the ominous opening line to the enigmatic conclusion, it is a vivid, disturbing first-person picture of a purposefully vague incident. I remember one reviewer at the time calling the song's imagry powerfully "nihlistic". Young never hit the mark like this again.Paul - Sacramento, Ca
Lyrically, one of the all-time great story songs along with 'Copperhead Road', and 'A Boy Named Sue'. Muscially, it contains one of the all-time great guitar solos (twice) (Rust Never Sleeps studio version). Question: Who actually performed the 2 guitar solos?Marc - Prior Lake, Mn
I think Powderfinger is an anachronism. It's about a Civil War era guy seeing a modern-day coast guard or police boat heading up the river. The Civil War guy doesn't understand what the boat is about, so he describes it in Civil War era terms (it's got numbers on the side, and a gun, and it's making big waves). The Civil War guy defends his home against the modern-day intrusion, and gets blasted. It's kind of like crossing wires from the modern day and a hundred (plus) years ago. Neil Young does a lot of this kind of thing on this album (for example, Marlon Brando and Pocahontas).Carl - Arlington, Va
See, this shows that Young didn't hate skynyrd and vice versa (check Sweet Home Alabama page). This song is great, and I might like it even more if I look at the lyrics :)Johnny - Los Angeles, Ca
This Song is perfect and i think the best version is on 1991's weld. i think neil and crazy horse are right on through out the whole album. if you havent heard weld you need to. especially powderfinger, love to burn, love and only love, crime in the city and mansion on the hill!Eric - Phoenix, Az
My favorite Neil Young recording...I can't imagine how anyone else could do it better. Great lyrics and great guitar riff.Steve - Fenton, Mo
One of my favorite songs of all time !
The guitar lead/hook is priceless Rock-nRoll in it's finest.
" Chick-a-flair narn naer nair nair nair nair"
I agree with the drug runner story, maybbe set in the 1800's ?
Anywho...def a Neil classic that should be played on 'terrestrial radio"
That's why Apple invented the glorious iPod.
My first post, of many I'm sure.
Rob Mcmahon - Woodbury, Nj
The idea that "the singer kills himself" makes absolutely no sense to me. I've always felt that the boy raised the rifle to his eye in a gutsy but futile attempt to protect whatever he and his family were doing there. Unfortunately, "when the first shot hit the dock" he saw it coming... he's a dead man. He falls face first into the water, which is reflecting the sky above - hence, "my face splashed in the sky."Tim - Washington, Dc
I think the singer kills himself.

"Raised my rifle to my eye, never stopped to wonder why, then I saw black and my face splashed in the sky"
Ron - Bentonville, Ar
The following information regarding Robert E. Lee including a letter he wrote mentioning the death of his brother convince me that Neil like many artists read a line of this type of information including "John" "mail-boat" "mother" and that was part of the Powderfinger inspiration. Therefore, I believe the setting for Powderfinger was the Civil War.
(Excerpt from sonofthesouth.net as follows)
The quiet and rest which he so much desired, and which he was enjoying
when he wrote, did not long remain his. He had just gotten my mother
comfortably settled at the Baths, when he received the news of the
sudden death of his brother Smith. He went at once to Alexandria,
hoping to be in time for the burial. From there he writes my mother:

"Alexandria, July 25, 1869.

"My Dear Mary: I arrived here last evening, too late to attend the
burial of my dear brother, an account of which I have clipped from
the Alexandria Gazette and inclose to you. I wish you would preserve
it. Fitz. and Mary went up to 'Ravensworth' the evening of the funeral
services, Friday, 23d, so that I have not seen them, but my nephew
Smith is here, and from him I have learned all particulars. The
attack of his father was short, and his death apparently unexpected
until a short time before it occurred. Mary [General Lee's eldest
daughter] was present, and I hope of some comfort to her uncle and
assistance to her aunt. Fitz. came here the afternoon of his father's
death, Thursday, 22d, made all arrangements for the funeral, went out
to 'Ravensworth' to announce the intelligence to our aunt. He
carried down, Friday morning, on the steamer, Mrs. Cooper and Jennie,
to stay with his mother, and returned that afternoon with his father's
remains, which were committed to earth as you will see described.

"John returned the next morning, yesterday, in the mail-boat, to his
mother, with whom Dan stayed. Robert arrived this morning and has
gone to 'Ravensworth' to announce my arrival.
Bob - Roanoke, Va
This song must be set in the civil war era. When was the last time mail was delivered by boat?Mike - Toronto, Canada
"Powderfinger" inches ahead of "Like A Hurricane" and "Four Strong Winds" as Neil Young's most appealing, evocative track. Whatever Neil Young has going for him, and it's been the subject of much debate over the years, it's something that many people love, and which gets into their most visceral senses.

Scugie - New York City (manhattan), Ny
Mr. Young went on record sometime in the early 2000s saying that this was supposed to be about the Civil War.Ekristheh - Halath, United States
The white boat is not a war boat, white is not an offensive colour. The kid has no one from whence to seek advice regarding boats with guns, hence he is afraid. Because he's a afraid, he gets the gun, he fixes the gun on the boat. He is protecting his mother. The coastguard (or whomever those defenders of the republic may be) see this as a threat and shoot the boy dead. The message I hear is that imperialism is unnatural.Shawn - Toronto, Canada
Has to be about civil war. Powderfinger - H'e firing a muskett.Argent - Friant, Ca
best cover of this song ever is by the beat farmers on glad n greasy - better than neil imho - 'course i think everyone does his songs better than he does ;^)Chuck - Peoria, Il
Look out mama this one rocks hard. Niel gives it all electric track 9 on live rust and one of my all time favorites.Joshua - Butler, Pa
Cowboy Junkies, who have performed several times with Neil Young, played this song at a couple of concerts before the invasion of Iraq. Margo Timmins, lead singer, introduced the song by saying "Neil Young wrote an anti-war song, we'd like to sing it for you tonight."Seth - Indianapolis, In
Cowboy Junkies had a hit in 1990 with a cover of this song.Dave - Cardiff, Wales
'Powderfinger' appears as a live recording on both 'Live Rust'(1979) & 'Weld'(1991).Paulus - Tasmania, Australia
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