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Down By The River

by

Neil Young



Songfacts®:  You can leave comments about the song at the bottom of the page.

In the liner notes to Young's 1977 Greatest Hits album Decade, he explained that he wrote this song as well as "Cinnamon Girl" and "Cowgirl In The Sand" in one day while sick with a fever.
Young recorded Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere with his band, Crazy Horse. Soon after the album was released, he was asked to join Crosby, Stills & Nash, and he spent the next year dividing his time between that group and Crazy Horse.
Fans have come up with many interpretations of the song, including the inevitable suggestions of drug references. Here's one we got from Dean in Alabama:
On the surface this song appears to be about a mad psychopath who shot his love and suffers regrets. However, if the love is seen as a metaphor for some addictive drug, (or anything someone might obsess about), then the song is about banishing this addiction. The first verse is about the acceptance of the addiction; that is why there is no reason to hide. But the chorus brings in the contention; even though she could take him over the rainbow, he shot her: He quit using. The second verse is a lamentation to his addiction and a justification for quitting the drug. The last verse is the same as the first verse because no addiction is ever completely banished. The chorus is repeated again to show that he must banish this addiction every day. Each day he has to shoot his baby again. What happened down by the river? He realized his addiction and began the struggle to stop. Who? Anyone, me, maybe you...
With the refrain of "I shot my baby - down by the river," this song gets your attention. In a 1970 interview with Fusion, Neil Young cleared it up: "There's no real murder in it. It's about blowing your thing with a chick. See, now in the beginning, it's 'I'll be on your side, you be on mine'. It could be anything. Then the chick thing comes in. Then at the end it's a whole other thing. It's a plea... a desperation cry." (This interview is available at Rock's Backpages.)
Neil elaborated the song during a lengthy introduction before a September 27th life performance in New Orleans: "I'd like to sing you a song about a guy who had a lot of trouble controlling himself," Young began. "He let the dark side side come thru a little too bright." The explanation goes on the describe the murder, the killer's arrest and, finally, the guilt he feels as he realized what he's done."
Neil Young
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Comments (18):

This song should not be confused with Albert Hammond's hit about environmental pollution which has the same title as this song .
- Adrian, Johor Bahru, Malaysia
There is a traditional folk song called "Banks of the Ohio" that is also about the singer shooting and killing his girlfriend by the side of a river. I think that song may have been in the back of Neil's mind when he wrote this. I find it ironic that, the following year, he wrote a song called "Ohio" which is also about people being shot dead, though in a very different context.
- Danny, Bronx, NY
Buddy Miles, a sometime drummer for Jimi Hendrix did a beautiful version of this song. I must admit that Miles' version would lead me to believe this song was about drugs simply by the tone of the music. It's a jazzed out, blissed out, largely instrumental number that sounds like every band member is feeling reeeeeally nice. I am a fan of Neil Young and I respect him as a person, but Miles' version is super sweet.
- Minna, Joplin, MO
Just an addition comment to further confuse things. On Sep 27, 1984 at a concert in New Orleans Neil Young introduced the song "Down By The River" thus:

I'd like to sing you a song about a guy who had a lot of trouble controlling himself. He let the dark side side come thru a little too bright.

One afternoon he took a little stroll down thru a field and thru a forest, 'til he could hear the water running along there. And he met his woman down there. And he told her she'd been cheatin' on him one too many times. And he reached down in his pocket and he pulled a little revolver out. Said "honey I hate to do this but you pushed me too far".

By the time he got back to town he knew he had to answer to somebody pretty quick. He went back to his house and he sat down on his front porch. About two hours later the sheriff's car pulled up out front. It started sinkin' in on him what he'd done. The sheriff walked up the sidewalk, he said "come with me son, I want to ask you a few questions".

As he heard the jail door shut behind him he sat down on a little wooden bench. And he looked out of the door - thru those bars - at this kind of wimpy looking sheriff out there. He started getting mad again and he realized what he had done.

There wasn't nothing he could do about it now though. He just sat down and put his head down and he started thinking to himself "I'm all by myself here, there's nobody on my side....."
- Esteban, Tacoma, WA
Yes. I second what Victoria said. In an interview with the Neil Young he said this song was about "... blowing your thing with a chick. There is no violence in it."
- Esteban, Tacoma, WA
the guitar on this song is something else!
- nikhil, mumbai, India
I have always believed this was a quasi-blues murder ballad and that the lyrics were meant to be abstract, and Neil has said nothing to change my mind.
- Ekristheh, Halath, United States
Was a shortened version of this ever released as a single? I thought that I only became aware of this song in the early '80s, but some lines bring back memories that I can't quite grasp...
- Reg, Kemptville, ON, -
the song is about a guy making love to his woman, it's as simple as that. think about it, he (shot his baby). his gun was loaded, but not with a bullit
- ed, lake city, FL
This is just a damn good song no matter what you read into it.
- Jami, Redding, CA
Rob, I never thought of the abstract thing, hut I can totally agree with you on that one.
- Farrah, Elon, NC
I like the drug interpretation but I agree with david. There are many other songs that use the "I shot my baby" type lyrics in blues and just for jamming.
- apeek19, atlanta, GA
Well victoria you're wrong about that.. Scorcese had to reshoot part of THe Last Waltz because Neil had a visible lump of cocaine hanging from his nose during Helpless. As for Neil'slyrics.. i think its alove song in the vein of "Hey Joe"...
- Jeff, Chicago, GA
He doesn't have to do 'hard drugs' for long to understand addiction. Needle & The Damage Done is surely about drugs, eh? It makes more sense that Down By The River is about drugs, or any addiction really, than about murder. Or euthanasia, which was my theory.
Neil will always be a Winnipeg boy :)
- 5Cats, Winnipeg, MB
Neil IS the master of abstract.
- Andy, Columbus, OH
So many people want to take Neil Young's lyrics and simplify them by saying "those are about drugs"...it's pathetic lol. I'm not even going to say what it is about, but considering that it's a loose jam in general, I think Neil just wrote some blues type of lyrics that he could go in and out of while they were jamming. The lyrics are probably meant to be abstract.
- David, huntington beach, CA
The song is not about drugs, Neil was not into hard drugs. He didn't shoot the girl in the literal way, it is not what he did, it is his realizational of what he didn't do that cost him the relationship with the girl that he loved.
The 3 songs together give you a picture of his feelings for this girl and the grief suffered when the love was gone, he speaks for both of them by asking her questions in Cowgirl. He knows by now that she loves him but it is too late or is it?
- Victoria, Tacoma, WA
No kidding? I always thought this song was about some dude who offed his old lady!
- Rob, Detroit, MI
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