I Am A Child

Album: Last Time Around (1967)
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Songfacts®:

  • In "I Am A Child," Neil Young sings from the perspective of a child addressing an unnamed man. The vocals and backing music border on idyllic, but as with so much of Young's music there's a melancholic, dark undercurrent beneath it all. That subtle darkness is punctuated by the repeated question Young asks the unnamed man.

    What is the color, when black is burned?
    What is the color?


    Kids ask weird questions, but this one seems particularly morose. It leads to questions about what the child must have been contemplating to even arrive at such an inquiry. It hints at despair and absolute negation.

    Young had a difficult childhood. He had polio at 7 years old, and his parents divorced when he was 12 due to his father sleeping around with other women. Divorce was a bigger deal in that era than it is now, being heavily frowned upon socially. It, along with Young's family's socioeconomic status, marked the family in a lower social caste.

    Beyond the strange "burning black" question, though, the song is a simple sketch of a relationship between a child and a man.
  • Though first released with Buffalo Springfield, "I Am A Child" is a Neil Young song through and through. He wrote it, and he's played it many times in concert with many different backing bands. He featured it on his 1977 compilation triple album, Decade, and played it at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California, on October 22, 1978, in the performance recorded in the Rust Never Sleeps concert film (it didn't make it onto the shortened album version of the show).
  • Young recorded the Last Time Around version on February 5, 1968, in Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles, California. Gary Marker played bass and Dewey Martin drummed.
  • In Don't Be Denied, author John Einarson writes that "I Am A Child" uses a chord progression from an earlier Neil Young song called "The Rent Is Always Due." The similarity between the two is obvious - in fact, almost indistinguishable.

    The connection between the songs seem to go deeper than Einarson's note, as the vocal cadence is almost identical, and the lyrics are thematically similar. "The Rent Is Always Due" opens with the lines:

    Your silver child
    Suspended in space
    Crying out
    To you
    Beckons you
    To yet another fine place
    Where the trials of life are few


    Both songs are about the separation between childhood and adulthood, and "I Am A Child" clearly evolved from "The Rent Is Always Due," which was never finalized and released, though a demo of the song was released on the Neil Young Archives Volume 1 (1963-1972).

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