Young has never said who the Cinnamon Girl is, as he prefers to leave lyric interpretations to the listener. In the liner notes of his Decade compilation, he stated: "Wrote this for a city girl on peeling pavement coming at me thru Phil Ochs eyes playing finger cymbals. It was hard to explain to my wife."
Phil Ochs was a folk/protest singer active in the '60s who had issues with his mental stability (although his paranoia about the FBI turned out not to be far off). Young's wife at the time was Susan Acevedo; they were married for just one year at this point.
Though Young would not identify his muse, the bit about finger cymbals is a reference to '60s folk singer Jean Ray, who performed with then-husband Jim Glover under the name Jim and Jean. Phil Ochs, a close friend of a couple, penned the title song to their second album, Changes.
Brian Ray, Paul McCartney's guitarist and Jean's younger brother, claims the song is indeed about his sister. Jean, herself, said she inspired another Neil Young song from the Everybody Knows This is Nowhere album: "Cowgirl in the Sand."
In the book Shakey, Young copped to having a crush on Ray. When asked if she is the Cinnamon Girl, Young said, "Only part of the song. There's images in there that have to do with Jean and there's images that have to do with other people."
Young recorded this with his band Crazy Horse. It was originally released on the Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere album in 1969. Young put out an alternate version as a single in 1970, which did well partly because he was getting exposure as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
In Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History
, Neil Young talked about poaching the band The Rockets for the formation of Crazy Horse, who he first recorded with on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
: "The truth is, I probably did steal them away from the pother band, which was a good band. But only because what we did, we went somewhere." He later goes on to say, "That's the hardest part, is the guilt of the trail of destruction that I've left behind me."
In the same work, it is also mentioned that "With songs such as 'Cinnamon Girl,' 'Down By The River
,' and 'Cowgirl in the Sand,' Crazy Horse clearly gave Neil Young the kind of sympathetic and almost telepathic backing he needed." Neil Young went on to declare Crazy Horse "the American Rolling Stones."
The band Type O Negative did a remake on their 1996 album October Rust. The song was also covered by Smashing Pumpkins on the Reel Sessions bootleg.
That's Danny Whitten singing high harmony on this this song with Young. Whitten was a singer/guitarist in Young's backing band Crazy Horse, which released its own album in 1970 featuring a few Whitten compositions, including "I Don't Want To Talk About It
," later a #1 UK hit for Rod Stewart. Whitten spent his last years battling a heroin addiction, and in 1972 died after overdosing on alcohol and Valium.
The liner notes to Decade reveal that "Down by the River," "Cinnamon Girl," and "Cowgirl in the Sand" all in a single afternoon - while sick with a 103 degree temperature. Also, they were recorded after being together with the band Crazy Horse for only two weeks."
Crazy Horse bassist Billy Talbot recalled to Uncut magazine in 2021: "What I remember about 'Cinnamon Girl' is the four of us playing it - me, Ralph (Molina), Danny (Whitten) and Neil and realizing, 'Oh yeah, we can do this.' There's Danny's guitar, there's Neil's voice and guitar, and Ralph and I just need to keep the beat.
When you are inside a song like that, it's something beautiful. It sounded good and I liked it, then we got to the bridge and I loved it! We were able to get very psychedelic; we could slow it down and it got bigger and even more beautiful. I don't think we worked on it for long, we really did just play it once or twice before we got the take."
When legendary British DJ "Whispering Bob" Harris made his BBC Radio 1 debut on the August 19, 1970 episode of Sounds of the Seventies, "Cinnamon Girl" was the first record he played.