Down By The River

Album: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)
Play Video

Songfacts®:

  • 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."
  • 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...
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • Crazy Horse evolved from the folk-rock band The Rockets, comprised of Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot, and Raplh Molina, plus Bobby Notkoff and George and Leon Whitsell. The Rockets used to do long instrumentals, but "Down By The River" was the first time they did one with Young. "We were playing the song and it opened up into this long jam," bassist Billy Talbot recalled to Uncut magazine in 2021. "The three of us were used to doing that and Neil just stayed there with us."
  • Neil Young and Crazy Horse tried to lay down "Cinnamon Girl" and "Down By The River" the same day: "Cinnamon Girl" came easily but they couldn't crack "Down By The River." "We wondered how to play it, tried it a few times, but it wasn't working," Talbot recalled to Uncut. "We went home and Ralph and I talked about it and we thought it should be played more in half time instead of double time. That decision went into shaping the song. That stretched it and gave it space to breathe."

    He added: "Ralph and I had only been playing bass and drums for a year, so we had this one beat that was a bit advanced for us and we decided to use that one - it worked! It was the first time the four of us ever did that, and I guess we did that for another 50 years on a bunch of songs! It's a fun song to play for anybody, but nobody plays it's like Neil Young and Crazy Horse."

Comments: 26

  • Mike from FloridaThe song has a great sound, but not great lyrics, at least for this one line. Neil is a legend & my fav musician, but on this one who knows what he was really thinking. It appears he explained it off as ‘blowing your load into a chic’ cuz he probably got tired of being questioned about it. But come on, the song clearly says several times ‘I shot her DEAD’. All these explanations appear to be just imagination to try to rationalize away lyrics about killing a woman as being actually about something else. You can imagine all you want to try to sugarcoat it, but though most are not offended by it, there are some women who dont like it. And I dont like that one line, makes me cringe a bit. Similar to Hendrix Hey Joe, another song about killing a woman, but somehow most folks dont seem to mind.
  • Deanna from Kentucky I think Dean from Alabama got it right! Miss you brother!
  • Sue From Dc from DcListen to Roy Buchanon’s version of this song. Amazing!
  • Vicki from WisconsinStrangely enough, his words "It's impossible to make it today" struck a chord with me today, and I wondered about this song. I lost my best friend, my forever dog, by having to euthanize her, and I'm finding it impossible to make it today without her. "She could take me over the rainbow and send me away..." "Down by the river, I shot my baby..." yeah, it fits my situation perfectly.
  • Barry from NhSorry but the drug reference is, in my opinion, glaringly obvious. I'm surprised I can't locate anyone on this string that has mentioned much about it with any clear reference.
    OK, so to me, it lays out like this:
    He goes down to the river to shoot heroin. "He shot his lady" They used to make reference to "marrying the drug". Clear and simple, of the times reference!
    "She could take me over the rainbow and send me away" Ahh, isn't that a heroin trip?!
    Certainly not talking about quitting any drugs, no, he in fact "shoots her dead" as in empty, no more, all used up. Don't spill a drop is a users mindset.
    I just can not see anything other than this message. I don't feel like I am reading into anything but rather, the message is clear and right there, from and of those times!
  • Michael from Des Moines, IaNeil Young's songs are deeper in meaning than most people realize. The lyrics represent experiences and undertones of those experiences. You need to go deep inside yourself to understand where the man is coming from. I think that is why Crosby, Stills Nash and Young did not last very long. Neil Young was cutting edge. Crosby, Stills and Nash were trashing out pop music. Not a great mix. But good while it lasted. CSNY really created some fantastic music.
  • Ekristheh from HalathDanny in the Bronx - Neil was listening to a lot of folk recordings of traditional songs by people like Ian Tyson, and probably did hear "Banks of the Ohio." He may also have heard "The Knoxville Girl".
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn September 22nd 1969, the 45-minute weekly series 'The Music Scene' had its debut on the ABC-TV network...
    Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young performed the Neil Young composed song "Down by the River"...
    Tom Jones hosted the show and other musical performers were Three Dog Night, Jean, and Buck Owens & the Buckaroos...
    The show lasted for one season with a total of 17 episodes.
  • Adrian from Johor Bahru, MalaysiaThis song should not be confused with Albert Hammond's hit about environmental pollution which has the same title as this song .
  • Danny from Bronx, NyThere 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.
  • Minna from Joplin, MoBuddy 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.
  • Esteban from Tacoma, WaJust 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 from Tacoma, WaYes. 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."
  • Nikhil from Mumbai, Indiathe guitar on this song is something else!
  • Ekristheh from Halath, United StatesI 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.
  • Reg from Kemptville, On, -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...
  • Ed from Lake City, Flthe 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
  • Jami from Redding, CaThis is just a damn good song no matter what you read into it.
  • Farrah from Elon, NcRob, I never thought of the abstract thing, hut I can totally agree with you on that one.
  • Apeek19 from Atlanta, GaI 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.
  • Jeff from Chicago, GaWell 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"...
  • 5cats from Winnipeg, MbHe 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 :)
  • Andy from Columbus, OhNeil IS the master of abstract.
  • David from Huntington Beach, CaSo 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.
  • Victoria from Tacoma, WaThe 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?
  • Rob from Detroit, MiNo kidding? I always thought this song was about some dude who offed his old lady!
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Actors With Hit Songs

Actors With Hit SongsMusic Quiz

Many actors have attempted music, but only a few have managed a hit. Do you know which of these thespians charted?

Donald Fagen

Donald FagenSongwriter Interviews

Fagen talks about how the Steely Dan songwriting strategy has changed over the years, and explains why you don't hear many covers of their songs.

Lita Ford

Lita FordSongwriter Interviews

Lita talks about how they wrote songs in The Runaways, and how she feels about her biggest hit being written by somebody else.

He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss): A History Of Abuse Pop

He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss): A History Of Abuse PopSong Writing

Songs that seem to glorify violence against women are often misinterpreted - but not always.

Kiss

KissFact or Fiction

Kiss is the subject of many outlandish rumors - some of which happen to be true. See if you can spot the fakes.

Alice Cooper

Alice CooperFact or Fiction

How well do you know this shock-rock harbinger who's been publicly executed hundreds of times?