As told in Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History
, this song is about the town of Omemee in northern Ontario. In 1949, Neil's parents moved there with him when he was just four years old. Young describes it as "a nice little town. Sleepy little place... Life was real basic and simple in that town. Walk to school, walk back. Everybody knew who you were. Everybody knew everybody."
More so than any other song, "Helpless" touches on Young's earliest childhood memories. Young came down with polio by age six, prompting his parents to spend a year in Florida hoping the warmer weather would speed his cure. Ten years after this came the Young's divorce, from which Neil stayed with his mother while his father kept his brother Bob and later remarried. So, typical for Neil Young, the memories represented here are bittersweet.
Speaking of his family, most people forget that Neil's father, Scott Young, was a celebrity in his own right! Scott Young was a career journalist and writer, who started out in the Winnipeg Free Press and writing for other magazines and newspapers. He also wrote books - over three dozen, in fact - mostly boy's adventure/sports stories. And to round that out, his was a familiar face on Canadian TV. So it came as a surprise to him that his son's fame would eclipse his own to such an extent; he was happy with it anyway.
Young sang this live at "The Last Waltz" - The Band's farewell concert. As well as The Band themselves he was accompanied on vocals by Joni Mitchell. It is amusing to see Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko from The Band come in too early for the first chorus and then burst out laughing. You can see this clearly on the film as they accompany Neil Young.
Dan - Auckland, New Zealand
In 2011, Neil Young performed the song with popular indie band Arcade Fire at the Bridge School Benefit Concert.
An alternate version appears on Neil's Archives Volume 1, featuring a much more prominent harmonica.
Various artists have released covers of the song, notably among them Nick Cave and Patti Smith.
This has remained one of Young's standby live songs throughout his career.
Canadian folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie recorded this for her 1971 album, She Used To Wanna Be A Ballerina. Young also played guitar on the album.