Young wrote this in 1964 on his 19th birthday (November 12), just after leaving his band The Squires. The song is about losing the idealism of youth, making reference to his advancing years in the line, "You can't be 20 on Sugar Mountain."
Said Young of his time kicking around Ontario with his new friend, "Mainly, he was the funniest person I'd met in years. He didn't have another gig until next weekend, so he stayed in Thunder Bay and we played and he took us to see buffalo. We lived on A&W cheeseburgers and root beer. Very Canadian."
Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game" was inspired by this song. As she explained to a live audience at The Paris Theatre in 1970, "Neil Young wrote this song that was called 'Oh to live on sugar mountain' which was a lament for his lost youth. And I thought, God, you know, if we get to 21 and there's nothing after that, that's a pretty bleak future, so I wrote a song for him, and for myself just to give me some hope. It's called 'The Circle Game.'"
This was first released as the B-side of Young's first single as a solo artist, "The Loner." He used it as a B-side on a few other singles, but did not put it on an album until his 1977 Greatest Hits compilation Decade.
Young discussed the playing the song live in a 1985 interview with NME: "I do 'Sugar Mountain' really for the people more than I do it for myself. I think I owe it to them, cos it seems to really make them feel happy, so that's why I do that. They pay a lotta money to come and see me and I lay a lotta things on 'em that they've never heard before, and I think I owe it to them to do things they can really identify with. It's such a friendly song, and the older I get and the older my audience gets the more relevant it becomes, especially since they've been singing it for 20 years. It really means a lot to them, so I like to give 'em the chance to enjoy that moment."
Young speaks about the song's lyrics on his bootleg album Live on Sugar Mountain: "At first I wrote 126 verses to it. Now, you can imagine that I had a lot of trouble figuring out what four verses to use... I was underneath the stairs... Anyway, this verse that I wrote... It was the worst verse of the 126 that I wrote. So, I decided to put it in the song, to just to give everybody a frame of reference as to, you know, what can happen. What I'm trying to say here, by stopping in the middle of the song, and explaining this to you, is that... I think it's one of the lamest verses I ever wrote. And it takes a lotta nerve for me to get up here and sing it in front of you people. But, if when I'm finished singing, you sing the chorus 'Sugar Mountain' super loud, I'll just forget about it right away and we can continue."
He follows this by singing: "Now you're underneath the stairs/And you're givin' back some glares/To the people who you met/And it's your first cigarette."
Allison from Huntsville, AlMitchell: "In 1965 I was up in Canada and there was a friend of mine up there who, uh, had just left a rock 'n roll band in Winnipeg, Manitoba near where I come from on the prairies to become a folk singer a la Bob Dylan who was his hero at that time and uh at the same time that there were breaks in his life and he was going in a new and exciting direction, he had just newly turned 21 and that meant that in Winnipeg, he was no longer allowed into his favorite haunt which was kind of a teeny-bopper club and once you're over 21 you couldn't get back in there anymore, so he was really feeling terrible because his girlfriends, everybody that he wanted to hang out with, his band could still go there, you know.
So, one of the things that drove him to become a folk singer was that he couldn't play in this club anymore, 'cause he was over the hill. That was about the same time that Esquire magazine was doing pictures of girls in trash bins, like once you're over 21 you'd had it and everything, you know? There was strange philosophy going on at that time, so he wrote this song.
It was called, "Oh to live on Sugar Mountain" and it was a lament for his lost youth. And it went, "Oh to live on Sugar Mountain with the barkers and the colored balloons. You can't be 20 on Sugar Mountain though you're thinking that you're leaving there too soon, you're leaving there too soon." And I thought, you know, God if we get to 21 and there's nothing after that, it's a pretty bleak future and so I wrote a song for him and for myself, to just sort of give me some hope. It's called 'The Circle Game."
Gina from TexasI have always cherished this song ~ My best friend of forty years actually has the last name Barker ~ and we have done everything from innocent exploration of our neighborhood and daydreaming to run'n the streets to raising kids and chilling out ~ oh this tune just wrenches my soul
Ivy from Springfield, Nei like this song. it takes me to my happy place. 6/10
Dominick from Detroit, MiIt was rare but not anymore. I hear it on Sirius channels 6, 14, 30, and 33 pretty often. Particularly on 14 and XMs early classic rock channel when I had XM.
Jamey from Chandler, AzReally a Martin D-18? Wow, the guitar quality sounds rich and resonant, I thought it had to be played on the 12-string; then I saw the concert video on youtube. I guess that says alot about the Martin guitar.
Vic from Brooklyn, NyI can see why some people think its about herion but it is clearly about youth and the comming of age. Is it a coinsidence that Neil Young was 19 when he wrote it? Of course not! Do you guys who think its about herion think that the herion is in the "first cigarette" or something? I think Sugar Mountain could be the name of a specifc place which represents youth and I was thinking that maybe the "girl just down the aisle" is getting married. Another reference to growing up.
Pam from Washington, Pamy best friend/boyfriend always told me he wanted this song played at his funeral. on june 23 2009, he passed away in a drowning accident in ohiopyle. its wierd bcuz he was twenty (like it mentions in this song) when this song says now u say ur leaving home cuz u want to be alone aint it funny how u feel wen ur finding out its real, is about him.
Mandy from Morehead, KyThis song just gives it's own meaning to people...it all depends on your outlook i guess...i can relate because i'll be 20 in two months and i have had to grow up so fast in the past 6 months...life can be really tough, but this song reminds me of the kind of youth that I had and that I want back so badly...great song...love Neil Young
Heather from Los Angeles, CaI heard this song for the first time just a few days ago on the radio. I listened closely to the lyrics because it was so gentle. And it seemed to me it was about leaving childhood. So I came to this website to see what others thought and was pleasantly surprised to see that a lot of people interpret it that way. I understand why someone would feel choked up hearing it. I felt the same way.
Jim from Riverside, CaSugar Mountain was written in 1964 after leaving The Squires. Buffalo Springfield wasn't even formed yet.
Mamma from Lakeside, AzAs I happen upon this site, how odd to see Sugar Mountain advertised as a ring tone... I first heard it as the b side to a single and as I read the comments I am struck by the interpretations. For me when I first experienced this song, it felt like these simple lyrics and melody captured my life in that ego-centric chemically induced state that I often found myself in Sugar Mountain felt lonely and haunting and whimsical. Still is.
Forrest Patterson from Noblesville, In"There are numerous references to carnivals. Barkers are folks that call you into play games and freak shows."
Mike in Phoenix
Your post is what I had been looking into that brought me to this site. I have been learning a bunch of Neil's acoustical song, which really gives one a better understanding of his ability to play as some of the intricacies of the fingering is so great.
But after working with Sugar Mountain for some time a question came to mind of, is the word Barker, A barker like you suggest, or is it a family name.
I had been going with the carnival barker because as you point out there are several references to carnivals and that seem to fit. But on further reflection there is also an aspect of Sugar Mountain being a place, a community, so could this be a family name as opposed to job?
I tend to think you are correct it is the carnival barker but has any others heard or read about this reference in the past.
Forrest Patterson from Noblesville, In"It is a song about children leaving home, looking back and realizing that the real world is ahead of them and their childhood is in their rear view mirror. To see children leaving home is one of the the harshest realities of life, but it is life. Love your children, they are what this life is all about."
Your post quickly brings to mind "Teach Your Children" CSNY I think you hit on a great tie-in
Coconutdog from Sydney, AustraliaWhen our daughters were younger ( late '70's )We would sing them this song and rock them to sleep. It is a song about children leaving home, looking back and realizing that the real world is ahead of them and their childhood is in their rear view mirror. To see children leaving home is one of the the harshest realities of life, but it is life. Love your children, they are what this life is all about.................................. - dave, Homer City, PA
What Dave said, I couldn't have said it any better.
Leelee from Burlington, Onthis song is one of my favourite Neil Young songs. before reading this ive always gotten the idea it was about how like you have to work hard to have a good life, not everything comes easy "you can't be 20 on sugar mountain" you cant be 20 and expect a perfect happy life until you die, but when your older you will see what a good life you had.
Andy from Columbus, OhOnce, after a real bad day, I listened to this song maybe a dozen times in a row, and went into sort of a half sleep trance. It's totally awesome. But what are the second and third verses about? Girl just down the aisle? Hidden note? (reminds me of a scene from the Adventures of Huck Finn, kinda) Underneath the stairs and giving back some glares? Huh?
Malicious Matt from SquatneyLet me get this straight; people are crazy for NOT thinking this song is about heroin? Did the voices in your head tell you that? lol
Why on Earth would anybody think this song is about heroin, or any drug experience? Sugar? Maybe that looks a bit like speed or something, but there's nothing else in the lyrics that suggests anything drug related. "The needle and the damage done" is about heroin, I know this because it has some actual references to it. Where are the drug references here? I think the meaning is fairly clear. Its a very wide stretch to say this is about heroin. Jeez, does EVERY song have to be a drug song?
Dave from Homer City, PaWhen our daughters were younger ( late '70's )We would sing them this song and rock them to sleep. It is a song about children leaving home, looking back and realizing that the real world is ahead of them and their childhood is in their rear view mirror. To see children leaving home is one of the the harshest realities of life, but it is life. Love your children, they are what this life is all about..................................
Jim from South Kingstown, RiThis song always makes me sad, sometimes I even start to tear up, which isn't like me at all. I don't think any song has ever had a bigger emotional effect on me, which is also out of the ordinary, because I can get really into all types of music. It was a song (the first and last one)that my dad asked me to look up before my parents got divorced and my father moved out. I went through a tough year or so without seeing him. It just so happens that the song is about the loss of a youthful feeling of security. It's sadly fitting. Still, a beautiful song, one of my favorites.
Bojinka from Wichita, Ksthis seeminglly unfathomable song is about the agenda.
young embraced the agenda.
in this song he tries to pass it on
i don't agree with the drug theory although lots of songs can be decoded with that idea in mind.
William from Near Geneva, FranceSugar Mountain is a beautiful song about a teenager learning to leave home and finally leave childhood behind. What nonsense to try to see a meaning about drug use - unless Young himself has suggested this may be true. Has he ? I can't find any comments by Young himself about this song. maybe someone else has ?
Rick from Arden, DeSugar Mountain was a teen club in Canada that you couldn't enter when you were no longer a teen. Duh.
Mike B from Phoenix, AzThis song is about the longing for the simple pleasures of youth. Who can forget going to a fair or carnival with their folks. There are numerous references to carnivals. Barkers are folks that call you into play games and freak shows. Floss is a carnival term for cotton candy. Balloons are ever present at carnivls,especially the game where you throw darts to win a poster or mirror.
Steve from Saint Louis, MoI believe this has been released in at least three live versions, but never as a studio track. Is there any other song that can match that distinction?
Derek from Sarnia, CanadaThis song is not about doing heroin...to me this song is about losing the idealism of youth (as mentioned). "Now you say your leaving home cause you want to be alone. Aint it funny how you feel when your finding out its real". That's a pretty clear reference to moving out of your parents house to work and make your own living. It's so true...when you are young you just live in the moment but the older you get the more you think of the future. Just another incredible song from Neil.
Krug from Adirondacks, NyI'm sure this is about doing Heroin, 20 cc, and heroin is sold in balloons. Hiding out and shooting smack. I hate drugs and heroin freaks, but I always like this song.
AnonymousI have always felt that this song is the essence of music in it's purest form! The only thing that ruins it for me though is the idiot at the end of the song that coughs just as Neil finishes the song. Couldn't he have waited just 5 more seconds for the applause to start? I wish they could have edited that out.
Ron from Bentonville, ArI read in RS in the late 70's that Sugar Mountain was a bar Neil used to frequent. You had to be 21 to get in.
Steven from West Carrollton, OhThe first time I ever heard this, it seemed like 10 minutes long. Is it just me, or is "Todd from NY" f@#%ed up? This song is about Neil's vision of paradise.
Todd from New York, NyYou guys are crazy. This song is about doing herion.
Joe from Sacramento, Canot sure the first time i heard sugar mountain but fell instantly in love with song. a friend of mine has it on boot leg version called young mans fancy recorded at the roxy in los angeles whats cool about the album it is basically harvest months before harvest was released
Stefanie from Rock Hill, ScI was just thinking about that too Svend. Jonie Mitchell did write " the Circle Game" and the recording that was used on her album Ladies Of the Canyon is from 1966. Buffalo Springfield was formed in 1966.
Svend from Toronto, CanadaThere are a few dates that don't make sense, he turned 19 on November 12th of 1964, long before joining Buffalo Springfield. "The Circle Game" by Joni Mitchell was recorded by Ian & Sylvia in 1966, also before he left Buffalo Springfield. Perhaps Neil wrote his song on a later birthday?
Stefanie from Rock Hill, ScI haven't heard this song in a long while. But I love it. It's one of the rarer gems by him.
Ekristheh from Halath, United StatesThe song refers to an all-ages night club in Winnipeg (actually an underage club -- you had to be under 20 to get in).
In the early 1970s this song received huge airplay on campus and community radio stations, but is rarely heard today.
Joni Mitchell's "Circle Game" was written as a response to "Sugar Mountain".
Meaghan from Queenstown, AustraliaI am completely mesmorized by this life changing song. My boss has a live and unapproved Neil Young cd. Best version of Sugar Mountain I've ever heard especially when the audience sings the chorus at the end... absolutely mind blowing!
Ruud from Rotterdam, NetherlandsGreat song, yes! But I love Seamus and Stephen as well!
Seamus Brennan from Riverside, IlOnce Stephen had told me his feelings towards Sugar Mountain I decided to give it a listen. What it did to Stephen is nothing compared to what it did to me. I couldn't believe the sound I was hearing, it inspired me to learn the chords on guitar and play it with my own 2 hands. Once I had learned the song I went over to Stephens and played him the song naked on my guitar as we sipped wine.
Stephen Wilhelm from Riverside, IlLater that day, when I was in the privacy of my own home, I went and downloaded Sugar Mountain off the internet. I listened to it once and instantly got hard. I then busted a quick nut and felt as if i was in heaven or even maybe, Sugar Mountain.
Stephen Wilhelm from Riverside, IlI recently was driving through "K Town" in Chicago and Sugar Mountain by Neil Young came on the radio. I had never heard this song before, but was instantly mesmorized by it. I had the tune stuck in my head all day. I feel as if i was blessed to have heard this gem of a song.
Greg from Oakville, CanadaAnd this is one of Neil Young's rarest songs. It is so hard to find that if you hear a radio station play it now, turn it up. This song is also only featured on one record and two CD's (Decade and Live Rust).
Greg from Oakville, CanadaNeil Young actually wrote this on his 19th birthday while he was lying in bed sick. He then later went to a small bar and recorded this on a casette tape. In my opinion, this the other of the three greatest songs ever written.
Stefanie Magura from Rock Hill, Scit's a beautiful song! one of my favorites by him!
Jim from Chicago, IlHe played this on his Martin D-18.
Dan from Fort Collins, CoYoung wrote and recorded this sitting on the floor with a cheap tape recorder, while holed up in a hotel in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1968.
Paulus from Tasmania, Australia09 November 1968 'Sugar Mountain' is recorded live in concert, by Reprise, during a show at the Canterbury House, Ann Arbor, Michigan.