Omemee, Ontario, Canada

Helpless by Neil Young

There is a town in north Ontario
With dream comfort memory to spare Read full Lyrics
Neil Young Museum
(thanks, Plismo)
Within the rural city of Kawartha Lakes, some 130 kilometers north of Toronto, there is a community known as Omemee. Omemee grew around William Cottingham's mills on the Pigeon River from whence the community takes its name, meaning 'pigeon' in the Mississauga language. The community of less than 2,000 residents is best known for being the childhood home of singer-songwriter Neil Young. In fact, Scott Young Middle School is named after Neil Young's author-sportswriter father. Despite Omemee being very much in southern Ontario, Neil Young has admitted that this community is the "town in north Ontario" referenced in the song “Helpless."

Although originally recorded with Young's band Crazy Horse in 1969, the most famous rendition of “Helpless” appears on the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young 1970 record, Déjà Vu. As stated in Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History, “Helpless” is a nostalgic song in which Young reminisces about his formative years in Omemee, a place Young describes 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.” The lyrics of the song reflect Young's bittersweet memories of his childhood, while capturing the natural beauty of the town's surroundings. Lines like “Blue, blue windows behind the stars, Yellow moon on the rise,” describe the vastness of Canada, while lines like “Helpless, helpless, helpless...The chains are locked and tied across the door” hint at the darker emotions present in this song.

Déjà Vu was a greatly anticipated album by Crosby, Still and Nash (CSN). The addition of Young meant little at the time as Young was still relatively unknown to the public. CSN estimate that the album took around 800 hours of studio time to complete due to the band's meticulous attention to detail. Perhaps an exaggeration, but the album did land at 148 on Rolling Stone Magazine's 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Young doesn't appear on all of the album's tracks, with “Helpless” being his only major contribution in terms of composition.

The song itself is a simple and repetitive melody sung over a descending D-A-G progression with Young's signature reedy vocals lending the song a suitable tinge of poignancy. The song's structure and progressions calls to mind Bob Dylan's 1973 hit "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," composed four years after Young's “Helpless.” Young was heavily influenced by Dylan and the two became friends, resulting in a performance together for The Band's 1976 farewell concert, “The Last Waltz." Young took to the stage with Joni Mitchell to perform “Helpless” live. Despite a botched chorus entry, this performance solidified Young's status among the era's rock icons and bolstered his fame. Since then, Young and Dylan have performed several times together and their repertoire often includes “Helpless” and “Knockin' on Heaven's Door.”
View of Omemee and Highway 7
(thanks P199)
Despite Déjà Vu ranking 14th in the Top Albums of 1970 by Rate Your Music, “Helpless” didn't make billboard charts, eclipsed by other singles from the album like “Carry On.” Thanks to the success of Déjà Vu, however, Neil Young went on to record After the Gold Rush, an album which marked the commercial breakthrough in his solo career. This was followed up the album Harvest, featuring his famous “The Needle and the Damage Done,” referring to the devastation of heroin addiction on many of his musician friends and contemporaries.

In 1995, Young was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. “Young has consistently demonstrated the unbridled passion of an artist who understands that self-renewal is the only way to avoid burning out. For this reason, he has remained one of the most significant artists of the rock and roll era,” so says the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Web site. Even though he's pushing 70 years of age, Young is still performing internationally today. He is not only revered as a rock legend, one who didn't succumb to the more destructive temptations of the rock and roll industry, but is also held in regard for his activism, his stance on environmental issues, and for his work with disabled children. Neil Young is a true role model for a younger generation of musicians and testament to the fact that one can not only survive rock 'n roll fame, but thrive in the industry.
~ Suzanne van Rooyen

(Thanks to Rayzor for the Songplace suggestion.)

Suzanne is a tattooed storyteller from South Africa. She currently lives in Finland and finds the cold, dark forests nothing if not inspiring. Although she has a Master’s degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. Her published novels include Dragon's Teeth, Obscura Burning, and The Other Me. When not writing, she teaches dance and music to middle schoolers and eats far too much peanut-butter. Helpless Songfacts
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Comments: 4

  • Smartalek from Boston, Ma, UsaThank you for this -- I think.
    Good as it is to know the reality, sometimes the romance of the rhetoric just feels better, you know?
    There goes the imagery I had of a tiny hamlet away out on the northern plains, big skies, cold winds, small minds, a desperation to get away, and yet, strings pulling you back that can never be broken, no matter how frayed they may get...
  • Thomas from Thunder Bay I cowrote 'Helpless' in Thunder Bay in the YMCA with Neil Young. I remember going to his room and he commented "Look Tommy just like big birds flying across the sky". He was referring to the planes landing at the airport from the view in his room.
    We sat down and wrote "Helpless". I specifically remember singing "Helpless helpless helpless with him. He commented that I wrote like he used to. I took it as a compliment. I don't doubt that he forgot I wrote it with him. Omemee is 128 km from Toronto and not in Norther Ontario. We wrote that song in Thunder Bay
  • Michael from Omemeenot sure where you get the idea that omemee 'best known...childhood home neil young'...flora mccrae eaton much mor of an omemeeinite, as were the cottinghams who basically chopped the trees and built the town...neil was just a kid who lived there for a while
  • Chris from Ann Arbor, MichiganNicely done! Your research puts Neil's writing of Helpless at an earlier date than Dylan's Knockin on heaven's door. Thanks for revealing some history of the song and of Neil himself. Love that reedy voice in this song -- its affect is indescribable.
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