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(This is one of a series of articles which provide an explanation of the meaning of Neil Young's song Powderfinger. While the interpretation of lyrics presented here is composed of several viewpoints, there is little consensus on the exact meaning of Neil's songs. The themes and symbolism of Young's songwriting provide a rich tapestry on which to project various meanings and analysis. Enjoy!)
Michael H. from Montreal, Quebec, Canada adds his interesting interpretation to Powderfinger:
I'm not certain what "Powderfinger" really seeks to address; I'd always thought of it as a Civil War song due to the centrality of the river and the seemingly random violence which follows the white boat as it travels up it. There isn't enough in the song to periodize it, though...
Anyways, if the white boat is seen as the vehicle for "systemic" tyranny and oppression, or possibly oppressive government, and if the resistance of the protagonist to it is simultaneously quixotic and tragic, the line "cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger" draws simultaneously from the imagery of death (bodies are covered in shrouds, and soldiers who die are returned in flag-draped caskets) while asking the listener (or whoever) to honor the 22-year-old by recognizing his resistance to tyranny -- "the thought that pulled the trigger." "When the first shot hit the dock," the 22-year-old "saw it coming"; he is courageous, then, as he saw his own death written by fate but acted anyways. That he "raised [his] rifle to [his] eye, never thought to wonder why" is a reference to the ingrained tendency to resist oppression present in all humans.
This angle, I think, offers a much more satisfying interpretation of "Powderfinger"; it is a song laced through with quintessentially American themes, a fact which is somewhat ironic in light of Young's Canadian origins.
For some, there is the "magical moment that happens each time at the end of the verses when the two fat overdrive Gibson guitars play a short riff going from D to G."
AG comments in Thrasher's Wheat Guestbook:
It sounds far fetched, but I bet you never listen to the song the same way again."
Bob comments in Thrasher's Wheat Guestbook:
The quiet and rest which he so much desired, and which he was enjoying when he wrote, did not long remain his. He had just gotten my mother comfortably settled at the Baths, when he received the news of the sudden death of his brother Smith. He went at once to Alexandria, hoping to be in time for the burial. From there he writes my mother:
"Alexandria, July 25, 1869.
"My Dear Mary: I arrived here last evening, too late to attend the burial of my dear brother, an account of which I have clipped from the Alexandria Gazette and inclose to you. I wish you would preserve it. Fitz. and Mary went up to 'Ravensworth' the evening of the funeral services, Friday, 23d, so that I have not seen them, but my nephew Smith is here, and from him I have learned all particulars. The attack of his father was short, and his death apparently unexpected until a short time before it occurred. Mary [General Lee's eldest daughter] was present, and I hope of some comfort to her uncle and assistance to her aunt. Fitz. came here the afternoon of his father's death, Thursday, 22d, made all arrangements for the funeral, went out to 'Ravensworth' to announce the intelligence to our aunt. He carried down, Friday morning, on the steamer, Mrs. Cooper and Jennie, to stay with his mother, and returned that afternoon with his father's remains, which were committed to earth as you will see described.
"John returned the next morning, yesterday, in the mail-boat, to his mother, with whom Dan stayed. Robert arrived this morning and has gone to 'Ravensworth' to announce my arrival.
Bob | 10.06.05 - 3:53 pm | #
Clem comments in Thrasher's Wheat Guestbook:
(cont'd... I guess I rambled on longer than I thought.)
This indicates that there may be something heavier going on here than simply drug running. This isn't "Grab the test tubes and the scale, just get it all outta here" like the drug chemist in Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne", this is "Son, if the cops show up, you've gotta grab my gun, make a stand, and try and take 'em out." It seems as though it’s understood that the authorities aren’t there to arrest the family, they’re there to kill them.
Then again, I think there's also the possibility that the source of the problem may actually be the kid’s father, in a way. What if we’re talking about a backwoods family who’s living a 19th century life in a late 20th century world? They’ve been on this spot for a couple generations or so, somehow lost legal claim to the land, and now refuse to leave. Perhaps they’ve already been served papers (“delivered the mail”) and whatever deadline was set for them to be off the land has now passed, and the authorities are now on their way to physically remove the family from their home. Or the family could even be growing pot or something like that, and it IS just a bust we’re talking about, it doesn’t really matter. The point is that it could be that whatever the conflict is with the authorities, the family isn’t giving in, even if it comes to violence. The father instilled this in his sons while he was still around (or, at least in the 22 year-old kid) and so even if the cops are just coming to arrest them or to otherwise run them off the land, peaceful surrender isn’t considered an option.
Or, it could be some combination of all this, who knows? That’s the beauty of Neil’s lyrics (and of Powderfinger’s lyrics in particular.)
In any case, the kid is basically alone, the authorities are bearing down on the homestead, and it’s up to the kid to decide what to do. So, after a few moments watching the boat get closer, knowing he has to do something, he grabs the rifle, and takes up a position on the dock. His father’s words are replaying in his head (with the phrase “red means run, son” perhaps even suggesting that it’s entirely the kid’s decision to take up arms against the authorities, and not him merely carrying out his father’s wishes, that maybe his father had actually advised him to run if the cops ever showed up) but clearly the heart of what his father taught him about how to deal with the authorities (or at least what the kid took away from what his father taught him) is wrapped up in the reassuring feel of that rifle in the kid’s hands. Even if his father didn’t literally tell him to stand up and fight the authorities, the kid seems to believe that this is actually what he meant for him to do.
Now, here’s where it gets a little tricky, isn’t it? What actually happens after the kid arrives on the dock with his daddy’s rifle? Is the “first shot” just a warning shot that clips the dock next to the kid, prompting him to reflexively rai
Now, here’s where it gets a little tricky, isn’t it? What actually happens after the kid arrives on the dock with his daddy’s rifle? Is the “first shot” just a warning shot that clips the dock next to the kid, prompting him to reflexively raise the rifle to return fire before being cut down by a second shot? In other words, is there still a choice to be made even in that last moment or two? Or, is the “first shot” not from a rifleman on the boat, but from a cannon? Could be that the reason the kid has time to “see it coming” is that he sees the smoke or the flash from a cannon, and has just time enough to raise his rifle before the shell blasts the dock and kills him?
Personally, I think it’s probably the former. Truth be told, the idea that it was some sort of cannon shot from the boat originated when I first heard the song years ago and thought the last line of the verse was “my face flashed in the sky”, which is not only a slightly more surreal, dreamlike image in an already dreamlike song, but which also gave me the impression of an explosion. But the lyric as it actually is sung does suggest that the kid is killed by a bullet.
But I still see it as a warning shot hitting the dock, and the kid having the time to think “Wow… I could actually see the bullet,” as his first experience under fire commences, and then being shot by a second bullet that he DOESN’T see or hear as he aims his daddy’s rifle at the boat. It’s sort of a play on the old soldier’s mystery… do you hear the bullet that kills you?
Although the thoughts posted on the site about it probably being night because of the phrase “I saw black” at this point in the lyric, I think it’s referring not to seeing the night sky reflected in the water, but simply to the fact that the kid is losing consciousness, probably before he even realizes he was shot. And, of course, the last thing he sees as his vision dims (fades to black) is the sky reflected in the water (another reason I tend to think it’s daytime) and the reflection his face coming up to meet him with a splash as his body falls into the river.
Then that last verse… it’s just beautiful, and definitely feels like it’s being told in the private shorthand language of a dream state. “Shelter me from the powder and the finger”… unless the unspoken thing is that the family are cocaine smugglers (which I’ve heard suggested) then I think the “powder” here is almost certainly a reference to gunpowder. “The finger” could simply continue the firearms imagery and refer to a trigger finger. However, it could also be the finger of authority… that of the government authorities who “pointed the finger” at the family and sent the boat after them, or even the admonishing finger of the kid’s father, who may have instilled such an instinct for conflict in the kid that the kid ultimately made the choice to pick up that rifle, which in turn led to his own death.
“Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger” i
(cont'd... still again. Hell, sorry about the bandwidth, folks...)
“Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger” is probably the most difficult line of all to pin down, which is what makes it one of my favorite lyrical moments in the entire song. What’s he actually being covered with, and what does that then lend metaphorically to “the thought that pulled the trigger”? It could be, as suggested in the posts I read, a shroud or a flag. Some cloth covering, suggesting ceremony and honor. In this case, it’s possible to think of “the thought that pulled the trigger” in terms of the kid (or his spirit) saying “I died just as much a man as the one who shot me. Please honor me as such.”
Or, perhaps “the thought that pulled the trigger” refers to the last thought the kid had… that he did fire the rifle at the split second the bullet hit him, and he wants that final moment, that final action, that final thought, to be what defines him for those he left behind.
It may not be a shroud or a flag that “cover me” refers to, though. It could also be that he equates the motivations of those who attacked him in the first place, the thoughts of those who “pulled the trigger”, with the dirt that will cover his body when his family buries him. It may be a simple judgement of the action itself, that the hands of those who killed him are dirty, that it was their fault rather than his. If one sees the conflict between the people on the boat and the family on the shore as perhaps being part of a wider resistance movement against a murderous government, it may also be an exhortation to others to never forget who killed him and why… to metaphorically mark his grave with the tyranny of the government, making him a kind of martyr to whatever cause he and his family may have been part of. (This last interpretation is perhaps a bit of a stretch, but then again isn’t that half the fun of this sort of thing?)
And then, of course, the last two lines are fairly self-explanatory and sentimental, though the final one, “Remember me to my love – I know I’ll miss her,” almost never fails to raise the hairs on my arms. Maybe it’s partly because one can even play with that line a little bit too, if one wishes. Could be straightforward… the kid had a girl, and he’s saying goodbye. It could also be, in light of the previous line, “Just think of me as one you never figured was gonna fade away so young, with so much left undone,” that the final line is meant to evoke a sense that perhaps he never even actually met the love of his life, though much like all of us, he did think from boyhood of this elusive “woman of his dreams,” and in death he’ll miss her even so.
But you know… the more I put these thoughts into words and concrete interpretations, the more I think that perhaps in a way this kills the song. After all, I think many of us probably respond to Powderfinger because of the fact that the lyric is such a mystery, and is set up in such a way that it each line all
(cont'd... last one, I promise!)
But you know… the more I put these thoughts into words and concrete interpretations, the more I think that perhaps in a way this kills the song. After all, I think many of us probably respond to Powderfinger because of the fact that the lyric is such a mystery, and is set up in such a way that it each line allows maybe two or three different images or beginnings of interpretations to flicker there just at the edges of our perception, without ever allowing themselves to be pinned down entirely. In that vein, perhaps it’s actually best to forget every word of what I just wrote. ("Oh sure, NOW he tells us!") ;^)