What I think happened in the song Powerderfinger by Neil Young


I love the song and just about wore it out playing the vinyl version of Live Rust as a teenager. The most haunting song is Powderfinger about an unnamed 22 year-old dying in what appears to be a raid on a riverside dock community. When and where are never explained, but it could be in the Civil War.

What is left unclear is exactly how the young man dies. Common thought is that he was shot since he could see rounds hitting the dock, but I am not so sure.

It is clear the firearm he grabs to defend the homestead is not his own. It is his father’s and the song notes he is gone. So, it is an unfamiliar weapon. The fact that he had to grab another person’s rifle may indicate an unfamiliarity with firearms.

These next eights lines of lyric tell the story of the fatal second:

Raised my rifle to my eye
Never stopped to wonder why.
Then I saw black,
And my face splashed in the sky.

Shelter me from the powder
and the finger
Cover me with the thought
that pulled the trigger

Listening to the song a lot, I don’t think it was enemy fire that was the cause of the tragedy. It sounds more like a firearm breech exploded due to a plugged barrel.

He raised his rifle to his eye, despite noting how his father’s advice had been to flee in the event of an attack. Raising the rifle to his eyes, he never stops to wonder why he was about to try to kill in a foolhardy stand.

The black he sees is the back of the firearm exploding and sending fragments through his eyes as he touched the trigger. The breech explosion causes his face to splash in the sky.

A dying lament to be sheltered from the “powder and the finger” is especially poignant if the cause of death was his father’s “reassuring” rifle exploding. The “thought that pulled the trigger” was his own .

Only Neil Young knows for sure what happened on a dock with a nameless 22 year-old and bullets flying. Or maybe even he isn’t sure. Great songs, like other great art, sometimes leave a detail or two hidden even from the artist themselves.

Here are all the lyrics:

Look out, Mama,
there’s a white boat
comin’ up the river
With a big red beacon,
and a flag,
and a man on the rail
I think you’d better call John,
‘Cause it don’t
look like they’re here
to deliver the mail
And it’s less than a mile away
I hope they didn’t come to stay
It’s got numbers on the side
and a gun
And it’s makin’ big waves.

Daddy’s gone,
my brother’s out hunting
in the mountains
Big John’s been drinking
since the river took Emmy-Lou
So the powers that be
left me here
to do the thinkin’
And I just turned twenty-two
I was wonderin’ what to do
And the closer they got,
The more those feelings grew.

Daddy’s rifle in my hand
felt reassurin’
He told me,
Red means run, son,
numbers add up to nothin’
But when the first shot
hit the docks I saw it comin’
Raised my rifle to my eye
Never stopped to wonder why.
Then I saw black,
And my face splashed in the sky.

Shelter me from the powder
and the finger
Cover me with the thought
that pulled the trigger
Think of me
as one you’d never figured
Would fade away so young
With so much left undone
Remember me to my love,
I know I’ll miss her.

Oh, and go buy the album: http://www.amazon.com/Live-Rust-Young-Crazy-Horse/dp/B000002KDI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1392790119&sr=8-1&keywords=live+rust+neil+young

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