For his thirty-eighth solo record, The Hitchhiker, Neil Young decided to go old school—literally. All the tracks featured on the acoustic album were recorded in a single day in 1976 and have languished in archives ever since. Though some of these tracks were reworked and appeared on later albums, such as Young’s seminal Rust Never Sleeps, the songs were never heard in their original acoustic format—that is, until now. The reasons why this material ended up collecting dust for decades is almost as interesting as the music itself. You can hear The Hitchhiker in its entirety and check out our review of the album below.
At the time of the sessions that eventually became The Hitchhiker, Neil Young was slowly emerging from one of the darkest periods of his personal and musical life. Afraid of getting type cast as an acoustic lightweight, he had embraced the use of heavy-rock instrumentation, pushing away a fair chunk of his fan base from his Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Harvest period. Coupled with a melancholy mood permeating his life and music that brought on by the death of former Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten, at the time, Young was clearly working through a sea-change in his personal philosophy.
The opening song of Hitchhiker, “Pocahontas,” is familiar to fans of Rust Never Sleeps, but this version is infinitely more intimate than any version previously known. Young was very aware of the painful history of the native populations in the Americas and likely identified with their loss of identity. At the time of the song’s writing, these issues were once again on the minds of many Americans, and Young used his trademark nasal vocals to decry American Indians’ treatment and losses.
The following tune, “Powderfinger,” continued the vision of forceful loss of culture. The uncertainty of the words is palpable and is a stunning contrast to his innate comfort on the vocals and guitar. On “Captain Kennedy,” his simple percussive taps on the hollow body of his guitar are a powerful touch that echoes the heartbeat and that fade as the protagonist faces his fate. The occasional chuckles and comments before the beginning of these tracks offer an interesting insight into Young’s mood during the recording session as well, like the self-starting thought at the start of “Hawaii.” “Give Me Strength” is the clearest picture of Young’s low emotional ebb, serving as a naked look at his disconnection. The raw nature of the track is part song, part longing for hope.
By the time title track “Hitchhiker” rolls around, he seems to accept his place as a transitional force in the lives of everyone around him. With a painful divorce recently completed and a growing alienation from his friends and family, Young seemed in danger of fading away into a drug addled haze. The songs he wrote and recorded for Hitchhiker were clearly him realizing the dangers he faced and repudiating them with all the artistic fight he could muster. While fear of pigeon-holing prevented the release of The Hitchhiker at that point in his career, hearing them now is a wonderful insight into Young’s mindset at the time and moving forward. Though he was loathe to coast on his past successes, he was more than capable of making truly meaningful music in his older styles. That Young decided to fight against creative and personal stagnation and gave us one of the artist’s angriest and most seminal works. Luckily for all of us, we are now gifted with the opportunity to look at what might have been as well as what was.