We have some information about Neil Young’s Sugar Mountain from fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. From a concert where she was singing a duet (familiar with Newton Family Singers):
She introduces her next song by saying:
The song she wrote?
The Circle Game. A live version from 1974:
Here’s Joni’s version of Sugar Mountain (1967):
Right. Back to Neil and Sugar Mountain:
He wrote this song right after leaving his band The Squires (this is a great interview with a bandmate from those teenage years about Young, Neil).
From Neil Young: Long May You Run: Neil wrote this at the Victoria Hotel in Fort Williams, Ontario. Around this time he met Stephen Stills, who was touring Canada with his band The Company. Young on Stills: “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.”
Sugar Mountain was the b-side to Young’s first solo single (The Loner) and did not appear on an album until 1977’s greatest hits compilation “Decade.” (It appeared as a b-side on a number of singles.)
Here’s Neil from 1971 with a talky intro:
at about the 5:45 minute mark, he talks about writing the song saying:
The verse he’s speaking of?
Here’s one of Young’s biggest fans doing his version:
(Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, for those wondering.)
And here’s a (quiet) video of Young from last year’s Farm Aid concert:
Do you love "Follow the Drinking Gourd"? Turns out a group called Adventure Cycling Association has developed a route to cycle the Underground Railroad from Mississippi to Canada. From their website:
Historians, preservationists, and researchers were contacted and asked the question, “How do you pick a route that represents thousands?” During this period of slavery, the tribal custom of creating songs to transmit information from plantation to plantation was used. Adventure Cycling chose to map a route guided by the song, “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” This song refers to following the North Star and the waterways—in essence, an escape route from Alabama and Mississippi—to the Ohio River. Upon reaching the Ohio River, Adventure Cycling relied on the knowledge and efforts of members and outside experts to steer the route to rich historic destination points while maintaining Adventure Cycling’s standards of great cycling roads and paths.
It took me a while to understand all the categories for various Grammy Awards: best record, best performance for a song, best song. The first goes to a producer, the second to a recording artist and the third to a composer.
I bring this up because I was thinking about “Daddy Sang Bass,” written by Carl Perkins for his friend and touring companion Johnny Cash. Perkins, of course, was the writer behind “Blue Suede Shoes” and other Sun Studio hits.
In the song, there is a direct quote of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” a hit for the Carter Family. Just to make things more roundabout, Cash’s wife, June was a Carter herself and the song is often credited to her father, A.P. Carter as the composer.
In fact, accounts say that Perkins asked Carter for permission to work “Circle” into “Daddy Sang Bass,” and Carter granted that permission. Well, why not? It wasn’t really his to give.
Our original edition of Rise Up Singing lists no composer for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” but the 15th Anniversary Edition lists “C Gabriel” as the writer. Some quick Googling will reveal that the lyrics to the song were written by Ada Habershon and the music by Charles Gabriel. Here’s a scan of the sheet music.
Folk music is about adaptation and the Carter Family did make some changes to the original song, the most obvious change in the chorus where a question — “Is a better home awaiting…?” becomes a statement — “There’s a better home awaiting…”
So yes, “Daddy Sang Bass” quotes the chorus of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” Fitting perhaps, that They Might Be Giants sampled “Daddy Sang Bass” in their song “Boat of Car” from their first album.
In this case, “sampling” is understood to mean, took a recorded snippet out of another composition. As anyone who has seen They Might Be Giants live, they don’t always have a ton of equipment (I remember seeing two guys, a guitar, accordion and a tape recorder of backing tracks play at my college). So sometimes when you play a song with samples, you just have to sing the song your own darn self.
(Not really relevant, but I find it poignant that this video was recorded on September 10, 2001.)
Bonus from a television special.