5 Little Known Facts About Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’
The landmark album was released on this date in 1972.
By Andy Kahn Feb 1, 2023 • 12:42 pm PST
Neil Young released his acclaimed album, Harvest, on February 1, 1972. More than a half-century later, the album is among the most well-known and beloved albums in Young’s illustrious catalog.
Harvest was recorded by Young at sessions held at his barn in Northern California, along with additional tracking in Nashville and London. The album introduced such now-classic songs as “Out On The Weekend,” “Heart Of Gold,” “Old Man,” “Are You Ready for the Country?,” “The Needle and the Damage Done” and the title track. The sessions saw Young backed by The Stray Gators – pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith, keyboardist Jack Nitzsche, bassist Tim Drummond and drummer Kenny Buttrey.
The sessions also saw drop-ins from the likes of Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor who appeared on “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man,” as well as Young’s cohorts David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash (“Alabama” features Crosby & Stills, “Words” features Stills & Nash and “Are You Ready For The Country?” features Crosby & Nash). Young enlisted the London Symphony Orchestra on “A Man Needs a Maid” and “There’s a World,” the two Harvest songs deemed by some as sub-par compared to the otherwise well-received tracks.
“[Harvest] is a big album for me,” Young said. “50 years ago. I was 24, maybe 23 and this album made a big difference in my life. I played with some great friends, and it’s really cool that this album has lasted so long. I had a great time and now when I listen to it, I think I was really just lucky to be there.”
In recognition of the anniversary of its initial 1972 release, scroll on for five little-known facts about Neil Young’s album, Harvest.
1. “Old Man” Features James Taylor Playing Banjo For The 1st Time
In February 1971, Neil Young was booked to appear on The Johnny Cash Show which was taped in Nashville at The Ryman Auditorium. Johnny Cash’s program had just premiered with Bob Dylan and in addition to Young’s appearance, guests scheduled to appear on the show included James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. Young had just met engineer Elliot Mazer who arranged for Taylor and Ronstadt to participate in a recording session at Quadrophonic Sound Studios while the musicians were in Nashville to tape the TV show. Young later wrote, “Harvest never would have happened without Elliot, he was great.”
On February 8, 1971, Taylor and Ronstadt added backing vocals to “Heart Of Gold” at a session featuring Young joined by ace Nashville session players, drummer Kenny Buttrey, bassist Tim Drummond and pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith that were called The Stray Gators. Nashville songwriter Teddy Irwin also added a second acoustic guitar alongside Young.
Two days earlier, Young, Taylor, Ronstadt, Buttrey, Drummond, Keith and local pianist James McMahon held a session at Quadrophonic Sound Studios that once again saw Taylor and Ronstadt supplying backing vocals, this time on “Old Man.” While their distinct voices may be easily discerned, that’s Taylor playing a six-string banjo – tuned like a guitar – on “Old Man.” This was despite Taylor having never played the instrument before, and tuning it like a guitar. In 2010, Taylor discussed his banjo part, succinctly stating, “It’s so much less difficult than it sounds from just the other side of being able to do it.”
2. Neil Young’s Injured Back Influenced The Album’s Acoustic Leaning
As a child, Neil Young contracted polio, which permanently damaged the left side of his body. In August 1970, Young moved to a ranch outside of San Francisco and while working on the property severely injured his already weakened back. Young subsequently wrote “Old Man” about the Broken Arrow Ranch’s previous caretaker Louis Avila.
The next year saw Young taking pain medication as well as multiple stints in the hospital, resulting in surgery to remove discs from his spine in August 1971. During this period of injury and recovery, Young did not possess the strength to stand and play the electric guitar. The impact of both the downtime and lack of physical strength forced Young to focus his attention on the acoustic guitar, unconsciously creating the signature warm sound of Harvest.
Heart Of Gold (Live at the BBC)
3. Actress Carrie Snodgress Was Young’s Inspiration For Harvest
Much of Harvest was written about or for Carrie Snodgress, a wonderful actress and person and Zeke Young’s mother.
Neil Young began a 2019 essay regarding Harvest with the above statement. Young’s relationship with Snodgress came after he reached out after seeing her in the film Diary of a Mad Housewife during his downtime from his injured back. While recording Harvest, Snodgress moved in with Young on his ranch in the Bay Area, and Snodgress’ extended family members and friends also took up residence at Young’s ranch. In September 1972 Snodgress and Young’s only child, a son named Zeke Young (who has cerebral palsy), was born.
Among the most overt Snodgress references found on Harvest comes from a lyric in the song “A Man Needs A Maid” in which Young sings “I fell in love with the actress / She was playing a part that I could understand.” Other Harvest songs inspired by Snodgress include “Heart of Gold” and “Out on the Weekend” (“She’s so fine/She’s on my mind”). Snodgress’ mother Carolyn – who often threatened suicide, among other eccentricities – is said to have partially been the source of inspiration for the Harvest title track.
Snodgress and Young’s relationship ended in 1974. Young’s song “Already One,” that appeared on his 1978 album, Comes A Time was written about Snodgress. “One of the best tracks (imho) is ‘Already One,’” Young revealed in 2020. “That song still resonates strongly with me today. I wrote it about Carrie, Zeke’s mom. She was a very special person and I still see her and love her in Zeke today.”
Sadly, Snodgress died in 2004 at the age 58.
Out On The Weekend
4. Neil Young Needed “More Barn” During Recording
Broken Arrow Ranch was one of the locations Neil Young recorded parts of Harvest. In addition to James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, others who were part of the various recording sessions were Young’s bandmates David Crosby and Graham Nash who along with Stephen Stills formed Crosby, Stills & Nash and with Young expanding that group to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
In a 2013 interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Nash relayed an astonishing story about visiting Young at the ranch to hear Harvest prior to its February 1, 1972 release. Speaking to host Terri Gross, Nash recalled:
“I was at Neil’s ranch one day just south of San Francisco, and he has a beautiful lake with red-wing blackbirds. And he asked me if I wanted to hear his new album, Harvest. And I said, ‘sure, let’s go into the studio and listen.’
“Oh, no. That’s not what Neil had in mind. He said, ‘get into the rowboat.’ I said, ‘get into the rowboat?’ He said, ‘yeah, we’re going to go out into the middle of the lake.’ Now, I think he’s got a little cassette player with him or a little, you know, early digital format player. You know, so I’m thinking I’m going to wear headphones and listen in the relative peace in the middle of Neil’s lake.
“Oh, no. He has his entire house as the left speaker and his entire barn as the right speaker. And I heard “Harvest” coming out of these two incredibly large speakers louder than hell. It was unbelievable.
“Elliot Mazer, who produced Neil, produced “Harvest,” came down to the shore of the lake and he shouted out to Neil: ‘How was that, Neil?’
“And I swear to god, Neil Young shouted back: ‘More barn!’”
In 2016, Young spoke to The Huffington Post and confirmed Nash’s recollection of the “More barn!” request. Young told the HuffPost’s Todd Van Luling:
“Well it’s funny, it’s just a little thing that happened one day and it keeps growing and getting crazier. But I had the left speaker, big speakers set up in my house with the windows open. And I had the PA system — that we used to rehearse and record with in the barn where I recorded ‘Alabama’ and ‘Words’ and a couple other things — over there playing the right-hand channel. So, we were sitting in between them on a little lake and that’s what we were doing.”
When asked to specifically verify the “More barn!” detail, Young paused before answering, “Yeah, I think it was a little house heavy.”
5. Bob Dylan: Not A Fan Of “Heart Of Gold,” But Did Like “A Man Needs A Maid”
Fellow singer-songwriter Bob Dylan did not like what he heard when “Heart Of Gold” came on the radio shortly after its release as the Harvest lead single. Young’s most popular release to date, “Heart Of Gold” sounded a bit too familiar to Dylan, who stated:
“The only time it bothered me that someone sounded like me was when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, in about ’72 and the big song at the time was ‘Heart of Gold.’ I used to hate it when it came on the radio. I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to ‘Heart of Gold.’ I think it was up at #1 for a long time, and I’d say, ‘Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me.’
“There I was, stuck on the desert someplace, having to cool out for a while. New York was a heavy place. Woodstock was worse, people living in trees outside my house, fans trying to batter down my door, cars following me up dark mountain roads. I needed to lay back for a while, forget about things, myself included, and I’d get so far away and turn on the radio and there I am, but it’s not me. It seemed to me somebody else had taken my thing and had run away with it, you know, and I never got over it. Maybe tomorrow.”
While Dylan was not a fan of “Heart Of Gold,” he apparently was a fan of the somewhat controversial “A Man Needs A Maid.” Young has faced criticism for “A Man Needs A Maid,” with some accusing it of taking a patriarchal, chauvinistic point-of-view in part due the use of “maid” to describe a woman in a relationship with a male counterpart.
Young addressed the supposed controversial lyrics from stage in 1971, stating:
“This is another new song. It’s called ‘A Man Needs A Maid.’ It doesn’t really mean what it says. It’s just the idea that anyone would think enough to say something like that would show that something else was happening. So don’t take it personally when I say it. I don’t really want a maid. ”
Young again attempted to explain the meaning of the song’s lyrics during an appearance in 2014:
“You people seem a little more receptive to that song. Now maid is a word that’s been hijacked. OK. It’s been hijacked. It doesn’t mean what it means anymore. Now it’s like a derogatory thing. It’s something bad. Someone working. Sometimes I tell a little story here about something. Kinda tears it for people a little bit. I think some of you were here last night, especially the loud ones. So I don’t have to tell that story anymore. That’s over. (Audience protesting).
“So you weren’t here last night. I’m glad that we’re talking now. So a while ago a long time ago I was in a band and we were playing in London. Staying in a hotel, which we usually do, which I don’t do anymore. But we used to do all the time. I got tired and now I like to stay in a motorhome now. You know where everything is. You know it works. But anyway, I was in this hotel and there was this light switch on the wall. I walked over to it but it wasn’t a light switch. I was surprised to see 2 buttons. The top one you pressed a MAN and the second one you pressed MAID. I immediately went to the piano. That’s how it happened.”
Despite Young’s need to defend the song’s lyrical construct, Dylan – a lyrical master in his own right – was fond of the Harvest track. Writing in 1977 for the liner notes of his compilation album Decade, Young revisited “A Man Needs A Maid,” recalling:
“I recorded this with the London Symphony Orchestra. Some people thought this arrangement was overdone but Bob Dylan told me it was one of his favorites. I listened closer to Bob. Robin Hood loved a maid long before women’s liberation.”
So there you have it: Bob Dylan not a fan of “Heart Of Gold,” big fan of “A Man Needs A Maid.”
A Man Needs A Maid
Loading tour dates