Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World, Neil Young Backstory

By on December 18, 2019

It’s no surprise that 1989 saw Neil Young’s transformation from folk-rock legend to a growling, snarling pre-grunge harbinger of Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s impact on music. “Rockin’ In The Free World” is filled with anger at an increasingly conservative, backward-looking American culture and laid the foundation for the rock music genre that would change the industry by 1991.

Written during February of 1989 while Neil Young was touring the Pacific Northwest, “Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World” offers listeners a scathing commentary on the era. It was released a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and became an anthem as democracy spread throughout Eastern Europe.

Crazy Horse guitarist, Frank “Poncho” Sampedro recalled to Mojo Magazine in a 2018 interview that there was supposed to have been a cultural exchange between Russia and the United States. “Russia was getting Neil Young and Crazy Horse and we were getting the Russian ballet! All of a sudden, whoever was promoting the deal, a guy in Russia, took the money and split. We were all bummed, and I looked at Neil and said, ‘Man I guess we’re just gonna have to keep on rockin in the free world. He said, ‘Well, Poncho, that’s a good line. I’m gonna use that, if you don’t mind.'”

This song, like Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., is sometimes used as a pro-America anthem, which completely ignores many of the ironic overtones of the lyrics. While the chorus does seem to celebrate the United States, it’s laced with grim verses that paint an alarming picture of life in modern America.  Some lyrics mock Bush era campaign speeches: “We got 1,000 points of light, for the homeless man,” and “We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand” – a paraphrase of the famous line “I want a kinder, gentler nation” from Bush I’s nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 1988.

The video attached is as close to a Time Capsule as we can get; It’s not a simpler time considering the global changes going on during the period, but perhaps it was a time when we were more connected and centered in our collective goals?   As the camera pans the crowd, there are a lot of different faces, and all walks of life represented during this memorable performance. I’ve felt this collective, positive, life-affirming energy in these same situations and hope you keep Rockin’ In the Free World. Remember, America is a beacon of light in the darkness. Hold on to that, and don’t let it go.

Neil Young, “Keep On Rockin’ In The Free World”


There’s colors on the street
Red, white and blue
People shufflin’ their feet
People sleepin’ in their shoes
But there’s a warnin’ sign
on the road ahead
There’s a lot of people sayin’
we’d be better off dead
Don’t feel like Satan,
but I am to them
So I try to forget it,
any way I can.

Keep on rockin’ in the free world,
Keep on rockin’ in the free world
Keep on rockin’ in the free world,
Keep on rockin’ in the free world.

I see a woman in the night
With a baby in her hand
Under an old street light
Near a garbage can
Now she puts the kid away,
and she’s gone to get a hit
She hates her life,
and what she’s done to it
There’s one more kid
that will never go to school
Never get to fall in love,
never get to be cool.

Keep on rockin’ in the free world,
Keep on rockin’ in the free world
Keep on rockin’ in the free world,
Keep on rockin’ in the free world.

We got a thousand points of light
For the homeless man
We got a kinder, gentler,
Machine gun hand
We got department stores
and toilet paper
Got styrofoam boxes
for the ozone layer
Got a man of the people,
says keep hope alive
Got fuel to burn,
got roads to drive.

Keep on rockin’ in the free world,
Keep on rockin’ in the free world
Keep on rockin’ in the free world,
Keep on rockin’ in the free world.

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