There can be no doubting Neil Young’s status as a rock music legend. The Canadian singer-songwriter has lived a fabled life and written some of the most influential songs in history. A guitar hero and a poet, these elements have endeared him to fans since he first broke onto the scene in the late 1960s.
Whether it be his work in Buffalo Springfield, CSNY or as a solo artist, Young has penned countless classics, inspiring four different generations in the process. It’s a testament to his work that Young can count the likes of Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Radiohead and Oasis as disciples.
Ostensibly, Young’s most consequential period started with 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and ended with 1975’s Zuma. This is not to criticise everything that came after Zuma, however, as there are many superb releases of note, but this period was the most consistent. Young gave fans many iconic moments across this run of creativity, and one of the best came in 1971 when he appeared on an episode of The Johnny Cash Show, dazzling the audience with a profound song he’d written shortly before.
The episode was ‘Johnny Cash on Campus’, and it was a special that first aired on February 17th, 1971. For this edition, Cash and the crew visited Nashville’s Vanderbilt University to talk to the students. In the segment prior to Young’s performance, we see ‘The Man in Black’ surrounded by a group of undergraduates, and one asks him about drugs. Cash candidly speaks of his well-publicised problem with narcotics before introducing Young, who he calls a “brilliant mind”.
The show then cuts to Neil Young in the Ryman Auditorium, who refers to drugs and says: “A lot of great artists get affected by that. A lot of great art goes down the drain.” He then jumps into his fresh track ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ in front of the all-student audience. After this stellar but incredibly bleak performance, Young then moves onto the piano and performs the timeless classic ‘Journey Through the Past’.
1971 was a momentous period for Young. Interestingly, this appearance on The Johnny Cash Show would significantly imapct the rest of his career. Whilst in Nashville, a local producer persuaded him to record his next album in the city. He did, and it became what is widely regarded as his magnum opus, 1972’s Harvest.
Harvest is inextricably connected to The Johnny Cash Show. After that night of recording the TV show, Young invited two of the other guests, James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, back to the studio with him. Famously, Ronstadt and Taylor helped Young piece his album together, and they sang backing vocals on ‘Heart of Gold’ and ‘Old Man’. Taylor even played the iconic banjo part on the latter.
In what must be one of the most important episodes in music history, that same show is also revered for another reason. The February 17th episode was the first time that Cash ever performed ‘Man in Black’, which is now hailed as one of the definitive songs in his extensive back catalogue. Cash was inspired by his discussions with the students at the university and wrote the lyrics the day of the show. The song was so fresh, that he used cue cards to remember the words.
A marvellous piece of history, there’s so much to love about this moment. Watch the clip of Neil Young performing below.