Supriya Ghosh (Editor)

Helpless (song)

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Released  March 11, 1970
Genre  Folk rock
Label  Atlantic Records
Recorded  November 7, 1969
Length  3:30
Writer(s)  Neil Young

"Helpless" is a song written by Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young, recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on their 1970 album Déjà Vu.


"Helpless" was originally recorded with Young's band Crazy Horse in early 1969, before Young's new CSNY bandmates (he had joined the then-trio in mid-1969) convinced him it would suit them better. The song was simple, at its core effectively the repetition of one melody over a descending D-A-G chord progression. The group found difficulty deciding on an arrangement and many different versions of the song were recorded before the group finally decided on the slow-paced version that appeared on the album. On this final version Young was in the foreground, singing the verses and the chorus with his bandmates providing the "helpless" refrain, while the instrumentation came in the form of acoustic guitar, electric guitar (with volume pedal and tremolo), piano, bass and drums. It became one of the most revered songs from the Déjà Vu album (Q magazine's Peter Doggett regards it as "one of (the album's) showpieces"), and has remained a live favorite of Young's for over forty years. An alternate mix of the CSNY version was released on Neil Young's "Archives Vol. 1." It features Young playing harmonica and electronically-treated percussion.

The "town in North Ontario" referred to in the opening line of the song is often presumed to be Ontario native Young's hometown; Young himself cleared up the rumors in a 1995 Mojo interview with Nick Kent:

"Well, it's not literally a specific town so much as a feeling. Actually, it's a couple of towns. Omemee, Ontario, is one of them. It's where I first went to school and spent my 'formative' years. Actually I was born in Toronto..."

Omemee, just west of Peterborough, is well within what is now considered Southern Ontario, and 130 km from Toronto by road.

Cover versions

  • Folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie recorded a cover version for her 1971 album She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina.
  • It was arranged in 1984 by Japanese musician Yukihiro Takahashi, and it was sung by Bill Nelson. It is collected in album WILD&MOODY.
  • In 1980, Canadian band Fosterchild recorded a version of the song on their album On The Prowl.
  • In 2004, k.d. lang recorded a version with a lush string section for her album Hymns of the 49th Parallel.
  • Nick Cave recorded a rendition of this song for the Neil Young tribute album, The Bridge: A Tribute To Neil Young
  • Young performs the song with the Band and Joni Mitchell in the film The Last Waltz.
  • In 2004, Canadian band Cowboy Junkies recorded a studio version for 'neath Your Covers, Part 1, a bonus disc of covers that accompanied some orders of their album One Soul Now; a live version appears on their 2006 album Long Journey Home (Live).
  • In 2007, Patti Smith covered the song on her album Twelve.
  • In 2010, Heavy metal band Black Label Society recorded a version as a bonus track on their album Order of the Black. Also appears on their album The songs remain Not the same
  • John Nolan of Straylight Run and Taking Back Sunday covered the song on his 2010 EP, Songs I Didn't Write.
  • Scottish hard rock band Nazareth recorded a cover version for their 1989 album "Snakes 'n' Ladders".
  • Montreal based Indie rock band Arcade Fire performed this song with Young at the 2011 Bridge School Benefit
  • British artist Mike Rosenberg (Passenger) covered this song with Old Man River on their One For The Road tour in 2011 and Rosenberg has since covered it himself whilst busking around Europe
  • In 2012 the Italian artists Massimo Priviero and Michele Gazich covered Helpless in their album Folk rock
  • Live cover performances

  • Ryan Adams performed a notable duet version with Gillian Welch at Nashville's Exit/In
  • Over the Rhine recorded a live version during a winter 2001 concert at Cincinnati's Taft Theatre, which was released on the band's 2002 rarities compilation, "The Cutting Room Floor."
  • The Spring Standards & Joey Ryan recorded a live version.
  • Elton John, Leon Russell, Sheryl Crow, and Neko Case performed a live version in 2010.
  • Case/Lang/Veirs performed a live version at the Ryman Theater, Nashville in August, 2016.
  • References

    Helpless (song) Wikipedia