Look out, Mama, there's a white boat comin' up the river
With a big red beacon, and a flag, and a man on the rail
I think you'd better call John,
'Cause it don't look like they're here to deliver the mail
And it's less than a mile away
I hope they didn't come to stay
It's got numbers on the side and a gun
And it's makin' big waves.

Daddy's gone, my brother's out hunting in the mountains
Big John's been drinking since the river took Emmy-Lou
So the Powers That Be left me here to do the thinkin'
And I just turned twenty-two
I was wonderin' what to do
And the closer they got,
The more those feelings grew.

Daddy's rifle in my hand felt reassurin'
He told me, Red means run, son, numbers add up to nothin'
But when the first shot hit the docks I saw it comin'
Raised my rifle to my eye
Never stopped to wonder why.
Then I saw black,
And my face splashed in the sky.

Shelter me from the powder and the finger
Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger
Think of me as one you'd never figured
Would fade away so young
With so much left undone
Remember me to my love,
I know I'll miss her.


Lyrics submitted by kevver

Powderfinger song meanings
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65 Comments

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  • +5
    General CommentI have always thought that this song was about the Metis Rebellion which took place in westen Canada in the last quarter of the 19th Century. Neil Young is Canadian, of course, and has always had strong ties to the native peoples. The wars between the soldiers of the United States and the Native American tribes are well known by most Americans. However, the situation in Canada was even more complicated. When the French colonized eastern Canada in the 1600s, they sent many soldiers and trappers, and very few women. For this reason, many of the early settlers took native wives. A separate culture emerged known as the Metis. These people knew the ways of both the French and the native people. When the English conquered the French in the French and Indian War, they placed oppressive controls over the French, even deporting thousands of Acadian French to Louisiana to make room for English settlerrs. Young French settlers escaped the cities and found themselves in the wilderness known as Madawaska, where they were accepted and assimillated by their Metis half-brothers. Many of the Metis lived a nomadic life, traveling hundreds of miles to the area north and west of Lake Superior, where they could live in peace away from the influence of the English. However, conflict eventually followed, as the railroads opened the west and immigrants flooded into the rich grasslands occupied by the Metis. The Canadian government sent troops to seize control of the region. Canadian soldiers and Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Metis "troops" were killed in the battles. Eventually the "rebellion" was ended, and at least on Metis leader, Louis Riel was executed for his part in the rebellion. It was a sad time in Canadian history.
    In what is known as the Battle of Batoche, the Canadian soldiers converted a steamboat into a gunboat and sailed up the South Saskatchawan River, where a gun battle ensued between the settlere and the troops.
    I believe this song is a fictional account of the death of one of the Metis settlers during the Battle of Batoche
    leefroyon August 17, 2005   Link
  • +5
    General CommentI honestly don't think who was on the boat is that important. I always felt the song was basically a youth angst anthem...here's a kid whose entire life is in front of him, with his own dreams and ideas, yet he's killed having to defend something he might not even want to protect --- or more accurately, something that others should be protecting instead of him. The closing lines about "Just think of me as one you never figured / would fade away so young" are really powerful stuff.

    Then again, one of my old bosses was convinced that the song was about gun control. So it's hard to say.

    Incidentally, I think the people on the boat are actually Treasury officers, coming to forcibly shut down an illegal still. They've got both might and "right" on their side (the white boat, the numbers and the gun), yet this song is from the perspective of the other side.
    thermo4on January 08, 2007   Link
  • +3
    General CommentCivil War? American Revolution? Jesus H. Christ....how many white boats with numbers on the side and big red lights were cruising around "making big waves" (and yes that is exactly the lyrics!) with their wake back then? The Viet Nam war idea is not bad, except that the boats would not likely be white and you would probably not find many natives named "Big John" or "Emmy Lou" around that area. It's hard to imagine the setting being anything other than rural America, most likely in the South sometime during the past century (i.e. after the invention of motorboats, at least.) Moonshining, whatever - the exact nature of the family's alleged transgressions are irrelevant. The boy's father had clearly had some run-ins with the law and had passed down his distrust and lack of respect for the authorities to his son, who then paid with his life.

    And I agree - the guitar solos on the electric version are chilling and incredible.
    zoso726on December 28, 2013   Link
  • +2
    My OpinionThe single best story-song ever written. A boy becoming a man in the harshest of ways, long before it's time. Tragedy does Neil good.
    AlyoshaKaramazovon February 28, 2009   Link
  • +2
    General CommentI think Neil young was very careful NOT to make this song about any particular war. The geography is vague; the enemy boat is white.
    Putnamon October 11, 2012   Link
  • +2
    General CommentI think it clearly was not to be a specific war or government action. It could easily be a boy in the Civil War, a moonshiner's kid in 1933, or a young Vietnamese kid up the river in that war. Standing his ground, but not sure the nature of the threat or why he is fighting back. Reflex maybe.
    walkernyon May 02, 2013   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI think Leefroy's theory is awesome.

    Sly
    SLYcraftson March 29, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General Commenthhhhmmmm, would it be wrong to say that RUST NEVER SLEEPS is the BEST neil albumn???
    janexsayson January 05, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General CommentMy thought has always been that it is a revenue (Treasury Dept.) boat coming after moonshiners. I place it in time during prohibition, when going after stills was a big deal.
    duhaaston July 15, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI've always felt there is what songwriters call a "composite" element in this song. Like a character in a novel that's based on several real people. I tend to feel that the Civil War, hillbilly thing is most likely but, like several others have said, the boat sounds too modern. There's almost a Vietnam war feel to that boat. Like many posts have said - who cares? On the radio today I heard someone talk about the essence of a "good song", referring to something by Radiohead; he said that good lyrics are those that "resonate within you, even though you may not know what they mean". Resonate? Powderfinger has me wobbling like a jelly!
    petermillaron January 17, 2008   Link

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