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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63 Comments

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  • +5
    General Comment:I 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
  • +4
    General Comment:I 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 Comment:I 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
  • +3
    General Comment:Civil 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
    General Comment:ok, here's what i think, i think this is about a a young kid, during the civil war. in the lines "And I just turned twenty-two I was wonderin' what to do And the closer they got, The more those feelings grew"
    i think this kid had a lot of things on his mind, but he didn't know what side he was on or really had no opinion on the whole affair because he had so much to deal with in his own life. i think this song is about this kid getting gunned down while he was trying to make up his mind.
    CeeJaion October 14, 2002   Link
  • +2
    My Opinion:The 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
    My Interpretation:The way I see it, this is a song about rum-runners during prohibition. The "white boat comin' up the river" is most assuredly the U.S. Coast Guard coming to shut them down. The boat in question is probably something like this one, used at the time: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… - "it's got numbers on the side and a gun" and a powerful motor that would indeed make "big waves." Such official boats would have some sort of flashing light or "beacon". Now, I don't know if USCG boats were white as early as the Prohibition Era, but it would make a heck of a lot of sense, and the oversight is quite possible on Young's part since he apparently made the whole story up and I would doubt he would check for such minutia after the fact. Also, the line "it don't look like they're here to deliver the mail" seems to reinforce the fact that this is indeed, on some level, a government-operated craft, just not a U.S. Postal Service one. So, that's the basic level of the song. Onto the lyrics.

    This is a song about not knowing when to back down. The protagonist is young, but he seems to be the head of the household since his father died; he's holding the fort while his "brother is out hunting in the mountains" and "Big John [is] drinking." He sees the boat and warns his ma, but he's fully conscious that "the Powers That Be left [him] here to do the thinkin'" - he's the one who has to decide whether to fight or flee. His father told him that "Red means run, son, numbers add up to nothin'" - that should he see the Coast Guard coming, he should get the hell out and forget about everything else - yes, the numbers on the boat, on a basic level, but more importantly, the *figures* or rather, in the larger sense, their moneymaking operation.

    But as the song made clear, the protagonist has very little left: no father figure, an absent brother and a friend who's drinking from the loss of his love. And so, "without thinking why" - because he knows, at this point, there is a "why" - he raises his gun in a desperate attempt to save the situation and gets shot down. Had he done as his more experienced father had advised and packed up as soon as he went to warn his mother, or dropped his weapon, he might have been able to avoid his predicament. There also might be the fact that, since "Daddy's rifle in [his] hand felt reassurin'", he somehow feels that his own father would have stood his ground with it and that he was advising him to run because he was trying to protect him. In a way, he might be trying to step up or "be a man" by "raising [the] rifle to [his] eye."

    In any case, the story being told is from the young man's perspective after the events have transpired. And as he lays there, he realizes how stupid he was; how, had he known, he would have wanted to be "shelter[ed] from the powder and the finger", or never have been forced to make this kind of life-or-death decision. This is a cautionary tale told by the protagonist himself with his last dying breath: "Think of me as one you'd never figured/Would fade away so young/With so much left undone" - or, "you'd think someone with so much still ahead of him would have found a way to stay alive, but this is what happens when desperation drives you to put your life on the line for nothing," as it were. Put more bluntly: "learn to let go, or you stand to die for nothing." I think the fact that he wants to be "cover[ed] [...] with the tought that pulled the trigger" implies his shame, that he somehow wants to hide or that this was such a collossal mistake that he feels that this is all he is now - the idiot who thought it was smart to try to shoot at a USCG patrol boat. Now that he's alone with his dying thoughts, he understands that he'll never get to say goodbye to his love, that he needs to listener to do it for him - "remember me to my love" - and that "[he]'ll miss her", perhaps implying that, had he remembered earlier what he still stood to lose, he would have chosen otherwise.

    That's my two cents, but I think it makes more sense than yet *another* Vietnam metaphor. Also, the numbered boat and its description makes the song seem more modern than anything prior to the 20th century, as much as I like the Revolutionary and Civil War explanations.
    herr_gazeboon October 24, 2010   Link
  • +2
    General Comment:I 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
  • +1
    General Comment:With all due respect, Powderfinger is a horrible Australian band. They're the sort of rubbish that people who listen to Triple M listen to when they want to think they've broad enough tp listen to alternative music.
    elwyn5150on December 19, 2004   Link
  • +1
    General Comment:I think Leefroy's theory is awesome.

    Sly
    SLYcraftson March 29, 2006   Link

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