“Rockin’ in the Free World” is one of Neil Young’s most popular songs. It’s number 216 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Every time I ever do a “Why It Works” analysis of a song on this blog, you’ll see me mentioning some aspect of the simplicity of design as a positive feature, and this tune is no different. The melody is fairly restricted in range, it’s built over a couple of very related, simple progressions, and it uses a basic verse-chorus format with a guitar solo in the middle and one at the end.
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Let’s take a look at each element and see how they connect to each other, and how those connections make this song really work.
If you listen to a lot of Neil Young songs, you start to see that even though a song may be in a simple major or minor key (this one is in E minor, with an A chord thrown in, borrowed from the dorian mode), he tends to favour pentatonic melody shapes.
An E minor pentatonic scale uses the notes E, G, A, B and D, and you’ll notice that a lot of the verse melody dwells on these notes, particularly D, E and G:
Those melodic ideas, playing in and around those three notes, are a favourite shape of Neil’s, and as I say, you’ll notice that he really likes pentatonic shapes. You see it in the opening line of “Old Man” (“Old man, look at my life/ I’m a lot like you were…”), and all through the melodic ideas in his “Heart of Gold.”
All of the melodic gestures in “Rockin'” are downward-moving; they typically start on a high note, then move down, and that occurs as well in the chorus (“Keep on rocking’ in the free world..”). That’s a bit unusual; most of the time, when a verse is inundated with melodic cells that move in one particular direction, it’s more likely you’ll see a switch to cells that move in the opposite direction in a subsequent section, like a chorus.
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I think the most noticeable thing about the melodies in “Rockin'” is just how constricted they are, and how simply they’re constructed. The verse has Neil singing mainly three different pitches: D, E and G.
Then for the chorus, you don’t get much of anything different, just a slightly different tone set (E, F#, G), so you still get this very constricted melody. It works, of course, but I think it’s because of what happens in the lyrics as well as the chord choices that we don’t really get bothered by a verse and chorus melody that are both so limited in their span.
The lyrics reference the politics of the late 1980s, so you’ll see references to the Iranian “death to America” mantra of that time, as well as some gibes to George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of lights”, and “a kinder, gentler nation.”
But I think what is most noticeable is that this is the sort of lyric where the meaning gets transmitted best when being sung over one or two pitches. When you sing lots of repeated notes, it sounds like a kind of musical “scolding”. Just as Bob Dylan chose to set the lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone” over melodic cells that repeat the same note often (“Once upon a time you dressed so fine/ Threw the bums a dime/ In your prime…”), Neil sings out the words to “Rockin'” like he’s really trying to make an important point, and uses repeated pitches to do it.
The song is in E minor, and both the intro and the verse use the simple three-chord progression Em-D-C. In the intro, those chords get played over a pedal point bass that sits on that tonic note E. The bass then moves to play root position chords for the entirety of the verse.
The chorus switches to the relative major key of G major, and gives us this progression: G-D-C-Em. The tag at the end of each chorus, which brings us back to either the intro for the next verse, or Neil’s guitar solo, is an A major chord.
These are simple progressions that usually fly under the radar; there’s nothing here that is innovative, except I keep thinking back to those melodies with their very constricted melodic ranges, and the fact that all the melodies we hear in “Rockin'” are so similar. I think the reason we don’t count that similarity as a strike against them is the fact that one melody — the verse — gets set in minor, then the next melody — the chorus — gives an entirely different feeling being set in major.
And then at the end of the chorus, he could have easily gone right back into the verse progression, continuing that Em chord and giving us the next verse. But instead he pulls everything upward and brighter by throwing in the A chord — the first time in the song we get even a hint of dorian mode. That makes the return to the Em sound so much darker, more angry.
So I think Neil’s chord choices have a lot to do with making the melodies work. That shouldn’t surprise us too much, of course; all good songs are a partnership of elements, where no one component exists on its own.
Like most song analyses, you can spend a lot of time wondering how much of the demonstration of good songwriting principles is down to intuition, and how much is actively thought out by the songwriter.
In the end, that doesn’t really matter. For those of us who listen to and love these songs, what’s really important is to identify when we hear something that sounds great, and then go looking for answers.
The simplicity of the design of “Rockin'” means that it’s a song that’s easy to remember and easy to sing — both important qualities of songs destined to be hits. And that simplicity also allows Neil’s trademark politically-laced lyrics to shine without being upstaged.
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