Buffalo Springfield Week: “Broken Arrow”

Broken Arrow“, from the album “Buffalo Springfield Again” (1967) is certainly the most complex—and, at 6:11, the longest—of all the group’s songs. It’s the last song in our Buffalo Springfield Week series, and, of course, is by Neil Young. It was recorded when he was only 22, and already ridden with angst.

Wikipedia gives a much better summary of the song than I could, as well as a history I didn’t know about (Young was the only member of the band present at the recording; Furay’s vocals were put in later). I’ll add that it’s part of Young’s musical trope of the slaughter of Native Americans, which includes the songs “Pocahontas” and the underrated “Cortez the Killer“, a song with fantastic guitar and embarrassingly bad lyrics. The complexity of “Broken Arrow”, though, is almost Beatle-like: one could, in fact, consider it the “A Day in the Life” of the Springfield. It was in fact recorded the same year as the Beatles song, when Lennon and McCartney were 27 and 25, respectively.


“Broken Arrow” was confessional folk rock. It consists of three verses interspersed with snippets of sounds, featuring organ, a jazz combo with piano, bass, drums, and a clarinet. The song begins with audience applause (taken not from a Buffalo Springfield show, as some expect, but rather from a concert by the Beatles) and the opening of “Mr. Soul” (which opens the album) recorded live in the studio. The second verse begins with the sound of an audience booing, while the Calliope plays a strange version of the song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”, before some weird sound effects bring on the verse. There is also the sound of a military snare drum, that plays drum rolls, first quietly, and getting louder and louder, until the fifth time, an unusual sound effect brings the song to the third verse. The Jazz combo plays an improvisation, first taken up by the clarinet, and followed by the piano, until it fades out, whereas, we only hear the beating of a heart, until that fades out, too.

Each of the three verses uses surreal imagery to deal with emotions (emptiness of fame, teenage angst, hopelessness), and contains self-references to Buffalo Springfield and Young. They all end with the same lines:

Did you see them, did you see them?
Did you see them in the river?
They were there to wave to you.
Could you tell that the empty-quivered
Brown-skinned Indian on the banks
That were crowded and narrow,
Held a broken arrow?

. . . .The Blackfoot Indians would use a broken arrow to signal that they would cease fighting.

If you’re a fan, you’ll know that the group was named after a brand of steamroller. Reader Robert B. provided a photo of a 1924 Buffalo Springfield steamroller (below), and I’ve added the nameplate:





  1. Posted September 21, 2015 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    How’s his anti-GMO album?

    • darrelle
      Posted September 21, 2015 at 8:29 am | Permalink

      Neil Young made an anti-GMO album?

      • Posted September 21, 2015 at 8:41 am | Permalink


        • darrelle
          Posted September 21, 2015 at 9:04 am | Permalink

          Interesting. But what does that have to do with whether or not his music is aesthetically pleasing to someone? The implication you make, that because someone has ridiculous views on something therefore you can not allow yourself to like their music, is ridiculous.

    • Posted September 21, 2015 at 8:32 am | Permalink

      Really? What kind of gratuitous comment is this? Is it relevant to the discussion? I don’t think so.

      • Posted September 21, 2015 at 8:34 am | Permalink

        You clearly love his music. Yet ignore that he is a huge anti-GMOer.

        • Posted September 21, 2015 at 8:47 am | Permalink

          I don’t ignore it. What do you want me to do–write an anti-Neil Young/GMO post? I’m writing about his music, and my opposition to anti-GMOers on this site has long been clear.

          There seems to be some feeling that if I post about someone, I’m then obliged to call that person out for other stuff that I disagree with. Unfortunately, nobody’s perfect, and there’s nobody I am in complete agreement with about everything. And skeptisal, I suggest you go to some other website, as your carping isn’t welcome here.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted September 21, 2015 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

          Should we reject the music of Mahalia Jackson and Dorothy Love Coates and Odessa because it promotes religion? Reject Mozart’s Mass in C minor and Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” for the same? Aesthetics provides its own measure, its own rewards. In the direction you point lies madness.

  2. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    Jerry’s taste in Neil Young is very impressive – Pocahontas is a lovely song, but Cortez The Killer is a guitar classic. I never thought the lyrics were bad, they always struck me as kind of beautiful, although mostly because of the slow sadness of the music that carries them. Having said that I know bugger all about the actual history of Spanish colonialism and I know he gets stick for the awful a-historicity of the song’s lyrics. I still love the way he sings ‘Cortez, Cortez / What a killer…’ as the song nears its end though. That’s what great music, a great melody, does to lyrics – it transforms something as banal as America’s A Horse With No Name, which AFAICR has genuinely idiotic lyrics, into an enigmatic, lolloping classic. I couldn’t remember any more ‘appalling or banal lyrics/great song’ combos(at least not famous ones that are actually good) but there are plenty. I’ve just got a terrible memory.

    And that steamroller is beautiful too.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 21, 2015 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      I don’t think the lyrics of Cortez are bad musicality-wise. They are decent in that sense. The noble savage presentation of the Aztecs is what I always found lacking. It seems wistfully naive.

      But, I don’t think he could have achieved the emotional affects he did without portraying the Aztecs in that way. A more accurate portrayal would not have affected the emotional response to Cortez & the Spanish that he meant to evoke, but it would have changed the emotional response to the Aztecs from something like the murder of a sweet innocent child to the murder of an average adult warts and all.

      • josh
        Posted September 21, 2015 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

        I’m not entirely sure Neil intended it this way, but I’ve never interpreted the description of the Aztecs as literal. It’s an intentionally romanticized and idyllic ‘lost world’ that represents his equally idealized lost love. He’s unhappy with real life so he’s dreaming up a Golden Age he can never return to. That’s why the Aztec lines are so over the top: “Hate was just a legend, And war was never known.” Either Neil was stoned out of his gourd (not impossible), or he was a bit more subtle than people give him credit for. To me, this is why the final lines of the song tell us this lost paradise is where “she’s” living. The song alludes to the destruction of the Aztecs, but it isn’t really about it and it isn’t really about them being perfect in pre-colonial days.

        • Stephen
          Posted September 21, 2015 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

          Precisely. The song’s not about Native Americans or even Nixon as some have speculated.

          And I know she’s living there
          She loves me to this day
          I still can’t remember where
          Or how I lost my way

          It is about a kind of invasion, and the destruction of something beautiful though. Cortez is a metaphor.

          • TreenonPoet
            Posted September 21, 2015 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

            Yes; I that is similar to the impression that I have always had of the piece, though not a complete “destruction” because I assumed “she’s living” where the remnants are imagined to be.

            I am glad that Dr Coyne linked to what, in my experience is the best recording of Cortez The Killer – the one from the Zuma album.

  3. darrelle
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    A succinctly accurate description of Cortez. I agree it is underrated. Despite the bad lyrics it is my favorite Neil Young song.

  4. Scote
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Love the actual steam roller that runs on steam. Cool to see the old tech that gave road rollers their classic name.

    • Hempenstein
      Posted September 21, 2015 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

      If you like the finished product, you might be interested in a video account of bringing one back. Here’s part 1 of 4 of the British Salvage Squad programme’s episode on restoring one. The other parts should load automatically. Warning: if you like this, you’ll wind up watching a lot of them. They also resurrect a steam lorry. In one of the most hilarious ones they restore a Dustcart, which doesn’t sound that interesting but it shouldn’t be missed.

  5. Posted September 21, 2015 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    One critic described Neil Young’s lyrics as “sometimes flaky, sometimes profound, sometimes both at the same time.” Often the flaky bits disguise the brilliant ones so you feel their impact but don’t realize it for ages. The in Don’t be denied about him having a “naked disguise”… Or the opening lines of that song– “When I was a young boy, my mama said to me…” — a cliche followed suddenly by “…your daddy’s leaving home today, and I think he’s gone to stay” — and you’re suddenly in a different dimension without having felt the jolt.

    Anyway, yeh, the lyrics to Cortez suck a bit. And Pocahontas has some dire ones too! But there are some deceptively powerful lyrics in there as well.

  6. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Broken Arrow is also the name of Neil Young’s ranch in the Santa Cruz mountains.

    It can be reached by two private roads, one of which is marked “No Trespassing” and has a padlock on the gate, but the other allows pedestrians and bicyclists as well as cars that know the electronic code to open the gate. (Aoparently UPS is privy.)

    I’ve been doing massive amounts of mountain hiking this summer, and while further adding to the coffers of Gatorade, Glaceau, Crystal Springs, and Nestea, I last Saturday trudged a mile and half downhill to the entrance to the ranch. Several other ranches in the area have names over the gate, but NY’s simply has a carved picture of a broken arrow on a sign over the gate.

    As a kid, I was VERY familiar with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, but only knew BuffSpring as the folks that previously had S & Y, and had sung the song with the chorus “Stop Baby what’s that sound…” a song whose title I didn’t even know until recent postings here on WEIT. So this has been a musically revealing week.

  7. Merilee
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    After all these years as a fan I only heard about the steamroller connection from your site;-) I had always hought it was just something random like Strawberry Alarm Clock.

    • Hempenstein
      Posted September 21, 2015 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

      My comment to #4 might be of interest.

      • Merilee
        Posted September 22, 2015 at 6:26 am | Permalink

        Thanks. I’ve flagged it.

  8. Larry Smith
    Posted September 21, 2015 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Seeing the reference to Neil Young’s ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains has compelled me to pass along this account from a longtime chess friend who has lived up in that area for decades:

    “and Jimmy Messina and I shared a girl friend (though not at the same time). One I just heard from in the past week. And you and I played a game of chess beside a pool where she was house sitting… (NB: This was in Ojai, not the Santa Cruz area.)

    But I remember Buffalo Springfield and I also am a fan of Poco and Steve Stills and Neil Young (who had some guitars and some pot stolen from his house just a few doors down from where I was living, back at the time when Neil decided to stop being a super star and for about a year he played all the local spots in Santa Cruz county with his band, the Ducks, and a buck or two would be enough of a cover charge in most venues to get you in. And then a year or so later after Neil went back to being a super star I ended up taking a long drive to Oregon with a young kid (22 or 23) who swore that his profession was small time burglary and it was a friend of his who had stolen the stuff from Neil and my car-mate told this guy who stole from Neil that it was not OK to steal from Neil and that Neil’s stuff better get returned to Neil pronto or my car-mate would turn him in (honor among thieves). I totally believe pretty much all of this guy’s stories as he had a lot of detail to offer on pretty much all of it.)”

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