Here Are Two of Neil Young’s Favorite Songs by Johnny Cash and Ian & Sylvia

It’s the 1950s and early ’60s in Winnipeg, Canada, and Neil Young is already connecting to specific songs he found on the radio or some coin-operated jukebox.

Videos by American Songwriter

These early findings marked some of the first musical memories for Young. The singer shared two particular songs that left an imprint on him during this time in an interview with Conan O’Brien’s SiriusXM show Team Coco Radio.

Discussing how some of these earlier songs impacted him as a musician, Young revealed two of his all-time favorites: Johnny Cash‘s “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” from 1958 and the 1963 Ian & Sylvia folk hit “Four Strong Winds.”

Here are Young’s personal recollections of both songs.

“Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” Johnny Cash (1958)
Written by Jack Clement

Neil Young was nervous. He was in his early 20s and had just recently released his third album After the Gold Rush when he was invited to perform on The Johnny Cash Show on Feb. 17, 1971. 

“I really liked John,” said Young, who never really got to speak to Cash. “But that’s okay. He was busy. You got to realize doing this, I’m what 23 years old. I’m going on a television show. I was petrified. So I was thinking about the song I was gonna sing. Was I going to screw it up, or not? That’s all I thought about. I really don’t remember much else about it.”

Cash left his imprint on Young since he first started listening to the country legend in the 1950s and one ballad in particular always stuck with him.

Featured on the 1958 compilation Johnny Cash Sings The Songs That Made Him Famous, “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” tells the story of a young woman who makes it big in Hollywood but leaves it all behind. She returns back to her small town and the boy she once loved, who worked at the local candy shop. 

“You are a storyteller,” said O’Brien to Young. “I think, better than just about anybody, you tell a great story when you’re in your songs, and this is the classic story song. This is Johnny Cash telling us the tale of the teenage beauty queen.”

After listening the the song, O’Brien asked Young if the song still held up from the first time he heard it in the ’50s. “Oh, yeah,” laughed Young. “Definitely.”

Originally written by Jack Clement and first recorded by Cash, “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” became an instant hit, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard country chart and No. 14 on the Hot 100.

Dream on, dream on, teenage queen
Prettiest girl we’ve ever seen

There’s a story in our town
Of the prettiest girl around
Golden hair and eyes of blue
How those eyes could flash at you
How those eyes could flash at you

Boys hung around her by the score
But she loved the boy next door
Who worked at the candy store
Dream on, dream on teenage queen
Prettiest girl we’ve ever seen

“Four Strong Winds,” Ian & Sylvia (1963)
Written by Ian Tyson

The first time Young heard “Four Strong Winds” by Canadian country/folk duo Ian & Sylvia, he was at a campsite at Falcon Lake near Winnipeg with Jack Harper, a bandmate from his very first band the Squires.

“It was just a lake where you can pitch tents around, so we had our tent, my friend Jack and I,” remembered Young. “And we were out there, and I found this thing [the Ian & Sylvia song] on the jukebox in the restaurant. … That’s a beautiful song.”

Young said he kept playing the song on repeat until he ran out of money. “I loved it so much that I would put nickels and dimes in the jukebox to play it over and over and over again until I didn’t have any change,” he said. “I would just stand there in front of it and listen to it. It was a beautiful song. For some reason, it really got to me. I could feel the magic of the music.”

Lyrically, the song mentioned going to Alberta, something that resonated with Young. “It was great,” shared Young. “It’s nice to hear one of the other provinces. It could easily have been Manitoba or Saskatchewan.”

Written by Ian Tyson within 20 minutes in his manager’s apartment in New York City in 1962, “Four Strong Winds” was also one of the first songs Tyson had ever written for the duo, and it was used as the title of their second album. The duo credited Bob Dylan with their success after he had suggested that the couple start writing more original folk songs.

Ian and Sylvia Tyson began performing together in 1959 and were married in 1964. They later divorced and stopped performing together in 1975.

Ian died at the age of 89 on Dec 29, 2022. Sylvia, now 82, has been a member of the all-female folk group Quartette since 1993.

Think I’ll go out to Alberta
Weather’s good there in the fall
I got some friends that I could go to working for
Still I wish you’d change your mind
If I ask you one more time
But we’ve been through this a hundred times or more

Four strong winds that blow lonely
Seven seas that run high
All those things that don’t change, come what may
But our good times are all gone
And I’m bound for movin’ on
I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way

Photo: Joel Bernstein / Courtesy Warner Records

Leave a Reply

Whiskey Myers Extends 2023 Tour