Neil Young’s Cortes the Killer

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Now and then I encounter a song I’ve heard before, and hear something in it I haven’t previously heard. Once, almost fourteen years ago, I woke up one day thinking about a song on The Band’s second album, Whispering Pines. I tried listening to it on tape, and the sound quality just wasn’t good enough, so I bought the CD. That one is a song about a man who has lost the woman he loved, but hopes to find her again. No more than two months after that happened I met the woman I eventually married.
Many years ago I bought Neil Young’s second album, the one with Cinnamon Girl and Down by the River on it, but didn’t buy any others until he put out what I think was his first greatest hits album: Decade. The song that attracted me to buy it was Tonight’s the Night, but it has many of his best early songs on it, and as I was listening to it the other night, one of them struck me.
Cortes the Killer starts with a very long intro, slow and sad, the lead guitar kind of winding around the melody. It sounds like a dirge. I haven’t yet deciphered all the lyrics, but enough to know that they aren’t all factually accurate, and that this is a song about archetypes.
It begins with Cortes sailing towards the New World, “He came dancing across the water, With his stallions and guns”, and describes the New World somewhat in the way that the more idealistic settlers from Europe thought of it: as a land untouched by sin. “And the women all were beautiful, and the men stood straight and tall…”, that hate and war were unknown.
This last part we know to be untrue. The Aztecs, as did the cultures before them, practiced war and human sacrifice. What is amazing today is that Cortes, with less than 500 soldiers, was able to bring down an empire that was as large or larger than most European countries. He did have horses and guns, and the natives seem to have thought him and his men to be gods, but the natives vastly out-numbered Cortes and his men. I suppose we could admire the courage of the Spanish, but their enterprise certainly wasn’t noble.
The song goes on to say that the people carried stones, died along the way, and built monuments that we’re still unable to duplicate. Just what the process was we don’t know, but there are amazing monuments in Mexico and other parts of the two continents, and we can still only speculate as to how they were built.
The penultimate verse is: “I know that she still lives there, And she loves me to this day, I still can’t remember, When and how I lost my way”, which makes the song both personal and archetypal. There was something precious to be found here, and the “she” might be a muse, or some other archetypal woman. A goddess of love or wisdom, perhaps. And all the Americas HAVE lost their way, like most of the rest of the world.
Wendell Berry, the author who is also a farmer, suggests that when Europeans came to this hemisphere their main motivation quickly became greed, no matter what ideals they had started with. Such vast lands, inhabited by people Europeans didn’t bother to consider human, seems to have made them desire to exploit. They sought gold and silver first, using natives as slaves to work the mines, and when the natives died or ran away, bringing blacks from Africa to replace them.
Many natives died in that process, many unintentionally from the diseases white men brought, to which the natives had no resistance, but many intentionally too. Different cultures have difficulty putting aside fear of each others differences to become friends.
The sickness goes back a long way, though. In the history of the human race we know about (only a small part of the whole) war has been a constant. It goes back a long way on the two American continents too.
The legend of Quetzalcoatl (the Mexican name of someone we may consider to have been an actual figure; there is a parallel legend in the northwestern area of South America) is supposed to have been white (odd, since most Native Americans were not), and to have come from the east at a time of great disorder to teach the natives the skills of civilization. The practice of human sacrifice in Central America and Mexico went back a long way. According to legend, Quetzalcoatl opposed this, but was unsuccessful in stopping it. He and the followers he had brought with him are then said to have left by sea, though promising to return.
So the reality of the Americas was not as bright as Young paints it in this song. What is strange is that many of the native peoples had predictions that white men (whom some thought to be gods) would someday return to their part of the world. White men did, but they brought unfortunate things with them, that slew and enslaved most of the natives.
The last lines of the song are: “He came dancing across the water, Cortes, Cortes, What a killer…” The singer’s voice fades, and then so does the band, playing a dirge for the beginnings of the European version of the Americas.

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