Like most listeners, the first time I heard the song â€œFarmer Johnâ€ was on the Neil Young & Crazy Horse return-to-form album Ragged Glory in 1987. It seemed almost tailor-made for the proto-punk, garage rock stylings of the sometimes barely-competent but always glorious guitar skronk of Crazy Horse.
The songâ€™s got a history all itâ€™s own, however. Itâ€™s one of those chestnuts that gets unearthed every decade or so. Thatâ€™s a sign of either staying power or novelty, usuallyâ€¦in this case, perhaps a little of both.
The definitive version, and the one that Young & Crazy Horse and any other act to cover it since the â€˜60s is referencing, is from 1964, by The Premiers. Featured on the Nuggets box set, it has one of the strangest openings youâ€™re likely to hear on record.
â€œHas anybody seen Kosher Pickle Harry?,â€ asks an unidentified emcee. â€œNoooo,â€ a group of revelers drunkenly (?) bawl. â€œIf you see him, tell him that Herbert is looking for him.â€ More crowd noise ensues (including a shouted â€œWhoâ€™s Herbert?â€). Then the band is introduced to screams of delight before it kicks into the simultaneous drum-guitar-sax opening stomp. Party noise threatens to overwhelm the song throughout the roughly two minute duration, with drunken, pitchy harmonizing (â€œOh WAY Ohhhhhâ€) adding to the general sense of mayhem. Crazy, man, crazy. Dig it. Most of the â€œaudienceâ€ noise was courtesy of the all-girl Chevelles Car Club, on hand at the Hollywood studio where the cut was recorded.
The song became an unexpected breakout hit, moving from local to regional to national fame within weeks, ultimately reaching #19 on the charts in that summer of â€™64.
â€Farmer John,â€ like so many other hits of that era, was a rocked-up (read: â€œLouie Louieâ€â€™ed) remake of an earlier, more basic â€˜50s R&B song. Don & Dewey were a Los Angeles-based vocal duo. â€œDonâ€ is none other than Don â€œSugarcaneâ€ Harris, best known as the electric violinist on Frank Zappaâ€™s Hot Rats, Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh albums, as well as his appearances as a sideman with John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers.
The Searchers (of â€œNeedles and Pinsâ€ and â€œLove Potion No. 9â€ fame) also covered the song, in 1963, a version of which I could not track down. But, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals have been playing this gem in concert for a few years now, a version of which is below.
Don & Dewey â€“ â€œFarmer Johnâ€
The Premiers â€“ â€œFarmer Johnâ€
Neil Young & Crazy Horse â€“ â€œFarmer Johnâ€ [from Ragged Glory]
Neil Young & Crazy Horse â€“ â€œFarmer Johnâ€ [from Arc/Weld]
Grace Potter & The Nocturnals â€“ â€œFarmer Johnâ€ [Live]