12 Things You Didn’t Know About Neil Young

Neil Young

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Neil Young
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Still Rockin’ in the Free World

Neil Young is set to turn 77 this month. Read on for a sampling of random facts — just a handful from a list that could go on for days — about the notable folk-rock icon in honor of his Nov. 12 birthday.

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Neil Young
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His Roots Are Up North

Neil Percival Young might be considered one of America’s legendary folk-rockers and has often been referred to as the “Godfather of Grunge,” but he was born in Toronto, Canada, moving to Los Angeles to pursue his growing musical career in the 1960s. Today, he holds citizenship in both America and Canada.

Related: Celebrities Who Have Dual Citizenship

American History
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But He’s Got Strong Ties to American History

Young’s father was a Canadian journalist, sportswriter, and author, and his mother (though also Canadian) had French and American ancestry. She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which means her family members were instrumental in securing American independence.

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Neil Young
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His First Instrument Was a Ukulele

The award-winning guitarist known for his signature style and sound — from his solo work with Crazy Horse to time with numerous bands from Buffalo Springfield to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young among many others — actually got his start on a plastic ukulele, said to have been a Christmas gift.

Niel Young
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He’s Been Highly Honored

Young isn’t one of those artists who toils away in obscurity, foregoing or spurning any formal recognition. The list of Young’s awards and honors is staggering, from multiple Grammy and Juno awards (the highest American and Canadian, respectively, music honors) to being inducted, twice, into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He’s been on many “best of” lists, has sold gold and platinum releases and was awarded the Order of Manitoba in 2006 and named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2009.

Rick James
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He Worked with Funkster Rick James

Young was once a band mate (and roommate) of future funk icon Rick James. The two musicians shared a Toronto apartment and were band mates in The Mynah Birds, which was said to be inspired by the R&B-meets-rock sound epitomized by The Rolling Stones. The group featured James as its singer and would go on to become signed by Motown. Its future was cut short, however, when James was outed as an American draft dodger on the run.

Rust Never Sleeps

He’s a Noted Filmmaker

Young has long served as a director, or co-director, on a number of films since the early 1970s, starting with “Journey Through the Past” (1973). If you don’t remember his name in the credits, it’s because he uses the pseudonym Bernard Shakey for his cinematic work. Perhaps the most famous of his efforts might be the documentary/fantasy “Rust Never Sleeps” in 1979. He’s also contributed to film soundtracks, including 1993’s “Philadelphia,” collaborated with notable directors such as Jim Jarmusch and, in 2015, was recognized by the IFC Center in New York City. 

Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi
Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi by Jason E. Bond (CC BY)

He’s Got a Namesake Spider

Be careful if you swat away a Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi, since it has a celebrity connection. In 2008, Jason Bond, a biologist at East Carolina University, identified a new species of spider and named it after the rocker, a nod reportedly made in honor of Young’s activism for peace and justice.

Train set

He’s an Avid Model Train Enthusiast

Young’s love of model trains goes back decades and became a way he connected with his children. He even became a part owner of the Lionel brand in the early 1990s, and work with the company included helping design special remote controls to aid his children (and others with physical challenges). He’s reportedly a board member of the company to this day.

Lynyrd Skynyrd
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His Feud With Lynyrd Skynyrd Was Exaggerated

The reported feud between Young and Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd, both sides agree, has been blown out of proportion. Young’s “Southern Man” (1970) and “Alabama” two years laterwere critical of the South and its history of slavery and Jim Crow practices. They were reportedly sparked by 1974’s “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. The so-called rebuke famously noted, “I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don't need him around anyhow.” Ouch. In the ensuing years, though, both sides have said the feud was exaggerated, with Young and band members seemingly tipping their hats to each other over time.

Related: The Most Notorious Celebrity Feuds of All Time

The Bridge School
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He’s a Noted Philanthropist

Having two sons with cerebral palsy, Young has been active in working to help others with challenges. He and his former wife, Pegi, help found The Bridge School in California, which serves children with severe speech and physical challenges. An annual benefit concert is a major fund-raiser for the institution. In addition, Young, Willie Nelson, and John Mellencamp co-founded Farm Aid, which benefits struggling American farmers, and Young has long been active in environmental causes.

Political Activism Remains
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His Political Activism Remains

Young’s music has often had pointed political references, criticizing public figures including several presidents over the years. More recently, he battled with Spotify earlier this year in protest. He accused the music service of spreading COVID-19 misinformation via the Joe Rogan podcast in a move that shook the foundation of the streaming system.

neil young
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He Suffered From Polio As a Child

As a child, Young was among many children who contracted polio in the early 1950s, during what would be the last major outbreak of the dreaded disease in Ontario before a vaccine became available. He was partially paralyzed but would recover. Health issues, from epilepsy to a brain aneurysm, though, would continue to plague him throughout life.

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