"Powderfinger" is a song written by Neil Young and first released on his album Rust Never Sleeps. The song is best understood in context of the album: the album's first side is acoustic and the second is electric, and the sound and lyrics of the album shade bit by bit from pleasant, "folk" topics, to harder, urban "punk" topics.
Powderfinger is the first song on the second side of the album, and is played on amplified instruments, while still showing signs of being a transition from the acoustic, folk-themed music of the first side. The song, although amplified, doesn't have the discordant feedback that Young would use later in the album. Its lyrics also tell an archetypical folk theme.
The song is about a young man guarding his house from a gunboat, perhaps law enforcement trying to stop a moonshining operation, although this is never clearly explained. Him and the boat shoot at each other, and he dies. Its rather bare and brutal, and when written out, barely seems like a textured emotional narrative, but since this is Neil Young, that is exactly what it is.
I first listened to Rust Never Sleeps the autumn after the death of Kurt Cobain, and that incident colored my many, many listenings of the album as a young man. What is interesting about this song, although I perhaps never thought about it until I set out to write this, is that it carries an air of tragedy about it. Tragedy suggests someone being compelled and driven to something by something intrinsic to them. For some reason this young man has to be on a dock carrying out a terribly one-sided gun duel with a boat. It is not incidentally that he is there: he has a story that is ongoing, that we never hear about, that is hinted about, but that is interrupted by the events of the song. But whatever internal conflicts are going on are never explained to us.
Another point about the song that only just occurred to me is how it plays with expectations of folk music and country music. Violence has long been an accepted trope in these genres, and there has been some critical commentary that a violent hip-hop song will attract more detraction than a violent country song, because somehow the first is "more real". In some ways, this song starts by reassuring us by following the predictable tropes of an "outlaw" folk song. The young men who kill and die in outlaw folk songs are almost cartoonish in their course: we know that these figures are meant to live violent lives, by narrative convention, and we are meant to take it almost as a joke: for example, in Johnny Cash's "Cocaine Blues". When this song says:
Daddy's gone, my brother's out hunting in the mountains
Big John's been drinking since the river took Emmy Lou
we are supposed to be lulled into a false sense of security, because this song is dealing with stereotypes. But at some point, using his special brand of lyrical and musical magic, Neil Young breaks our expectations and reminds us that the the young man dying pointlessly is a real person. It is just one of the many pivots and misdirections Neil Young pulls out on this album, and it is one that sets us up for the darker, less conventional conclusion to the album.