Music has a unique and special relationship with time. Music can forever be stuck in a moment, and warm or chilling memories are recalled whenever the song is heard. Or maybe the style of the song evokes the characteristics and mood of its period. “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees recalls the flash and excess of the disco era 1970’s. “You Can’t Hurry Love” reminds us of the pure joy and sheen of 1960’s soul music. “Runaround Sue” brings us right back to the corner streetlight of the 1950’s.
Those are all great songs, but even greater are those songs that transcend time and place. Those songs that regardless of when they were written or they are heard, always apply to the moment we are living. Listen to “Hard Times Again Come Again No More” written by Stephen C. Foster in 1854.
“Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.”
Or listen to the 1964 song “Eve of Destruction.”
“The eastern world it is explodin’,
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’,
You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’,
You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’,”
“For What It’s Worth (Stop Hey What’s That Sound)” is at once stuck in a moment in time, and yet accessible to all time. When we hear it, we can see the protests of the 1960’s. We can imagine scenes of violence in the streets as people fight for civil rights, protest the war in Viet Nam or fall victim to campus shootings. And yet this remains a vital song for our time, still applicable to so much over 50 years after its release.
Stephen Stills was in the great southern California rock band Buffalo Springfield, along with future rock stars for the ages Neil Young, Jim Messina and others. In 1966, Buffalo Springfield was the house band at the Whiskey A Go-Go club on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip, and a curfew was implemented to help reduce the noise of the late night crowds. Over 1,000 people rioted in protest of the new rules. People marched. Police came out in riot gear. Stills saw what was happening, went to his house, and in 15 minutes wrote a song for the ages.
The song begins with brooding, harmonic whole notes played by Neil Young on the electric guitar with a skittering bass drum underneath. An acoustic guitar carries the melody forward and the drums are now playing an eerily futuristic, almost hip-hop (more on that later) rhythm. Stephen Stills sings in a rough, lonely and desolate voice.
“There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop
Children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look, what’s going down?”
Voices join in melody for the three line chorus, then everything quiets again to a whisper with only Young’s guitar. A whisper. A question. A plea. Almost a cry.
Think about the year 2020. Think about the protests in response to the senseless killing of George Floyd. Think about the lack of funding to those out of work due to the Coronavirus. Think about the lack of action in response to the global pandemic. Think about the upcoming presidential election. There IS something happening here…and what it is AIN’T exactly clear.
“There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind”
There comes a time when we need to express our collective frustration. We are angry and we need somewhere to go, somewhere we can vent. We burst out the front door of our home, see others in the street. Others who are just as angry, others who also need a place to go. We are there. The police are there. Everybody is there.
What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and they carrying signs
Mostly say, “Hooray for our side.”
And then, before the song comes to an end with several repetitions of the chorus, encouragement to not be afraid. Fear brings paranoia, and paranoia is license to for someone else to take over. Don’t be afraid. Stand your ground. Stop. Look around. Realize what’s going down?
“Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the men come and take you away“
Not to forget the drum beat that sounds eerily futuristic, the great hip-hop group Public Enemy must have heard something in that decades old Buffalo Springfield song as well, and used its beat and harmonic guitar part as the basis for their brilliant 1998 song “He Got Game,” even going so far as to record the song with Stephen Stills himself. Click on that link, it is a passionate, angry, respectful and endlessly creative cover of the original.
“For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey What’s that Sound?)”
Written by Stephen Stills
Performed by Buffalo Springfield
Released December 23, 1966
Stills presented this song to the record company executive Ahmet Ertegun saying, “I have this song here, for what it’s worth, if you want it.”