For What It’s Worth
The Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth” begins softly, with the picking of an acoustic guitar and the bell-like harmonics of a second electric guitar. Slowly the song builds through the intro and into the first verse when Stephen Stills scratchy voice warns, “There’s something happening here . . . what it is ain’t exactly clear . . .” then beyond a few more words, it moves into a chorus: “I think it’s time we Stop! children, what’s that sound? / Everybody look what’s going down.” The punch of chorus comes through the otherwise mystical background music and implores us to move past our own peaceful complacency and into an awareness of the ugly danger that creeps all around.
Unlike a lot of Southerners, I wasn’t raised on the gospel music of the church. My family wasn’t a regular church-going sort, and when we did go, I don’t remember finding the stiff music appealing at all. As an adult, I’ve been in churches that either rocked it out with gut-bucket interpretations from the old hymn book or that warmed the heart with the country-bluegrass rhythms of the deep woods homeplace, but our Baptist church had neither. So, instead of being reared with a deep affection for “I’ll Fly Away” or “How Great Thou Art,” I planted my musical roots in FM radio and my older brother’s record and tape collection— 1960s and ’70s classic rock. And, as. I got older, it was the electric-fuzzy folk- and country-influenced tunes, like “For What It’s Worth” and The Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” that spoke to my soul in ways that Southern hymns must’ve spoken to other people’s.
Songs like “For What It’s Worth” are the measuring sticks with which I judge all popular music. Because those songs address something that exists deep in the core of all of us: a dismay at the world we see around us coupled with a recognition that we will do our best to find peace and happiness anyway. In the second verse, Stills sings, “There’s battle lines being drawn / Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong,” and though that was in 1966, it sounds a lot like now. Even more so, the third verse, which has “a thousand people in the street / singing songs and carrying signs / mostly say, hooray for our side.” In the 21st century, we’ve smartened it up by calling it “tribalism,” and coding it with red and blue, but I think Buffalo Springfield said it better. I’m no blue dot in a red state, I’m a human being who doesn’t like he sees around him, who wants to get along with other people, even those I disagree with.
Prior to closing with a few repetitions of the lines in the chorus, the fourth and last verse in “For What It’s Worth” leaves us with one more admonition:
Paranoia strikes deep,
Into your life it will creep.
It starts when you’re always afraid—
You step out of line, The Man come and take you away!
The song offers no answers and fades out instead of coming to a halt. Moreover, its enigmatic title phrase, a shrugging acknowledgment of the futility of trying make things better, never appears in the song’s lyrics.
What makes this song, which was popular well before I was born, one of my long-time favorites is: it only asks us to pause a moment and take look at what we’re doing, to ourselves and to other people. That’s all. It can be tempting to lean on dogma, the entrenched heuristics that we use to make quick judgments, but the human race is a messy, diverse, and ever-shifting target for the prophets of one-sidedness and their followers. And I think it’s much wiser to do what Martin Luther King, Jr. suggested and consider each person according to the “content of his character,” not by the color of his skin— or of his political party. I also don’t think what we need to focus on is waiting to “fly away” to the “by and by,” but instead on something closer to home: “I think it’s time we Stop! children, what’s that sound? / Everybody look what’s going down.”