For What It’s Worth

By Mark Fleischer, StoryBoard Publisher

There’s somethin’ happenin’ here, 
what it is ain’t exactly clear.
There’s a man with a gun over there,

tellin’ me I got to beware.
I think it’s time we stop, children,

what’s that sound,
Everybody look what’s going down.

from "For What It's Worth"
~Stephen Stills and Buffalo Springfield, 1967

(Play clip)

In the last week or so I’ve been listening to – or, have been called to – some of the more iconic protest songs of the 1960s.

They’ve always been some of my favorites anyway, and I am just old enough to know the songs as those classics that showed up every now and then on 1970s FM radio when I was a kid. And with the knowledge that they played against all that was a-changing during the turbulent late-60s, I grew up with them with deep yet distant, intellectual understanding of their gravity – what they said, out loud, bravely – influenced and reinforced by countless films and soundtracks. 

There’s battle lines being drawn, 
nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.
Young people speakin’ their minds,

gettin’ so much resistance from behind.

The emotions and messages behind the chords and the vocals of these songs don’t feel so distant today. It’s as though time has been condensed and fifty years reduced to fifty days, and those songs play in my head and heart as though I had written them myself. 

Mother, mother, 
there’s too many of you crying.
Brother, brother, brother,

there’s far too many of you dying.
You know we’ve got to find a way,

to bring some lovin’ here today.

“What’s Going On”
~Marvin Gaye, 1971

In listening to these songs today, against the backdrop of the marches in our streets, is to be reminded that they were almost desperate pleas for awareness, understanding, love and brotherliness. Or beautifully raw, painful expressions of confusion, anger or sadness.

Gotta get down to it, 
soldiers are gunning us down, 
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her,

and found her dead on the ground? 
How can you run when you know?

~Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1970

Emotions were so raw for the recording that David Crosby – “Four, why? Why did they die? How many more?” – cried when they finished their takes. These were brave expressions. Right on time. In the moment. And they made us stop, listen and feel. 

In today’s world of instant news and the barrage of information and social media posts, those old songs for me weave so well into today’s protests for the very same pleas for understanding and brotherly love. Here in Memphis, the nightly protests have settled into slow, rhythmic dirges down the avenues, repeating mantras of the movement – No justice no peace, I can’t breathe – just like a song. 

The nightly peaceful marches are – hopefully – doing a little of what song can do, slowly turning heads and minds, asking us to stop, listen and feel. And while the battle in the street that Stills sang about in 1967 has mostly subsided today, as of this writing, the bigger battles lie ahead in the board rooms and living rooms of litigation and mitigation, and yes, hopefully more listening, and more understanding. 

Some have said that identifying racism in institutions and people can be hard to define or explain, but fits the old phrase “I know it when I see it.” That phrase originated from the 1964 Supreme Court obscenity case over the French film The Lovers and how the courts and the average person were to define hard-core pornography. 

Because these protests have succeeded in at least one other aspect: they have partially exposed the thin facades of individuals, people we may know who now reveal a lack of understanding in either their silence, or a refusal to understand in their subtle commentary. Call these reveals for what they are: racism. And real changes will come when we are brave enough to say something when it matters most, during those quiet moments sitting in front of the television or chatting over brunch, catching someone making that comment that either sounds insensitive or that reveals something deeper.

Then, like now, obscenity and pornography are both subject to the individual observer’s sensibilities and to the era itself. In the 1970s George Carlin famously identified the seven words you can’t say on TV, and only two years ago most TV stations bleeped the words shit, asshole and sonofabitch. And thanks to thousands of tweets by the highest office in the land, these words are now all over the airwaves, primetime and all. 

Question is, does I know it when I see it even apply to racism? Everyone knew that what came out of Archie Bunker’s mouth was racist. And me, I am fairly certain – or pretty sure? – I know racism when I see it, or hear it.

But what of the racism hidden in plain sight or behind office doors? This type is built into lending institutions, grocery store chains. Or police training. And I can’t typically spot institutional, systematic racism, because as a white person it doesn’t happen to me

Oh, you know we’ve got to find a way, 
to bring some understanding here today.

To the rhythm of the song and the pace of the protests: Stop. Listen. Feel. Understand. Stopping how we typically react is a start. Listening is the next vital step. Feeling comes next, and when you have that, you have understanding. Next of course comes the hardest part: bravery.

When Neil Young wrote “Ohio,” it was from his immediate reaction to the Kent State shootings of May 4, 1970, when the Ohio National Guard shot 13 unarmed students who were peacefully protesting the Vietnam War. 4 students were killed in the shootings. 

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, 
we’re finally on our own. 
This summer I hear the drumming,

four dead in Ohio. 

The line about President Nixon is a reference to the Nixon administration and its Law and Order practices from ’68 on, and it has been said that fellow band member David Crosby later stated that keeping the lyric in the each take of song was the bravest thing he’d ever heard. It took guts to release that song, for the band and the band’s record label Atlantic. It was banned on mainstream AM radio stations for the Nixon lyric and mostly played on underground FM radio before becoming the protest anthem it is today. 

Not all of us are a 20-something-year-old Neil Young’s or Stephen Stills or Marvin Gaye’s, nor do we have their platforms. But bravery has many platforms, and opportunities present themselves to us everywhere. For some, it may be during those quiet moments at the dining room table, saying something when you’ve traditionally been the one to swallow your opinion in order to keep the peace and get through that holiday dinner. 

And that may be your song of protest. For what it’s worth.

Come on people now, 
smile on your brother

everybody get together,
Try to love one another right now.

“Get Together”
~performed by The Youngbloods, written by Chet Powers, 1967

Thanks to reader Janet (comments, June 10) for the inspiration.

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