Music has bonded people together in community and some say contributed to governmental overthrows or at least an occasional riot. Why else would Russia imprison a band of girls who performed for free outside a church? Lord knows it wreaked pure havoc in the United States of America.
There was Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” In a time when only three networks broadcast the daily news and teenagers were seeking a new point of view, a Canadian-American band provided such counsel. With their song inspired by riots on the sunset strip in California, Buffalo Springfield was the man on the street broadcasting to the counter culture and in turn helped bond a generation.
I found myself listening to this epic masterpiece when it appeared on the radio recently. And for those reaching the age of wonderment in 1966 when they first heard it on the radio, it must have sounded like a news bulletin from a most trusted spokesman. It even begins with news like chime alerting the listener to a breaking story.
The song literally begins with a reporter/man on the street “There’s somethin’ happenin’ here/What it is ain’t exactly clear.” It’s also a breaking alert “Stop, children, what’s that sound?/Everybody look – what’s goin’ down?”
Stephen Stills, the song’s writer, was quite aware of what was happening there and his brilliance went beyond keen observation. “Young people speakin’ their minds/Gettin’ so much resistance from behind” Here the word ‘behind’ bears tremendous weight. One could figure it relates to the reality of the youth being hit literally from the back as was the case in numerous police skirmishes. Or perhaps, the lyric gets to deeper truths. Envision if a line was added to be “from behind “the times.” You begin to understand what the band was getting at. The future was approaching and like it or not change was afoot. The establishment was behind the times.
It’s a song about a time moving forward. About defiance and uncertainty. And of course about paranoia. The fact that it’s a side effect of the sixties drug of choice makes the song resonate on one level while presenting an all too real reality for longhaired hippie freaks. They understood Stills’ sentiment when he wrote “Paranoia strikes deep/Into your life it will creep/It starts when you’re always afraid/Step out of line/the man come and take you away”
The song tried to make sense of the chaos much as a journalist might. A generation responded and an era was launched. Buffalo Springfield of course soon disbanded; however, it’s various members continued to shape the world through songs that spoke to their community. As Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young they would reemerge as the Walter Cronkite for a generation. But before Cronkite there was Edward R Murrow and thus Buffalo Springfield.
I got a chance to see this band a few years ago at Bonnaroo and consider it a musical highlight of my life. They were the harbingers of a musical revolution as they built a community through song.
The also instructed us in harsh realties of coexistence “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” They were so right and they were right for the times.