Once a week, I play acoustic guitar with a casual group of musicians. We have an energetic leader who is gifted at keeping us on track, and we play mostly rock and roll with some country thrown in. We take turns picking songs from the songbook we use, and we all strum and sing. I’ve played weekly for a few years now. I’m not good, but it’s my only diversion from writing and I love losing myself in the music for an evening.
One of the first songs we played last week was the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week”. As we played, it suddenly occurred to me that I was the only person there who was old enough to have been to a Beatles concert.
“Hey,” I said, when we’d finished the song. “I’m the only person in this room old enough to have seen the Beatles live.”
That got a chuckle.
Then we played a song we play nearly every week: “For What it’s Worth”. You may not recognize the title, but you would recognize the ominous lyrics and eerie melody. There’s something happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear. . .
“Hey,” I said when the selection was announced. “I’m the only person in this room old enough to have sung this song during a protest march.”
Another chuckle, somewhat muted.
We sing this song nearly every week. As we sang it this time, I wondered what meaning the lyrics had to my fellow guitarists. I recalled marching in Trenton, New Jersey, protesting the Vietnam War with my fellow students while that song played on our transistor radios, the haunting lyrics resonating deep in our hearts and minds. Although Stephen Stills was inspired to write “For What it’s Worth” by a different protest (teenagers fighting a 1966 curfew in Los Angeles), to those of us in our teens and early twenties back then, the song quickly came to represent our anguish about the entire Vietnam era. Paranoia strikes deep. My male friends were waiting for the draft lottery, hoping and praying their birthdates wouldn’t be assigned to a number that would send them overseas to fight for their lives in a war they didn’t believe in under the leadership of a president they distrusted and despised. As we sang the song in our guitar circle, I was flooded by memories of those times and those marches and the feeling so many of us had of a desperate need to make our voices heard in an effort to bring about change. I was quickly too choked up to sing along, thinking of the recent protests in Charlottesville and other cities–protests that pitted good against evil and–in the case of Charlottesville–that ended in tragedy. I may no longer be able to put my body on the line, but I support in every other way the people brave enough to protest for equality and justice.
Toward the end of the evening, we played “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones. I was tempted to point out that I’d been to seven Stones concerts by the time I was eighteen. Instead, I took in a long, steadying breath and decided to simply enjoy the music.