A Noteworthy Response

In the aftermath of tragedy, a '60s anthem once again sounds right

Terrorism Strikes America

September 20, 2001|By LINELL SMITH | LINELL SMITH,SUN STAFF

Harry Casey remembers stepping out of French class to the news of terrorist attacks. That afternoon, as the tragedy began to take permanent shape, the Park School junior heard a song play in his head. It was a song he had first heard while he was listening to his mom's oldies station in the family Toyota.

There's something happening here

What it is ain't exactly clear

There's a man with a gun over there

Telling me I've got to beware

I think it's time we stop - Children, what's that sound?

Everybody look what's going down

The teen-ager was hearing Buffalo Springfield perform its 1967 hit "For What It's Worth." Although he wasn't sure of the circumstances that had produced it, Casey knew the song's message was anti-violence. It seemed to fit the unfolding crisis perfectly, although he couldn't say exactly why.

Later that night, as the student wondered how he could make a contribution - he was too young to donate blood, he didn't even have his driver's license - he thought again about the song. Perhaps he could write a new arrangement of it. And maybe The Vocal Chords, the a cappella group he sang with, could perform it for the rest of the upper school. This gesture might mean something, he suspected. It might be a good thing.

Everywhere, it seemed, music had become an immediate response to the tragedy. On television and radio stations, instrumental interludes replaced advertisements, cushioning the blows between horrific news updates. Across the nation - in churches, on streets, at prayer vigils, even in Congress - people were instinctively coming together in song. Diverse communities spoke with one voice whenever they sang "America the Beautiful" or "God Bless America." The patriotic anthems were prayers that everyone knew, prayers that linked people not only to the country but to their own histories. Singing them could help you hold on, and at the same time, move forward.

Casey had a hunch that the song haunting him was also powerful. But the next step, the getting-it-on-paper part, would require assistance.

Paul Hulleberg, Park School music teacher and director of The Vocal Chords, agreed to help him rework "For What It's Worth" for the high school group. Hulleberg knew the ability of music to comfort: The day of the terrorist attacks, he had watched one student soothe himself by playing the same melody over and over on a recorder. He also knew that the act of working together musically could help people transform grim experiences in beneficial ways.

But he also had doubts. While Harry Casey had no previous context for the lyrics - to him, they seemed eerily tailor-made for 2001 - his 45-year-old teacher was concerned about what this song represented to others. Although Stephen Stills had written the piece in 1966 about a youth riot in Hollywood, it had eventually become an anthem for an entire era of protest.

Were the lyrics too dated? Were they "shoe-horning" this song to fit the present tragedy?

But the more the teacher contemplated the words, the more appropriate they seemed.

Perhaps the song didn't speak directly to a terrorist attack, but it spoke to devastation and confusion and disenchantment.

It spoke of the shattering of a world taken for granted.

It spoke of "battle lines being drawn."

And it spoke of fear:

Paranoia strikes deep

Into your life it will creep

It starts when you're always afraid ...

Already, Hulleberg thought, the song provided common ground for two generations of students, almost 35 years apart, searching to make sense from violence.

It was a song that raised questions, questions certain to be unpopular.

Monday morning's rehearsal of the Vocal Chords, six days after the attack, brought relief from a weekend where the nation had turned from stories about the dead to talk about "retaliatory actions." You heard scary, scary stuff about deploying troops and germ warfare whenever you listened to the news. And there was still not much that anyone - particularly someone too young to give blood - could do about it.

Here in the music room, though, you could stop talking and funnel that intensity into singing, into making a song come to life, and into making it sound better and better.

Harry Casey's shiny brown hair slipped across his forehead as he frowned at the notes he had written down. Now, in the reality of rehearsal, he realized he had to adapt his ideas about "For What It's Worth" to fit actual voices. And the basses would sound much better if they used a different rhythm for at least one verse.

"It's not the most musically challenging number," Paul Hulleberg explained to the singers. "It could stand a little jazzing up."

So far, the group was enthusiastic about the song, even if most of them were singing background ooo-ooo-oooos behind the solos. "For What It's Worth" was a departure from the group's more usual, "My Funny Valentine" fare. And many of the verses seemed right on target with current events:

There's battle lines being drawn

Nobody's right if everybody's wrong

Young people speaking their minds

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