David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 261: Buffalo Springfield (For What It's Worth)

June 20, 2023

Every teacher of English Composition knows Section III.12 from The Elements of Style by William Strunk, sometimes referred to as Strunk & White's The Elements of Style because of the additional revision by E.B. White after Strunk's death. Section III.12 declares "Use definite, specific, concrete language." (I have always wondered how many times William Strunk must have turned over in his grave when E.B. White had the audacity to edit a style guide devoted to succinctness. But I digress.)

For me, the primary villain my students had to avoid was "It's," especially when those three letters stood for a subject and a verb. "I don't know what "it" references," I'd scream at them, "probably have to look elsewhere, most logically in something I have already read, to find the reference, then have to accept that I have no idea what action that reference has taken, is taking, or will be taking." Out of breath, I would then gaze out at their glazed looks and wonder if I should go into administration.

Let's face it,"it's" might be the most frustrating word in the English language.

Which is why "For What It's Worth," the great Buffalo Springfield protest song from 1967, continues to be the most frustrating song title I know. The phrase "for what it's worth" serves as a trope, of course, for "in my humble opinion." Stephen Stills most likely intended it to be an expression of "here's my opinion regarding what's happening socially in our country, for what it's worth." If I am correct, that means the "it" refers to the opinion, and nothing specifically in the song. And yet, the song seems to convey so many subjects that could fit the "it."

Let's start with the obvious: Protest. Protest, for what it's worth, can be seen in "young people speaking their minds," "singing songs and . . . carrying signs." At the time, protest produced incredible worth, civil rights slowly corrected, corrupt governments slowly made accountable. Even in 1967, I suspect Americans held great worth to the power of protest.

Or maybe Stills references the establishment, which, for what it's worth, delivers great "resistance from behind," "men with guns . . . who will come and take you away." Power presents incredible worth, and we see that whatever gains those protesters made almost sixty years ago can be eroded by the people in power.

Or perhaps, the "it" should be defined by the sound that causes us to stop, wonder what's "going down." Given the futures of Stills, Neil Young, Jim Messina, and Richie Furay, alone, the sound coming down was more than worthy. "For What It's Worth" delivered a sound bordering on theatrical, sparse individual guitar strums, especially Young's high-pitched notes, providing the backdrop to the majority of the song, with a flurry of instrumental touches, including hand claps, coming in for the bridge (with the disturbing lines "paranoia strikes deep/into your life it will creep") through the ending.

I don't know how to judge the worth of it after all this. A key value to "For What It's Worth" resonated well past 1967, resurrected and covered more often than not. Cher released a version in 1969, David Cassidy in 1974, Holly Beth Vincent in 1982, Rush in 2004, Ozzy Osbourne in 2005, Queensrÿche in 2007, and Steve Nicks in 2022 (to highlight just a few).

Not only does the "it" seem relevant year after year, the "it" seems unwilling to be confined by genre. More than most other frequently covered songs (please, no one needs to cover "Landslide" ever again), "For What It's Worth" lends itself to new sounds coming down almost every time. Nicks' version fills it with swirling organs and slide guitar; Queensrÿche does pretty much what you would expect, making metal out of folk; Vincent infuses her version with sleighbells and percussion and the creepiest statement of "paranoia strikes deep" out of all of these versions.

As I often had to confess to students, rules, even S&W's, are made to be broken. With this song, all seems worth it. Indefiniteness embraced and replicated.

Buffalo Springfield. "For What It's Worth."  Buffalo Springfield. Columbia, 1966. Link here.

Stevie Nicks' version here.

Queensrÿche's version here.

Holly Beth Vincent's version here.

Day 260: Mark Mulcahy "What If I Go Off With Bob"

Day 262: The BoDeans "Still The Night"

See complete list here.