Following Michelle Obama is no easy task, but the duo of Billy Porter and Stephen Stills stepped up with a virtual performance of “For What It’s Worth” during the opening night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
While Stills first wrote and sang the song — which is perhaps better known by its subtitle, “Stop, Hey, What’s That Sound?” — as a member of Buffalo Springfield in 1967, it has become a generation-spanning protest anthem for times when the world seems particularly upside-down, for political reasons and otherwise. Between the Trump presidency, coronavirus and Black Lives Matter, there have been plenty of potential uses for the song in recent months, and Porter covered it earlier this year.
“Billy did such a great cover of the song and I was [originally] going to sing with him on this one for the DNC,” Stills tells Variety of Monday night’s performance (which was pre-recorded). “But then I decided ‘Nah, it’s Billy’s record, so let him fly with it. And also, my wifi is unreliable,” he adds with a laugh, “so I played guitar and sang along.”
More seriously, he continues, “Billy and I were first talking about this on the day that George Floyd died — he was throwing furniture around in his apartment, he was so angry.”
While the song was first inspired by the November 1966 riots on Sunset Strip in Hollywood — which started when police began enforcing a decades-old 10 p.m. curfew for people under the age of 18 — it quickly became an anthem for the counterculture in the late 1960s and beyond.
“Like a lot of social commentary, it was pretty spontaneous,” Stills, who was 21 when he wrote the song, recalls. “I was coming over Laurel Canyon and I saw this [demonstration], and a whole bunch of dots connected for me, as to how much resistance there was to the war and other things. Sam Yorty, the mayor [of Los Angeles at the time], was afraid it was an anti-war riot, and he sent in the police in full battle array, and I just reacted to it. The song took about as long to write as it did to actually sit down and write it out, because I had something bubbling anyway.
“It kinda had to be [spontaneous],” he continues, “because if you try too hard it becomes pontificating, y’know? That’s why I’m careful not to put more than a couple of protest songs on my albums — I’ve never liked that term, by the way, because then you end up writing, like, op-eds to limericks, and it becomes hackneyed. You’ve gotta wait until something really strikes you.”
According to legend, the song’s title came about after Stills presented the song to the band and Atlantic Records cofounder Ahmet Ertegun rather dismissively, saying, “Here’s a new song, for what it’s worth,” but Stills says he “can’t confirm that narrative.”
While he says he always felt strongly about the song, he didn’t realize how special it was “until we recorded it and they decided to take one of my other songs off the album and replace it with that one” — after the song was recorded, Atlantic quickly re-released Buffalo Springfield’s debut album to include it — and he adds with a laugh, “then everybody in the room wanted a piece of the publishing!”
Asked how the political climate today compares to the one that inspired the song, Stills says, “The swamp is just as deep and the mendacity and hipocrisy is too — although there’s a lot more on the line now.
“I think this election has certainly brought everybody to the party,” he concludes, “and I’m glad to see it.”