(August 21, 2020). Could “We The People,” the 1972 gem by the Staple Singers, be Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s “Don’t Stop” of 2020?
Folks who are too young – or too old – to immediately get the Fleetwood Mac reference just might recall 1992 when then-Democratic nominee Bill Clinton rode that group’s 1977 classic “Don’t Stop” throughout his presidential campaign and right on up to the final night after his acceptance speech at the ‘92 Democratic National Convention. Clinton later had the Mac’s classic lineup – including songwriter Christine McVie and lead singer Lindsey Buckingham – perform “Don’t Stop” at his inaugural ball the following January.
Fast forward seven presidential elections – and two Democratic and two Republican presidents later – to the present day, and we find this year’s Democratic hopeful pulling another nugget from the 1970s bountiful song vault. This time it’s a less familiar, 48-year-old tune from the Staples’ classic Stax Records album Be Altitude: Respect Yourself – an album that included the semi-titular track, “Respect Yourself” plus one of their biggest hits: the No. 1 pop and soul smash “l’ll Take You There.”
The song Mr. Biden and the DNC cued up at the end of his speech, however, was neither of those. It was “We The People,” a heretofore rarely played, yet uplifting and unmistakably unity-inspired ditty whose title was lifted straight from the first three words of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare,…etc.”
Of course, as talented and gospel-honed as they were, even the Staple Singers couldn’t have stylized those stuffy words into a soulful bop and connected with millions of record-buying Americans. So “Pops” (the late Roebuck “Pops” Staples) and his Chicago-born-and-raised daughters the late Cleotha, the late Yvonne and lone surviving member and lead singer Mavis, all wrapped their churchy vocals around this simple, refrain: “We the people, got to make the world go ‘round, got to make the world now.”
Written by the legendary Booker T. Jones of ‘60s group Booker T & the M.G.’s, those lyrics were simple yet effective, especially with Mavis’ incomparable singing leading the way as she and Pops wove their uplifting message through that infectious melody and soulful beat in the vein of so many early ‘70s Muscle Shoals, Alabama grooves. It was perfect in every way.
The Constitution that inspired the song’s title had been far from perfect, however, when it was drafted by even more imperfect men some 233 years ago. Yet, even though it may have taken centuries for the supreme law of the land’s true intent to be realized by Americans everywhere regardless of race or gender, the Constitution – and the democracy it represents – were in full focus during this year’s DNC, which occurred over four nights this past week in a mostly virtual setting where speakers took turns singing former VP Joe Biden’s praises.
Former presidents and presidential candidates, politicians – both Democrats and Republicans – and a beloved former First Lady (the most recent one named Michelle Obama) – along with dozens of celebrities and everyday citizens – all spoke on Joe Biden’s behalf during the convention’s four nights, making their cases for why they believed it is Biden, and not Donald Trump, who should be the White House’s occupant come next January 20.
But nothing punctuated the DNC’s final night quite like “We The People,” with its obscure status underscoring the historic unorthodoxy of the whole event, made necessary by the pandemic we’re all still enduring six months in, despite claims or behavior to the contrary. Sure the Dems could have gone with a much more familiar tune – even another one by the legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Staple Singers, like “I’ll Take You There” or “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me).”
After all, those songs are equally as uplifting, certainly more popular, and just as relevant to racial unity as the one chosen. And all of them are as timely today as they were upon their releases nearly 50 years ago – arguably even more so.
But that might have seemed too contrived, too much like Joe Biden was an old white guy trying to be hip or to play on our pop culture sensibilities with a song we’ve all heard millions of times before, much like Clinton did in the ‘90s.
Instead, the chosen tune was “We The People,” a song rendered instantly appropriate by its specific title and its unifying theme about folks with “the black blood” and “the white blood” all mingling together – not to mention its worldwide aperture, one not so isolationist in its focus: “we the people make the world go ‘round” indeed.
Ironically, the Staples released “We The People” during another election year – 1972 – where, similarly, a Republican incumbent (Richard Nixon) would be challenged by a Democrat (Sen. George McGovern). McGovern would lose that year’s election, but Nixon’s ensuing second term would abruptly end less than two years later with his resignation following the Watergate scandal.
By then, “We The People” had slipped through the cracks – even being relegated to the B-side of a follow-up single (1973’s “Oh La De Da”) – as the Staples had moved on to bigger hits like “If You’re Ready” and later “Lets Do It Again.”
Fittingly, songs of protest, unity and social justice continued to be popular in the years that followed, with many of them etched in our collective memory forever, unlike the Staples’ erstwhile album cut.
Yet it was “We The People” that Biden chose as his 2020 DNC exit theme song, answering a question many music-minded people had as he stood there finishing his speech: what sad, dark tune was going to follow him to match the overall mood of the event’s first three nights? So many other musical numbers performed sans audience by the likes of Billie Eilish, John Legend and Common and others – while noble in their causes – had left us feeling sad and depressed, like we were watching a telethon for starving children or neglected animals.
And then “We The People” started playing, and the song was as refreshing and surprising as Biden’s speech itself had been. What seemed at first like a left-field choice to follow the presidential hopeful was itself at once hopeful with messages about people making the world go ‘round, specifically people right here in the homeland. This fell right in line with the healing and unifying theme of the event, much like “Don’t Stop” was a beacon of hope and change for former president Bill Clinton 28 years earlier.
Even more ironic was that a unifying anthem like “We The People” was played on the same day that one of the current president’s key campaign advisors (from his 2016 bid) was indicted for a money laundering scheme allegedly hatched through a non-profit called “We Build The Wall,” an entity established to privately fund the construction of a wall at the U.S.’ southern border with Mexico, specifically to keep its citizens out of the U.S.
“We The People” vs. “We Build The Wall” – coincidental in their connection to the day’s two biggest news stories, yet two idioms that couldn’t be any more divergent in their missions, stated or implied: social unity versus cultural and racial divide.
All that remains is to see which song(s) will soundtrack next week’s Republican National Convention, and which artists will proudly stand behind their tunes being so represented as the president accepts his nomination for a second term.
Or even better, if Joe Biden emerges victorious in November, will Mavis Staples grace us with her presence at an Inaugural Ball singing this tune – virtually or otherwise.
DJRob is a freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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