“For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield is a nostalgic hit that has long been associated with the Vietnam conflict and 1960s counterculture. However, Stephen Stills actually penned it as a reflection on riots on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip.
The Movie that Speaks of the Song Otherwise
Buffalo Springfield was the band’s first album, and “For What It’s Worth” was not originally in it. After it became a hit single, it replaced “Baby Don’t Scold Me” on re-issues of the album.
This song played during the opening credits of the movie Lord Of War starring Nicolas Cage. Additionally, it became much more famous when the movie “Forrest Gump” used it in one of its scenes. As Forrest (Tom Hanks) and his platoon walk through Vietnam, the resounding, two-note tune of “For What It’s Worth” pipes up. Forrest Gump is hardly alone in marrying the war with this particular song.
The Songwriter’s Say on “For What It’s Worth”
Contrary to common belief, “For What It’s Worth” was not written as a reflection on any historic Vietnam War protests or Civil Rights marches of the era. Stills, in fact, wrote the song in only fifteen minutes. It is about the “Sunset Strip Riots” that were a retort to the closing of a popular Los Angles nightclub, Pandora’s Box. It was a cry to the time limit enforced to discourage young people from loitering outside of clubs and bars. The Los Angeles Police Department had tried to impose the curfew laws by closing a few hangouts patronized by teens and young adult. Until then, a local radio station called for an assembly to protest. About a thousand young people showed up and pounded at the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights until fighting broke out. Later on, kids started smashing windows and rocking cars.
Nevertheless, young people and political movements picked it up across the United States. “For What It’s Worth” was almost instantly embraced as an anthem for much larger social and political protests. Stills’ lyrics call for interrogation and contemplation while making indirect disapprovals of state power. Unlike other protest songs, it has a gentle and pacifying tone that interests to anti-war, civil rights and counterculture groups.
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Buffalo Springfield, For What It's Worth, Stephen Stills