by Kevin Burton
Sly Stone’s spot-on cultural signpost “Everyday People” topped the American charts 53 years ago. But where is that message today?
The song is brilliant in its simplicity. Sung partially to the rhythm of a children’s rhyme, it contains a message even a child can understand.
“The song takes some inspiration from Mother Goose, adding a twist to the traditional ‘rub-a-dub-dub,’” according to Songfacts. “The familiar three men in a tub, ‘the butcher the baker the candlestick maker,’ becomes ‘the butcher, the baker the drummer’ and then in the spirit of the song’s message of solidarity among all people, Sly adds, ‘makes no difference what group I’m in.’”
Once you add the “scooby-dooby-doo” part, you’ve set a soft tone for a hard issue. Stone makes a basic case for equality and harmony amidst diversity, getting in and out in two and a half minutes.
The song takes one step sideways from Sly and the Family Stone’s usual heavy psychedelic funk and aims for the pop mainstream. The driving baseline grabs your attention and the lyrics keep it.
“The everyday people session came along and it got to a point where we could tell that we’ve grabbed, or latched onto, the pulse of the people,” said band member Freddie Stone, Sly’s brother.
If it felt that way to him, it also did to me too and to my peer group and perhaps most of my generation.
Everyday people was released in late 1968, reaching number one the week of Feb. 15, 1969 and staying there for four weeks. It fell off the chart as all songs do, but the song’s vibe seemed to linger.
But it doesn’t feel that way today.
“Political divisiveness, race concerns, anger and fear toward other countries and religions still thrive. ‘Everyday People’ is still poignant today,” writes Chris Shields in the St Cloud Times.
“The song is a plea for peace, for equality. Sly and the Family Stone was an integrated band, with black and white musicians. These musicians created vital, incredible music. They went to No. 1 on U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart with ‘Everyday People,’ even in those troubled times.”
Do we still have everyday people? If so, where are they? They don’t seem to be in the news, making great art or saying anything much at all. It all seems to be sharply polarized.
It’s quite possible this is less about American cultural change in the last half century than about changes in me. But ask yourself this: As you leave your house these days to conduct whatever business you have, what is your level of expectation that you will encounter the kind of everyday people Stone sang about?
One friend says we have always had everyday people and still do. It’s just that there is such suspicion now, surrounding politics and the virus. So you’re leaving your house, but shrinking back from everything and everybody. We never get to know the everyday people around us.
This same friend also said people have twisted the song to mean everyday people are the people in my life every day. So if I segregate myself by race, class, political views, etc., everyday people are people like me. Whoever isn’t in my set are outsiders, threats, overt or covert.
Whatever divisiveness we had in 1968, and it was considerable, we did not have a near majority of the population eager to install Nazis in political power.
You don’t hear so much “sometimes I’m right and I can be wrong,” or “I am no better and neither are you, we are the same whatever we do,” in today’s discourse.
“We got to live together” is no longer a commonly-agreed upon truth. Many seem to be saying let’s tear it down and go to war if we need to.
No way I can diagnose all these problems in 700 words. I’m just here to salute Stone and an all-time great song that sums up the truth of the issue.
“Life is too complex to cover with one song,” Shields writes. “But maybe one song can get us started on the conversations we need to have, to make decisions we need to make.”
“After all, we are everyday people.”