Wednesday, January 04, 2012

"For What It's Worth": "watch that sound" or "what's that sound"?

My first thought:

How could I have misheard that lyric for forty-some years?

My second thought:

If this "new" reading is right, it's a classic example of a synesthesia reference.

My third thought:

After googling annd seeing that the 'new' interpretation  is definitely a minority opinion, I am not convinced yet..but quite intrigued.

My fourth thought:

The source is quite credible: Daniel Levitin, someone who has met and interviewed the songwriters.

Hmm..what do you think?

I was reading along in Levitin's wonderful book, "The World in Six Songs," and hit page 70, where he matter- of-factly quoted the Buffalo Springfield classic, "For What It's Worth" as:
We gotta stop hey watch that sound
Everybody look what's going down

Huh? I had never considered the lyric was anything other than what I've always heard:
"what's that sound?"..

BUT if this reading is correct, it's yet another classic literary reference to "synesthesia"!
How do you WATCH a SOUND?
This of course connects to Revelation 1:8 where John turned to  synesthetically SEE the VOICE of Jesus..

And note the song lyric makes sense, as the next line is "Everybody LOOK" (not "listen")..

Hmmm...what do YOU hear?

A quick googling suggests that Levitin's reading is far in the minority...but note when the Staple Singers covered the song, they actually had the "watch that sound" lyric printed on the label of their record...see fourth video below at the  :14 and 1:37  mark (Note on the comments below that video on YouTube  laugh at that obvious "mistake.')

But do Levitin and the Staples know something that most of the world doesn't?

I hope so..

Listen up, "watch for the sound" of the lyric and weigh in with what you hear/see.
To quote the song itself, "what it is ain't exactly clear"..

Anyone (like Levitin) know the songwriter Stephen Stills to verify?

Several videos and the usual lyrics below..

  • Note: the lyric jury is also still out on this Who song. 
  • Note: And you might enjoy a list or two of funny misheard lyrics 
  • Note: If the synsethesia line is correct, I have more reading on a sound-watchiing epistemology in rock music. Click, for example, U2's "No Line" part 5: a sound epistemology of faith in God, not in certaintyFurniture Music  or  posts tagged "synesthesia" below.
  • From Levitin: Writing a review of a documentary about the sixties (broadcast in 2007), New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger said, “That astonishing song came to encapsulate ‘60s turmoil so perfectly that resorting to it is a subconscious admission by a documentarian. 'I have nothing to say that Stephen Stills didn’t say better in 2 minutes, 41 seconds. Its instantly recognizable two-tone opening rings like an alarm bell.'” (p.70)

There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
I think it's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away
We better stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, now, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down


see :14 and 1:37here:

2010 reunion:



  1. Hi -

    I went to the music publisher for the definitive answer while researching "The World in Six Songs" and they confirm that it is "what's that sound." The first printing of my book contained an error introduced during typography, printing the Stills lyric as "watch" and this has been corrected in all subsequent printings.

    Daniel Levitin

  2. Daniel:

    Thanks so much for posting and clearing this up.

    Keep up the great work!


Hey, thanks for engaging the conversation!