The Last Word by Marcus Fisk

The Last Word: …Turn, Turn, Turn…

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Alexandria, VA – “To every thing there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”

“Turn, Turn, Turn” — The Byrds

I heard that song again a few days ago and it took me way, way back to another era – another epoch in America’s long emotional trek from subservient colony to an evolving, rocking and rolling republic.

In October 1965 a fusion rock/folk group on the rise, The Byrds, released a song titled “Turn, Turn, Turn.” It became a huge hit and landed as #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts on 4 December of that year.

That release wasn’t the first version. It had originally been popularized in musician circles in 1962 by the late folksinger Pete Seeger who took the lyrics from the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. He rearranged some of the lines from that text and added the chorus “Turn, Turn, Turn,” to reflect the changes occurring in the country. He also added the final lyric of “I swear it’s not too late,” as a plea for peace around the world.

When Seeger sent it to his music publisher, the response was, “Pete, can’t you write another song like “Goodnight Irene?” I can’t sell or promote these protest songs.” Seeger mailed back, “Then you better get another songwriter. This is the only kind of song I know how to write.”

The first recording of Seeger’s arrangement was done by the Limelighters, a popular folk trio on their album Folk Matinee. Then it found its way onto Judy Collins’ 3rd album in 1963.

The Byrds, originally comprised of David Crosby, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Chris Hillman, and Jim (later “Roger”) McGuinn, performed their new hit on television shows like the Ed Sullivan Show, Shindig, Where the Action Is, and Hollywood A Go Go and their album sold over 500,000 copies.

It became a new anthem for a new generation. The year it was released was the first major infusion of 125,000 troops to a little-known country called Vietnam, men were burning their draft cards in protest to the war, young white Americans from the North were riding busses with African Americans in the South as civil rights protests were expanding across the country, President Johnson’s Great Society reforms were shaking-up the status quo – especially in the American South, and music was moving from happy-go-lucky dance tunes to poetic twists on the fate of the nation. Never mind the lyrics were 2000 years old, the time was ripe for a protest song to take hold and the Byrds became a new voice reflecting a definite mood shift in the nation.

… A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

The song touched a nerve in America during the 1960s and 70s. The country was racing chaotically in all directions and anyone living during that time could easily compare it to today’s America. The late 60s became a firestorm where politics, religion, and beliefs were not just evolving but crashing into one another. Lines were drawn; streets were no longer designed to move people and commerce, but instead became the avenues for protest, confrontation, and violence; opposing groups ignored the traffic lanes and ran head-on into one another.

The times reached a peak in the summer of 1968 during the Presidential Campaign between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. Nixon was the “law and order” Republican candidate espousing conservative messages that harkened back to the 1950s America. Humphrey, the Democrat candidate and leader of the liberal arm of that party, found himself hamstrung with supporting President Johnson’s Vietnam policies in the face of growing anti-war sentiment within the Democratic party.

The philosophical split in the party that summer erupted during the Democratic Convention. The anti-war sentiment had severed the party and the protests and chaos that surrounded the convention hall led to violent clashes between protesters and the Chicago Police. When protesters chanted “The whole world is watching,” the emotional cleft tore a great people apart and we all felt it. It didn’t matter what side of the political spectrum you were on, the turbulence that summer of 1968 divided friends, co-workers, and even families, and it took nearly 30 years for the cultural wound to heal.

A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace
A time to refrain from embracing

Hearing those lyrics again all these years later caught me off-guard. They are timeless, and like the biblical text the song came from, they could easily stand today – or at any time — especially in times of turmoil. But they don’t stand for protest alone. The lyrics reflect a strong grasp of the need to provide balance and restore hope when darkness seems all too present — in 2024.

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late

To everything, turn, turn, turn
There is a season, turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven.

ICYMI: ALX275: City of Alexandria Celebrating 275 Years Since Founding Beginning Next Month

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