Meaning Behind Buffalo Springfield’s Protest Anthem “For What It’s Worth”

Before there was Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, there was Buffalo Springfield.

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Formed in 1966, the rock band of Neil Young, Stephen Stills (both of whom were later part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), Bruce Palmer, Dewey Martin and Richie Furay made their mark on the musical landscape, particularly with the hit song “For What It’s Worth.” The activism-inspired song delivered an important message that landed in the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1967 and is not only one of the band’s signature hits but arguably one of the best protest songs of all time.

Meaning Behind the Song

“For What It’s Worth” was penned solely by Stills in response to the Sunset Strip curfew riots in Los Angeles in 1966. It all started in the mid-1960s when hippies and young people associated with rock and roll culture would frequently gather on the famous street in West Hollywood. In 1966, the local government put in place curfew and anti-loitering laws to stop people from congregating at the behest of local businesses. This tension between the free-spirited culture and local government came to a head in November and December 1966 when protesters clashed with police, particularly on the night of November 12 when roughly 1,000 people showed up to protest the closing of Pandora’s Box, a popular nightclub for young people where the likes of the Beach Boys and Sonny & Cher performed over the years.

Despite having a reputation as being an anti-war song, as it was also written during the Vietnam War, Stills said that “For What It’s Worth” was mostly written in response to the Sunset Strip riots.

“It was really four different things intertwined, including the war and the absurdity of what was happening on the Strip,” Stills explained in an archived interview, according to the Los Angeles Times. “But I knew I had to skedaddle and headed back to Topanga, where I wrote my song in about 15 minutes. For me, there was no riot. It was basically a cop dance. … Riot is a ridiculous name. It was a funeral for Pandora’s Box. But it looked like a revolution.”

The lyrics take the listener into Stills’ perspective of the tumultuous time, referencing people in the street, singing songs while hoisting up protest signs. There’s battle lines being drawn / Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong / Young people speaking their minds / Getting so much resistance from behind, they sing, setting up the famous chorus, It’s time we stop / Hey, what’s that sound? / Everybody look, what’s going down?

“The song was about the times,” Buffalo Springfield’s former manager Richard Davis told WBUR, adding that the track was recorded in one night. “The protests for the Vietnam War were in play right then, and they were on Stephen’s mind just as much as anything else. The song was written about the Sunset Strip, but it’s bigger than that.

“That name, ‘For What It’s Worth,’ is the most ‘Aw, shucks’ kind of name. Like, ‘Oh yeah, well, here’s my opinion, you don’t have to listen to it,'” he continues. “[Stills] was worried about it defining the group and he didn’t want that to happen.”

Stevie Nicks, Cher, Rush, The Staples Singers and actor-singer Billy Porter are among the vast range of artists who’ve covered the classic song over the decades. Crosby, Stills & Nash and Buffalo Springfield member Palmer performed “For What It’s Worth” with Tom Petty at Buffalo Springfield’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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