The Spiritual Meaning Behind “Higher Ground” by Stevie Wonder

People, keep on learning
Soldiers, keep on warring
World, keep on turning
‘Cause it won’t be too long

Videos by American Songwriter

With that lofty admonition, Stevie Wonder introduced the world to his soon-to-be legendary hit single “Higher Ground” in the summer of 1973. 

At the time, the superstar was just coming off a new high-water mark in his career with the dual successes of “Superstition” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” Both songs hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and also earned the respective top spots on the R&B and Adult Contemporary tallies, anchoring his 1972 album Talking Book as the beginning of Wonder’s so-called “classic period.”

So in a way, it appeared Wonder had hit a confident stride by the time he released “Higher Ground” (with its signature wah-wah clavinet sound courtesy of a Mu-Tron III envelope pedal filter), as the first single off his 16th album, Innervisions

A contemporary review in Billboard highlighted the track as one of the week’s Top Single Picks at the time. “You can tell it’s summer in the city because the flow of spectacular singles has really slowed down,” the industry magazine wrote. “Of the singles we heard last week, only two were really outstanding, Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground’ and Johnny Mathis’ I’m Coming Home.’”

One page ahead of the week’s official Hot 100 chart and a full-page ad promoting ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres (which, incidentally, promised the hard rockers’ associated tour would “blow heads off with their high-powered brand of music”), Billboard went on to say, “A ‘Superstition’ type guitar riff opens the door for this multi-tracked vocal about people who are moving ahead in love and in all phases of life. The lyrics match the infectious flavor of the background sounds.” 

With Wonder dropping nuggets of wisdom aimed at lovers, believers, sleepers, and more, “Higher Ground” was equally well-received by his legion of fans, eventually shooting to No. 4 on the Hot 100 and earning him yet another No. 1 on the R&B singles chart (then known as Hot Soul Singles). 

But what is Wonder’s philosophy-minded hit actually about? Just look to the lyrics to discover what was inspiring the visionary at the time. 

I’m so darn glad He let me try it again
‘Cause my last time on earth, I lived a whole world of sin
I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then
Gonna keep on tryin’
‘Til I reach my highest ground

The chorus references God, second chances, the choice to turn away from sin, a quest for spiritual redemption, and the constant struggle that comes with self-improvement, all with a sunny, relentless optimism and the boundless energy that comes from Wonder’s vocal delivery. 

The religious overtones of “Higher Ground” make perfect sense given Wonder’s long history as a Baptist—he’s long received support from Black churches as a unique segment of his worldwide fandom—though he’s also kept an open mind to other spiritual practices. For example, the singer was first introduced to the practice of Transcendental Meditation a few years before releasing “Higher Ground” through his marriage to first wife Syreeta Wright.

Wonder’s newfound penchant for the silent mantra meditation technique developed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi didn’t directly correlate, however, to the song’s underlying themes of reincarnation. (In fact, while Yogi was, indeed, Hindu, he specifically named the practice he had developed ‘Transcendental Meditation’ in order to differentiate it from Hinduism and other faith practices.) Still, Wonder revealed decades later that he held a personal belief in the idea rooted in Hindu theology. 

[RELATED: 7 Songs You Didn’t Know Stevie Wonder Wrote for Other Artists]

“I would like to believe in reincarnation,” he told The New York Times in 2015. “I would like to believe that there is another life. I think that sometimes your consciousness can happen on this earth a second time around.”

Shortly after its release, the song took on a whole new layer of meaning to Wonder, who was in a near-fatal car accident while on tour promoting Innervisions in August 1973. At the time, the car he was riding in collided with the back of a truck in North Carolina, leaving the singer in a coma for four days and later suffering from both partial loss of his sense of smell and temporary loss of taste. 

“For me, I wrote ‘Higher Ground’ even before the accident,” he reflected in the same Times piece. “But something must have been telling me that something was going to happen to make me aware of a lot of things and to get myself together. This is like my second chance for life, to do something or to do more, and to value the fact that I am alive.”

According to a Rolling Stone feature ranking “Higher Ground” as one of the 500 greatest of all time, when the superstar was in the hospital, his road manager at the time attempted to revive him by singing the song’s familiar melody in his ear. As the story goes, an unconscious Wonder had a bodily reaction to hearing his hit single and responded by “moving his fingers with the music.” 

Thankfully, Wonder recovered from the accident, and the song still stands as a hallmark of the singer operating at the height of his powers. Nearly two decades later, the track would gain a rocking second life after being covered by Red Hot Chili Peppers. The funk-rock act released their take on Wonder’s modern classic as the lead single off their fourth album, Mother’s Milk (1989), and it was also memorably included on the soundtrack for Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie in 1995.

So basically, without Wonder writing “Higher Ground” all the way back in the early ‘70s, would we have been graced with Tommy (the late Jason David Frank) sky-driving while strapped to a wheel-free skateboard deck before sending Ivan Ooze into a comet with the rest of the Rangers? Guess we’ll never know, but see it for yourself below.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Leave a Reply

The Kentucky Gentlemen

Watch: The Kentucky Gentlemen Hit the Rodeo In High-Energy “Neon Cowboy” Video