GUEST OPINION: Stills honored for free speech through music

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First Amendment Center
In the 221 years since ratification of the Bill of Rights, Americans have had the right to speak out. And sing out.

In recognition of the power of free speech set to music, the First Amendment Center and the Americana Music Association join together each year to honor a prominent musician who has used his or her music to contribute to the markeplace of ideas.  

Awardees have come from a wide musical and political spectrum, including Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, Charlie Daniels and Mavis Staples.

Stephen Stills, a two-time member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Buffalo Springfield,  received the 2013 award at the Americana Music Association Honors and Awards Show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville this week.

“For What It’s Worth,” one of his most famous compositions, is widely regarded as a protest song, but that misses the mark.

Yes, the song was inspired by a confrontation between police and young people on the Sunset Strip, but his tone was one of observation, not outrage.

“There’s somethin’ happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear” he sang on that early Buffalo Springfield hit.

He even poked fun at the protesters who carried signs “most saying hurray for our side.”

Throughout his career, Stills has used his music to encourage us to look at our society and ourselves.

His response to the world’s challenges has been reflective, not reflexive.

As a member of one of America’s most political bands — Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young — Stills often offered a measured counterpoint. Neil Young’s “Ohio” was a chilling indictment of the government that could shoot dead four students at Kent State University.

The flip side of that single was “Find the Cost of Freedom,” a four-line Stills song about sacrifice and liberty.

From the post-apocalyptic “Wooden Ships” to the cautionary “The Ecology Song” and the affirming “We Are Not Helpless,” Stills’s music has truly engaged us. Recent songs like “Feed the People” and “Wounded World” continue his tradition of topicality.

Stills  has walked the talk.

CSN&Y toured the country in 2006 with its Free Speech Tour, challenging its audiences with songs protesting the war in Iraq.
Stills used the tour to campaign on behalf of candidates for Congress.

“The most valuable resource that we have, that we are wasting, we are squandering, are those wonderful men and women who would be so noble as to put on a suit, endure basic training, pick up a weapon and stand a post in our defense,” he said in one campaign appearance captured in the “Free Speech Tour” documentary.

Ken Paulson is president of the First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University. He is also the former editor-in-chief of USA Today.