Remember the 1965 song, “What the World Needs Now Is Love”? Hal David wrote the lyrics, and Burt Bacharach composed the music. Bacharach, who was on quite a roll back then, initially didn’t believe in the song and was reluctant to play it for Jackie DeShannon, who loved it, recorded it and made it popular. It has since been recorded or performed live by over 100 artists and used on many movie soundtracks.
I wonder why Bacharach was reluctant. Did the sentiment seem too trite or banal? The song has a simple melody that’s easy to learn. The lyrics tell us (or a creator) that the world has plenty of meadows, cornfields and wheat fields to grow; plenty of sunbeams and moonbeams to shine, too; what it really needs is love. Even today, half a century later, the world still needs love. Such a message is timeless.
What was happening in 1965? On January 2, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began a drive to register Black voters. Two days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave his “Great Society” State of the Union address. Almost a month later, on February 1, Dr. King and 700 demonstrators were arrested in Selma, Alabama. Later that month, on February 21, Malcolm X was assassinated by Nation of Islam followers at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. And on “Bloody Sunday” (March 7), Alabama troopers and civil rights demonstrators clashed, galvanizing the nation’s leaders to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King returned to Alabama on March 21 to lead a march from Selma to Montgomery, arriving in the state capitol on March 25. Riots broke out in the Watts area of southeast Los Angeles on August 11. On the following day, the west side of Chicago also broke out in riots.
Meanwhile, the war in Vietnam escalated, and protesters organized. The U.S. occupied the Dominican Republic in April during its civil war, and stayed over a year. The space and nuclear arms races were also well underway.
It was a precarious year, to say the least. I was fourteen years old and a veteran of school “duck-and-cover” and bomb shelter drills. I was unaware of Malcolm X at that age, but I had loved John F. Kennedy (as did all Irish Catholic girls) and mourned his death. I remember singing “What the World Needs Now is Love” at the top of my voice. It was both a plea and a prayer.
The song was remixed in 1971 by disc jockey Tom Clay, who worked at radio station KGBS in Los Angeles, into a social commentary. He added “Abraham, Martin and John” to the title. It began with a man asking a young boy to define the words bigotry, segregation and hatred, followed by a soundbite of a drill sergeant leading a platoon into training and gunfire sound effects. Then we hear the song, interspersed with excerpts of speeches by Kennedy and King and soundbites of news coverage of each one’s assassination.
What would we hear in a remix of this song today, I wonder. With a racist occupying the White House and the Voting Rights Act in shreds, with prolonged military presence overseas and an administration’s denial of climate change, we are arguably worse off than we were back in 1965.
Still, I refuse to lose hope, and neither should you. Our history is replete with stories of greed and generosity, prejudice and acceptance, hate and love. We must learn from that history. As individuals and as a nation, we must choose love.
That’s the message I heard at this year’s Mayor’s Interfaith Breakfast on January 11 at the New York Public Library. Imagine a great hall filled with clergy representing all the religions of our city. At my table alone were a Mormon (with whom I chatted about my hometown, Palmyra, birthplace of Mormonism), a Muslim woman (sans hijab), a resplendent Baptist African-American couple, two evangelical Christians preparing for a journey to the Holy Land, and two Hindus from Queens. The morning was a veritable lovefest: celebrating our diversity of faiths and a commitment to unity of social justice action.
Rev. Michael A. Walrond, Jr. from First Corinthian Baptist Church gave the introductory invocation. He said, “Take love seriously. Take seriously who you are called to be. Take our humanity seriously,” to which I heartily responded, “Amen!”
What the world needs now, has always needed, and will always need is love, sweet love, because that’s “the only thing that there’s just too little of.” Choose to love not just some, but everyone.