American Anthem: Beyond The Summer Of Love, ‘Get Together’ Is A Unifying Song For Every Season
This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.
BY TOM COLE
The song sometimes called the “hippie national anthem” can be found in all kinds of places. It’s been used on The Simpsons and in Forrest Gump, recorded dozens of times by the likes of The Kingston Trio, The Dave Clark Five, Jefferson Airplane, The Staples Singers and the Carpenters (twice). You may have even heard it in a Walmart commercial a few years ago.
The song has gone by a few different names: “Let’s Get Together,” Everybody Get Together.” But the best-known version is called, simply, “Get Together.” It was recorded by The Youngbloods in 1967 — the same year as the Summer of Love, where it would become a constant presence.
In 1967, the Vietnam War was raging. The Youngbloods’ lead singer, Jesse Colin Young, remembers, “Back then we were all subject to the draft. That made everything more life and death. And hope is what comes out of that song.”
Young was a folk singer and guitarist with two albums under his belt when he met guitarist Jerry Corbitt on the folk scene in Cambridge, Mass. They put The Youngbloods together in New York City with drummer Joe Bauer and multi-instrumentalist Lowell Levinger, known as Banana. The band rehearsed in Greenwich Village’s Café au Go Go when there wasn’t a show happening, and that’s where Young first heard “Get Together.”
“It was a Sunday afternoon and I was walking through the Village and thought, ‘Oh, the Go Go’s gonna be dark. I’ll call the band; we can rehearse,’ ” Young recalls. “I walked down the stairs and it turned out to be an open mic. I thought I would turn around and go home. But Buzzy Linhart was onstage singing ‘Get Together.’ That song just stopped me in my tracks.”
Young says it was the lyrics that really grabbed him. ” ‘Love is but a song we sing / Fear’s the way we die.’ Wow — the human condition in two lines.”
The lyrics grabbed Lizz Wright, too: The jazz and gospel singer recorded “Get Together” in 2004 for her album Dreaming Wide Awake. She’s a fan of one verse in particular:
If you hear the song I sing
You will understand
You hold the key to love and fear
All in your trembling hand
Just one key unlocks them both
It’s there at your command
“It’s so clear, and the imagery is fantastic,” Wright says. “In our uncertainty, in our not fully knowing, we are still holding so much power and choosing to learn by love or to learn by fear as we go. And I just love how this verse puts it back in our in our court as individuals.”
The song was written in the early 1960s by Chester Powers, who performed under the name Dino Valenti. The son of carnival performers, he made a name for himself in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village. Though he had already left for the West Coast when The Youngbloods formed, Young did meet him years later.
“I met him at a motorcycle shop in Marin County — we were both living in the Bay Area,” Young says. “I was surprised Dino was kind of a tough guy. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, the angels just took a hold of you one day and put this song in your head, and you brought it to us.’ ”
David Freiberg of Jefferson Starship puts the song’s origin around 1964. He was in Los Angeles visiting a friend, “and in pops Dino Valenti driving in like a crazy [man] and says, ‘Hey man, listen to this song I just wrote!’ ” Freiberg recalls. “And we listened to it and went, ‘Oh my goodness! How great that song is.’ And we’re quickly writing down the lyrics to it.”
He also remembers hearing Valenti perform for the first time. “He stomped his foot so hard on the stage it was like there were drums playing with him,” he says. “A lot of energy, very fiery kind of guy, but he was so talented.” Freiberg eventually got to know Valenti well when they played together in Quicksilver Messenger Service.
When the Youngbloods’ version of Valenti’s song came out, it became part of the soundtrack for the Summer of Love in San Francisco, making Valenti something of a local celebrity. But when he got busted for drug possession, he had to sell the rights to “Get Together” to pay for a lawyer and avoid a possible 10-year prison sentence, according to music journalist Ben Fong-Torres.
“As he famously said,” Fong-Torres recalls, ” ‘For 10 years of my life? Man, I can write another song.’ ” Valenti did eventually recover the rights later in life, before his death in 1994.
Valenti’s most famous song went on to have a life of its own. Though it didn’t get much national attention in 1967, two years later The Youngbloods’ version was used in a public service announcement for the National Conference of Christians and Jews. People started calling their radio stations requesting the song. Young remembers what happened next.
“Augie Blum, the head of promotion at RCA, went to his boss and said, ‘I want this song again. Now’s the time for it.’ And they told him, ‘Now Augie, we don’t do that. You know we released it once. That’s it.’ And he said, ‘You release a song again or I’m out of here.’ He was too valuable for them to lose,” Young explains. “So they put it out again, and he was right, of course. The country was ready.”
The Youngbloods’ version of “Get Together” went to No. 5 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart. Fong-Torres says it captured the zeitgeist of the time, albeit in a roundabout way: “It took a band from New York City to give San Francisco and the Haight-Ashbury generation its anthem.”
One meaning of the word “anthem” is a psalm or hymn. “Get Together” definitely carries that message for Young, who was a born-again Christian in his teens.
“I think Dino must have had some church upbringing, because he’s talking about, ‘Some may come and some may go. We will surely pass.’ This is very Eastern philosophy, and new to some of us at that point,” Young says. ” ‘When the one that left us here returns for us at last / We are just a moment’s sunlight fading in the grass.’ Wow.”
Freiberg, however, points out a word change: “The Youngbloods’ version says, ‘When the one that left us here returns for us at last.’ Dino said the lyric was supposed to be, ‘When the wind that left us here.’ I like that best ’cause it symbolizes the cosmic wind and the interconnection of everything.” He adds, “But then, I’m a Buddhist.”
An early review of the song even asked why it’s not sung in church. Wright thinks it should be. “There was just all this imagery, some of it even edging on biblical imagery,” Wright says. “I just felt like this is one of those songs that helped me speak better, speak everything else better. And when I first heard it, I knew that it would make me better as a messenger.”
And Young says it still carries a message — for our times.
“Every night I sing it, it’s my favorite part of the show because the people sing,” he says. “I played it in Central Park this past summer, and that was on the first anniversary of Charlottesville. Those people sang it stronger than I’ve ever heard it sung. Some people were pumping their fists, and I realized they were saying, ‘We choose love.’ ”