American Anthem: Tom Petty’s ‘I Won’t Back Down’ Is ‘A Song For Any Struggle’
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.
Editor’s note: This story includes discussions of depression, addiction and suicide.
BY MELISSA BLOCK
Well, I won’t back down
No, I won’t back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won’t back down
The song was released in 1989 on Petty’s solo album Full Moon Fever. The artist told interviewers that people would come up to him all the time, or would write to him, sharing stories of how this song — with its plainspoken message of resilience and empowerment — helped steer them through difficult times.
“He told me that he heard, or read somewhere, that it brought a girl out of a coma,” recalls his widow, Dana Petty. “It was her favorite song and they played it and she came out of a coma, which blew his mind.”
“It’s a very simple song, but a very powerful song,” says Petty’s lifelong bandmate, guitarist Mike Campbell. “It’s as deep as you want to go. That was one of Tom’s talents, that he could say a lot with very few words.”
Petty died of an accidental drug overdose in 2017, at age 66.
“A lot of people ask me what was Tom really like,” Campbell says. “And that’s him. He didn’t back down. … He stood up to everybody. Nobody told him what to do.”
“He had a lot of fight in him,” Dana Petty agrees.
Over the 20 years that Dana went on the road with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “I Won’t Back Down” was a fixture. “They played that every night,” she says. “Tommy never got tired of that one, because of the audience response.”
There were times, she remembers, when the tens of thousands of fans singing along were so loud they would drown out the band. “It’s a song that touches everyone in their own way,” she says. “You could see that they were all singing about their lives every night. And it’s a pretty amazing thing to witness.”
The song’s universal appeal stems from its simplicity, says Tom Petty’s daughter Adria Petty. “It’s like a mantra. It keeps building you up, stronger, stronger, stronger. Every word of the song is culminating in more tenacity.”
Her younger sister, Annakim Violette, adds, “Anyone that’s ever [sung] that came out of a really dark place into a brighter one. It gave them strength. That’s why it’s an anthem. It’s an anthem for finding strength.”
Your ‘I Won’t Back Down’ Stories
We asked NPR listeners to tell us how “I Won’t Back Down” has inspired them as a personal anthem, and more than 700 people responded. Here are some of those stories, which have been lightly edited and condensed. For more on the history of “I Won’t Back Down,” listen to the full radio story at the audio link.
Throughout my life, from the time I was a child, I lived and breathed Tom Petty’s music. As I got older and began suffering from depression, anxiety and self-harm, his music became the light that guided my way, especially “I Won’t Back Down.” Every concert I attended, he would play that song more beautifully than I ever could imagine, and I would stand there and bask in the music and let it take me away from all the sadness I felt at that moment. Following his death, I knew I wanted a part of his music to be with me forever, and I got the most important quote of my life tattooed: “You can stand me up at the gates of Hell, but I won’t back down.”
When I was preparing to have intensive spine surgery, a friend advised me to have a prayer or mantra ready for when it was time to try to walk, because it would be very painful, very challenging. The lifelong Petty fan that I am (my home is named Dreamville), I of course chose “I Won’t Back Down.” My surgeon played it for me as I was going under anesthetic before the seven-hour surgery, and I played it during recovery to walk to, my goal being to walk to the rhythm as I walked around my staircase. I did recover, my spine fused, and I was stronger than ever and went back to work after a few months.
Shortly after returning to work, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I will never forget going to the nursing home with my brother to tell my 89-year-old mother that I had cancer. We sat outside in the courtyard. I told her I was about to have a double mastectomy, and we wouldn’t know my prognosis until the results from the surgery came in. I said, ” Mom, you know what a Tom Petty fan I’ve been all my life? Well, I used this song to get me through the pain and recovery from the spine surgery, and it’s gonna get me through this, too.” And I played “I Won’t Back Down” for her. I held it up to her ear and she and my brother and I just sat with tears in our eyes and listened. She listened to the whole thing, sitting there in the courtyard. It was epic.
My next two surgeons played “I Won’t Back Down” for me. On April 12, 2019, it was seven years since I was diagnosed, and I am cancer-free.
New Richmond, Wis.
When I was 5, my parents divorced. My dad would come pick me up on the weekends and we would go for a drive in the country, listening to Tom Petty (and of course this song) loud with the windows down in his old wood-panel van, or in later years, his red Ford Probe. We would get lost and then find our way out of backroads. It was so much fun! I stayed a Tom Petty fan ever since.
When I was 30, my dad died by suicide with a gunshot through his chest. My husband, my 1-year-old daughter and I were the last to leave the funeral home. As we began driving, this song began to play. It wasn’t sad, it was an anthem. I felt at peace. I felt freaked out this coincidence happened, but the car was so quiet as we all listened without saying a word. The line “There ain’t no easy way out” took on a new meaning. I knew he had been sick with mental illness and addiction for many years and suffered at the end of his life with these battles. Suicide is an intensely sad option to get out of this broken world, but man, there was no easy way out.
Several years ago, after a harrowing 48 hours in which her house burned down and she finalized her divorce, Sara drove across the country with her young daughter.
We put thousands of miles on my vehicle, and I was happiest when there was a black shimmering strip of highway extending from my hood to the far horizon coupled with endless blue skies. The boundless enormity of our country made my previous problems feel so small. And always, while driving outside cellphone range and social media’s reach, there was Tom Petty. I have a lot of favorite songs of his that are lesser known, but there is no greater feeling than crossing the plains of South Dakota, window down, belting “I Won’t Back Down.” Because I wouldn’t. I didn’t let being alone keep me from seeing the places I had always dreamed of.
When I slept once by myself on the side of a mountain, completely sure that a cougar was going to come by and snack on me, I sang that song from the safety of my hammock. And when I saw [Petty] live for the second and last time at Red Rocks a few months before he passed, I sang just as loudly, surrounded by several thousand fellow fans belting with the same force that I did. There really never had been an easy way out of what I had gone through. But I made it.
I played this song in the midst of dealing with a close friend’s suicide and having to figure out how to officiate his funeral with a broken heart (I’m a minister). My wife and I listened to this song on a cross-country trip together after I lost my job and we had to move in with my parents for a time. Our worship leader occasionally breaks out in this song prior to Sunday service just to entertain me. If there’s a time I need to be reminded of hope, warmth, good memories, God, or those I love: This is the song. As a Christian, I believe some of our principles are to bring hope to the hopeless and strength to the weak. If there was ever a song to sum up these principles, it’s “I Won’t Back Down.” It’s the anthem of my life.
Mountain View, Calif.
When I was in high school, I decided to enlist in the Marine Corps. As the time got closer for me to leave for boot camp, my fear of the unknown was rising. A recruiter asked me if I had an anthem, and the stand-your-ground lyrics of “I Won’t Back Down” immediately came to mind. “I Won’t Back Down” became my mantra, and I used the lyrics to reassure myself that I would get through the rigors of training. To this day, I give Tom Petty credit for getting me through what I considered to be my toughest challenge at the time. The lyrics not only encouraged me to keep going, [they] gave me a mental escape to the happy times at home with family.
Niki is from Ohio. In 2011, at a small IT security conference in Dayton, she met a German man who — six years later — would become her husband:
I heard his voice before I saw him, and I held my breath as he made his way up the stairs while telling some joke to his colleagues. When I saw him, I couldn’t formulate a single thought in my brain other than “Wow!” We spent the rest of the day flirting, and by the second day I had volunteered to drive him on an errand he needed to run. We had gotten to know a little about each other the day before, but my true test of compatibility was coming: Did he know Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and if so, what did he think? I explained as we got in the car this was my favorite band in the whole world. I associated every big milestone in my life (and some small ones) with a different song from the band (no pressure, right?). He had never heard of them, but gamely asked to hear a few songs while we drove. I played “I Won’t Back Down” first, and he was hooked thereafter.
He flew back to Germany the next day, and we decided a week or so later to try long-distance dating. For 2 1/2 years, we played “I Won’t Back Down” when the distance got to be too much and we were missing each other like crazy. It was a reminder that no matter what the statistics said about long-distance relationships, we could make it work. We would not back down from what was important to us: our relationship. I moved to Germany eventually, and two years ago he proposed. When I said yes, he asked how I felt about engraving our rings with “I Won’t Back Down” and making it our first dance. It was perfect. The week after our wedding, we flew to London for the Heartbreakers’ only European stop in 2017. Of course they played “I Won’t Back Down.” I remember swaying back and forth with my husband in this blissful moment, thinking how amazing it was to have come full circle, in a way. Tom Petty died just over two months later.
Carla moved to the U.S. from her home country of Peru in 2001. Her sister used to play this song all the time back in Lima, and it has special meaning for her now, in this country.
I love that song. It’s my song. I am an immigrant, and even after being treated horribly because I look different and because I have an accent, I won’t back down. I won’t give up. I will never lower my head in front of anyone. Never. This song speaks to me and gives me the energy to fight and never give up. I don’t care how many times people call me names and say, “You don’t even speak English,” I won’t back down. I deserve a good life, and I sing this song from the depth of my heart.
Who hasn’t felt beaten, bruised and battered, turned on the radio and belted this tune at the top of their range while driving down a road?
I fell in love with this song and a lot of Tom Petty songs when I joined the U.S. Coast Guard. I was stationed on a river boat in Iowa, and I was a closeted gay kid from Nebraska. I felt really out of place, and I felt like I was lost, wondering what I had done, if I had made a mistake. I joined the military immediately following 9/11, as an impulsive response to a surge of patriotism and the pull to do something. Like all good moments when I’ve gone out on a limb, joining the Coast Guard turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Tom’s Petty’s music served as a soundtrack to these tough times, and got me through a lot of seemingly hopeless personal moments as I struggled with my sexuality in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” military service. I’m happy that this policy is no longer in place.
As an introvert who fought through deep depression and crippling anxiety, I had to fight a constant internal battle invisible to those around me. Music was an elixir, and specifically Tom Petty music. At 30, I had a breakdown of sorts. My depression and anxiety were consuming me. Although I had a successful career, what internal strength it took to battle the demons of the depression became insurmountable. I distinctly remember waking up and knowing I just couldn’t go on. I didn’t want this feeling to go on; I’d rather be dead. The alarm clock went off, and I heard Tom Petty sing, “They can stand me up at the gates of hell and I won’t back down.” In that very moment, I made a choice. The choice to carry on and live.
Over my lifetime, as I’ve lived with chronic depression, this song has become an anthem of sorts for me. Tom Petty’s lyrics have fueled my desire to choose life. The words Tom Petty wrote literally made the difference in me living or dying. They came on the radio that morning at that moment, and because they did, I’m here today writing this. Many of Tom Petty’s songs were inspirational to me, but I will remain forever grateful to a man I’ll never know who saved my life.
In 2008, Heather was at a conference of grassroots labor activists in Dearborn, Mich., when steelworkers were on strike nearby.
As a part of the conference, we were encouraged to leave the hotel and go support the striking steelworkers. It was freezing cold outside, so cold that the picketers had started fires in two trash barrels. The picket line didn’t have many people on it when we arrived on our bus. Apparently the strike had been going on for nearly two years and was struggling. Our group of conference attendees swelled the line to over 100. The mood instantly improved. We began quietly marching on the picket line. The weather was miserable. After a few minutes of this, a man pulled up in a pickup truck alongside the picket line. We didn’t know if he was there to be supportive or to abuse us. He hung his head out the window and yelled “Hey!” and then cranked his stereo. “I Won’t Back Down” started playing. He never got out of his truck, but put the song on repeat. It played four or five more times. Everyone started singing. It was really wonderful. I’ll never forget it.
“I Won’t Back Down” is a battle cry, an anthem with lyrics that grasp straight to the heart. It is a song for any struggle.
When I hear the first few strums, I’m instantly transported back in time. Suddenly I’m 11 in my dad’s Ford Ranger on the way to soccer practice. I was a nervous kid. Even with my dad being the best pre-game motivational speaker to convince a shy, well-mannered 11-year-old to get amped, it wasn’t enough to get my head in the game. My dad would say, “Melissa, you’ve got to get mad! Run like you’re angry.”
Cue Petty on vocals, Campbell on guitar, and the lines so etched on my heart, “You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.” I’d headbang along, strapping my shinguards in place, mentally preparing as if going into battle. I could feel it, hit repeat, then again, heart racing, deep inhales, as centering as a meditation, as holy as a prayer. It was the quintessential mantra that made me dash out with pride onto every field. It was the method for dealing with any insurmountable obstacle. It provided the fortitude to keep trying.
Petty’s words gave me the grit I needed to make it through college as the first girl in my family ever to do so. Currently, I climb mountains. I lug my heavy pack along river bends and cliff faces, and all over the hills I hear, “No, I’ll stand my ground, won’t be turned around.”
I’m a single full-time dad. My wife and I split just before my son Connor’s third birthday. I was faced with raising him on my own six days a week and it was somewhat terrifying: Will I be good at this? Am I going to mess him up somehow? How do I get him to eat anything other than chicken nuggets and mac and cheese? But, as I had done a lot of times in my life when I was stressed or in pain or scared, I turned to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The music would ease the stress, numb the pain, and make whatever I was scared of a lot less scary.
One day early in our us-against-the-world battle, we decided to set out for Southern California for a few days to leave the “real world” behind. I glanced in the rearview mirror and looked at Connor sleeping in his car seat, the endless desert stretched out behind him in the rear windshield. Again, the thought crossed my mind: How am I going to do this and do it well? Not even 10 seconds later, “I Won’t Back Down” came on the radio. I let out a loud “Ha!”
There was TP once again, letting me know that everything was going to be all right as long as I didn’t give up.
Fast-forward to a few years later. We’re in Hollywood in a guitar store because I wanted to buy a T-shirt. After I bought my shirt, I found Connor standing next to a three-quarter-size guitar. “Can I get this?” he asked. “I can learn to play Tom Petty songs with it.” We were on our last day of vacation, low on money. I checked my bank account. If I returned the T-shirt, if we ate fast food for dinner, and if we could get home on a tank of gas, we could pull it off. He slept with that guitar in the hotel that night. He was 6 years old.
Arriving home, he took lessons. The first song he learned? “I Won’t Back Down.” He soon played every day and learned one Heartbreakers song after another. A year later he asked for a “real” guitar, specifically a Telecaster, because TP played a Telecaster in concert when we saw him here in Phoenix.
He picked one out he liked, but it was $2,000. I never wanted to let him down, so I explained as best as I could why we couldn’t afford something like that. “But,” I said. “Maybe I could just make you one.”
I’d never made anything in my life. I didn’t own any tools. We lived in an apartment.
“OK!” he said.
Honestly, I thought it would just buy me some time to find him a cheaper one. But one of our golden rules is, “Do what you say you’re going to do.” So I found a cheap Telecaster on Craigslist and tore it down to refinish it, just to see if I could even do that. It turned out all right, so I started reading websites and books on how to make an electric guitar.
I ordered wood and parts off the Internet, and over the next few months, I made an electric guitar. I finished it about 30 minutes before Connor’s eighth-birthday party. I found out I was pretty good at it and made a couple more.
Looking at a block of wood one night in our apartment, mouth full of spaghetti, Connor looked up at me and said, “You could build one for Tom Petty. You make nice ones and he likes guitars.”
“I don’t think it works that way,” I said.
“Sure, but you didn’t think you could even make one and that happened,” he said. “We already have tickets to see them in LA in June, anyway. Plus, if you make him one I could give it to him and I’d get to meet him.” He smiled.
So, as any single dad/crazy person would do, I fired off a long email to Tom Petty’s management company that probably made them think I was bananas. A few weeks later, Evan from the company contacted me, said Tom got my email, and if I could bring the guitar to the show, there was a really good chance we’d get to give the guitar to Tom.
On the day of the show, we received a call from him letting us know that it was going to happen: Tom was going to meet us prior to the show so we could give him the guitar. Later at the Fonda Theatre, we were sitting in the lobby when Evan came to talk to us. “I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but … he wants to meet you on his bus. And no one gets to go on his bus.”
He led us to the back of the building and suddenly, I was standing next to my wide-eyed 9-year-old son, on Tom Petty’s tour bus, holding a guitar I built for him. A moment later, Tom emerged, with his wife, Dana, right behind him. He was larger than life (but actually shorter than I expected; onstage he looks 10 feet tall).
Tom smiled, walked right up to my son, leaned over and shook his hand and said, “Hey, you must be Connor. I’m Tom. Nice to meet you.” He then shook my hand, introduced us to Dana, and just fell into conversation with Connor. It was — and still is — surreal. He greeted us like family he’d never met. Despite Evan telling us the meeting would be brief, we spent a good 15 minutes on his bus.
He gushed over the guitar when we opened the case and gave it to him. As he went to put it back into the case, Connor was in conversation with Dana, so I leaned over to Tom. “There are no words, man,” I said. “Thank you so much for doing this. He’s going to remember this for the rest of his life.”
Tom looked at me and then down at the guitar.
“But look what you did for me,” he said. “I know these aren’t easy to make. And you thought enough of me to go through all this trouble.” He put his hand on his heart and said, “Really, I’m just touched. I’m humbled. Thank you for doing this for me.”
He gave Connor some guitar picks and signed a concert poster for him. We shook hands, he hugged Connor, and off we went back into the venue. We probably weren’t in there more than a couple minutes before the Heartbreakers took the stage.
About halfway through the show, a woman leaned over to me and said, “Your boy knows all the words to every song! He’s so cool! You’re such a great dad!” I thanked her and thought, “You have no idea where we were an hour ago.”
After the show, we went to a Denny’s and ate biscuits and gravy and rehashed the evening over the next few hours. We were too amped up to sleep.
“I’m curious,” I said to Connor. “Does this whole experience teach you anything?”
“Yeah,” he said, slurping on a chocolate shake. “Anything is possible. Anything.”