The Best Word: Eva Cassidy, “People Get Ready” (1996)

“What is the best word one could put in a song?” is a stupid question from almost every angle, but consider this:  psychologists at the University of Florida have developed a list of Affective Norms for English Words (ANEW) by crunching questionnaire responses to “How does this word make you feel?” for hundreds of words.   There are best words, it turns out, in the sense that certain words score highest for making people feel good:   on a 1 to 9 scale, “triumphant” is a top word at 8.82; “love” is 8.72.[1]  (The results raise all sorts of questions.  How could “hell” be 2.24?  Did a few people misread it as “hello”?)

Of course the meaning of your peak experiences in songs has to do with combinations of elements, never with one element alone, but still you can think about which words you tend to warm to.   Aw, admit it:  one of them is “love.”  There’s no way “love” won’t be one of the ultimate buttons to push in a human being.[2]  Precisely for that reason, though, it will often be used lamely and lazily, so let’s set it aside (though I can’t refrain from asking:   When has the word “love” sounded most powerfully in a rock context?  Is it when Reg Presley says “I love you” in “Wild Thing”?  Probably not).

For me, another top contender is “people” (7.33).[3]  Not as in the famous Barbara Streisand song (people, people who need people, are the luckiest people in the world)—but my strong negative reaction in that case is a pointer to something big that deserves better treatment.  “People” gets to me whenever it’s set on a political horizon, somehow rallying people together.  Apparently I really want to feel rallied.

But don’t rally me shallowly.  Don’t just push the button.  I’m afraid The Rascals’ “People Got To Be Free” doesn’t specify a cause well enough, and there’s too much pop sunshine there for a sense of urgency.  John Lennon’s “Power To The People” is unfortunately just a slogan.  But when I hear of “all the lonely people” in “Eleanor Rigby”; when The Doors assert, with eerie coolness, “People Are Strange”; when Joni Mitchell sings desperately of the trap of “People’s Parties”; when Steely Dan sees “the poor people sleeping with the shade on the light” while “all the stars come out at night” in “Show Biz Kids”—these are definite causes, and serious, and the problem of collective life rushes into me through the gateway word.

“People Get Ready,” the much-covered Curtis Mayfield song said to be inspired by the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, is preeminent among the “people” appeals.

People get ready
There’s a train a-coming
You don’t need no baggage
You just get on board
All you need is faith
To hear diesels humming
You don’t need no ticket
You just thank the Lord

Here “people” really works as the gateway to everything since it’s always the already-went-by first word, a summons word, not a sentimental button to be pushed repeatedly.  In Eva Cassidy’s version, the singer’s flexing of the melody marvelously combines a dreamy meditative openness (who are we? what is going on?) with a surging eagerness to get on that train to Jordan, to finally see the point of being “people.”[4]

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[1] Measurements were made in three dimensions:  pleasant to unpleasant (“valence”), excited to calm (“arousal”), and in-control to not-in-control (“dominance”).   For simplicity’s sake I’m only citing the valence scores here.   Bradley, M.M., & Lang, P.J. (1999). Affective norms for English words (ANEW): Stimuli, instruction manual and affective ratings.  Technical Report C-1, Gainesville, FL.  The Center for Research in Psychophysiology, University of Florida.

[2] Speaking of buttons, “orgasm” scores a whopping 8.32; but who has used it effectively in a song besides the Buzzcocks in “Orgasm Addict” (1977)?

[3] Remarkably, according to the Corpus of Contemporary American Language list of frequency in general use of English from 1990 to 2009, the most frequently used word that isn’t a little hard-working article, demonstrative, pronoun, or auxiliary verb is—“people.”

[4] Joss Stone’s version in Jeff Beck’s 2007 show at Ronnie Scott’s is great in much the same way, but a bit harder-edged.

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Words and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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