Story of a Song: “Set the World Right Again”

50songs50stories_book_coverSince this week the UNFCCC is featuring “Set the World Right Again” as its “Climate Song of the Week,” here is the story behind the song. This is the second excerpt from my book-in-progress, “50 Songs, 50 Stories.” – Alan

Some songs start as a vague idea, some as a line of specific words. Some songs grow out of an experience you want to capture. And some just emerge out of your guitar. You start fooling around on your instrument, and you discover something you like. One musical phrase suggests another, which leads to something else, and all those “somethings” link up together (with a little work) to become the skeleton of a song. Then the skeleton needs some flesh, in the form of a melody, which usually “sings itself” out of the chords when you start experimenting with a little free humming. Last but not least (in this version of how things can go, the process always varies) comes the text, the script that this new song — with its specific energy and feeling, its special atmosphere and intention — is meant to deliver to listeners, every time they hear it.

That’s how the process went with “Set the World Right Again.” I went through three different sets of lyrics before I finally understood what this song wanted to be about.

The first version was a love song — frankly, a pathetic lyric that did not stand up to the power of the music, so I tore it up and started from scratch. My second attempt was no better, and I began to despair of ever finding the song’s true voice. But I loved the way this music made my body swing, so I kept trying.

Or rather, I stopped trying. I relaxed, and listened.

I asked myself: what do I hear? This song is obviously about urgency. What is most urgent thing in my life? That’s easy: my work. What is my work about? What is sustainable development about?

That year, 2009, was the year of the great climate change summit in Copenhagen, “CoP-15.”  (“CoP” stands for “Conference of the Parties,” and refers to those nations who had signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change back in 1992. It was their 15th meeting.) I would be attending that conference in my role as a consultant to the United Nations, and presenting a paper on an ambitious new plan for scaling up renewable energy, around the world. Climate change, the “fire that you can’t put out,” was very much on my mind — and in my heart.

In professional situations like UN conferences, one does not talk much about emotions. One might express a feeling of “irritation” that negotiations are going so slowly, or even admit that the lack of progress is “disappointing” — but one does not have much room to express depression, grief, or fury at those who are trying to sow confusion and discord (as some try actively to do). There is precious little room for despair at the thought of the bleak future that a failure to reach agreement might seriously entail.

Nor, it turns out, is there much room to express serious hope, either. Expressing one’s longing for success, one’s faith in the future, in deeply emotional terms is almost as taboo as weeping at the prospect that future generations may never see a polar bear, may become refugees when their land is drowned, may struggle to grow enough food in a globally warmed world.

Taboo or not, emotion is always in the room — even a room the size of Copenhagen’s Bella Centre, where CoP-15 gathered so many thousands of officials, experts, and activists. Indeed, if one was really paying attention, one could read a certain over-arching emotional tone in that giant conference center, a feeling that seemed to color everything that was said and nearly every interaction, even in such a huge and diverse coming-together of people from so many different countries and cultures. At CoP-15, I would have called that feeling “desperate hope”: choosing optimism, and making great effort, despite seemingly impossible odds.

And that, I finally realized, was what this song is about.

*

Set the World Right Again

Words and Music © 2009 by Alan AtKisson

 

Like a fire that you can’t put out

A bad dream that you can’t stop thinking about

An experiment you shouldn’t have run

This world is a child with a gun

 

You want to put the train on some new track

End the tragedy before they start the last act

Get the help of every woman and man

Stop the madness any way you can

            And set the world right again

            As if none of this had ever been

            Let the story have a happy ending

            Set the world right again

 

Your objective is to turn the tide

In a game of risk and danger – and you have to choose sides

It’s a game you have no choice but to play

And you wonder if there’s any way

            To set the world right again

            As if none of this had ever been

            Let the story have a happy ending

            Set the world right again

           

            There are voices that say that it’s already too late

            There are voices that drown out each other in debate

            There are voices that claim that there’s no place to start

            But the only voice to listen to

            Is the voice in your heart

 

In the end it all comes down to love

What you care enough about to be the champion of

And believe no matter how hard it seems

That it’s possible to live this dream

            And set the world right again

            As if none of this had ever been

            Let the story have a happy ending

            Set the world right again

 

            Set the world right again …

 

You can find “Set the World Right Again” on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, YouTube, and most streaming services.

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