KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #98: I Can’t Write Left Handed by BIll Withers.
This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
If we lived in a perfect world, there wouldn’t be the need for protest songs. But, the world that we actually live in is one that too often consists of one part, intolerance; two parts, injustice and a final part, unadulterated greed. Because life is harder than it needs to be for many people, protest songs do exist. They exist to speak for those whose voices cannot be heard so easily by those in positions of power. But, sometimes, it is not those ears for whom a good protest song is written. Sometime, a song is written for the ears and hearts of the very people it is written about. So far in this countdown, we have heard the story of Billie Holliday and “Strange Fruit”, John Fogerty and “Fortunate Son”, Pete Seeger and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, Bruce Springsteen with, “Born in the USA”, “Public Enemy”, with “Fight the Power” and, more recently, Beyonce, with “Freedom”. There are many more protest songs out there than those listed and, among them, we come to today’s song, “I Can’t Write Left Handed” by Bill Withers.
Please forgive yourself if this is an unknown song to you. “I Can’t Write Left Handed” was never a #1 hit for Withers. But, it IS one of the most popular and respected songs about War as declared by real Veterans who have fought and survived. If you remember from our previous post about singer, Bill Withers, he was a working class man who honed his singing skills on the assembly line at Boeing. His first album featured a photo of him with his actual metal lunch can in hand. With songs such as “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Just The Two Of Us” and “Lean On Me”, Withers could have enjoyed a celebrity’s lifestyle but, he did not. Withers remained true to his roots and often wrote songs about the world as it existed for everyday people like him, as he still imagined himself to be. Bill Withers served in the military before joining Boeing. His experience as a Black man in a White man’s Army served as useful background information that informed his lyrics for the song, “I Can’t Write Left Handed”. But, more than that, what inspired Withers to write this song was the long history of powerful men waging War by using the poorest and most racially-marginalized as cannon-fodder for their battles. There is a long history in many countries of the bulk of “the regulars” being comprised of people of colour and/or people suffering from poverty.
We know from the song, “Fortunate Son” by John Fogerty that many people of means were able to “buy deferments” that allowed their sons to avoid having to go to war (specifically, the Vietnam War). Those who did not have the money to buy their way out of the Draft, ended up in the jungle, battling the Vietcong. As Muhammad Ali famously said when he opted to go to jail, rather than accept enlistment when his “number” came up,
“My conscience won’t let me shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big, powerful America. And shoot them for what?! They never called me, “N*gger”! They never lynched me! “They didn’t put no dogs upon me! They didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father! Shoot them for what!? How can I shoot poor people? Just take me to jail.”
But, for every rich, white family who purchased a deferment for their son (i.e., Donald Trump is one such example) and for every star athlete who refused to fight, such as Muhammad Ali, there were thousands upon thousands of poor, under-educated people of colour who, when their number came up, were simply expected to report to Basic Training and then, to go off to fight “the Yellow Man”. The song “I Can’t Write Left handed” is about those people of colour whose bodies filled out the ranks of those sent to the front lines.
In particular, the song “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” is noteworthy because of a two-minute spoken-word introduction given by Bill Withers. This introduction was recorded as part of a live album of a concert he gave at Carnegie Hall. In this Bluesy, Jazzy introduction, Withers sets the stage for how race and poverty play such a disproportionate role in determining who gets to face the horror of combat in Wartime. After setting the historical stage, Withers turns the song over to his protagonist; a scared young black man, barely twenty years old, who is begging Withers or, the listener, to write letters to his mama, his priest and his lawyer in order to get a determent for his little brother so his brother doesn’t have to face what he has faced so far in Vietnam. He chronicles his disillusionment with his military training as a “killing machine” and, instead, wonders why he is being asked to kill these people against whom he bears no grudge. He says it is all fun and games when the bullets fly away from you but, not so much when that fire is returned. At twenty years of age, this young Black man is already a disabled Vet, because his arm has been shot. All in all, the song is an insider’s look at the reality of what life is like for Black and poor people fighting in a White man’s army for a White man’s war.
As a result of this song and several others like it (but, particularly because of this song), Bill Withers was given the nickname “Truthful Bill” by Vietnam Veterans. Those who served in Vietnam tend to agree that Withers has captured their experience better than anyone else had before or since. As a result, Withers never really cared if “I Can’t Write Left handed” had any chart success. To him, what mattered most was that he felt he did right by his “Brothers in Arms” and that he accurately spoke for them with this song.So, prepare yourselves for one of the most deeply affecting protest songs of all-time. It is as powerful as “Strange Fruit” is but, in a different, more nuanced way. “Truthful” Bill Withers was a beautiful singer and, as it turned out, he was an honourable man, too. Without further delay, live from Carnegie Hall, here is Bill Withers with “I Can’t Write Left handed”. Enjoy. —
The link to the video for the song, “I Can’t Write Left Handed” by Bill Withers, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Bill Withers, can be found here.