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The Cost of Freedom

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

This week’s Free Ride* muses on the lyrics of Stephen Stills’ little chorus, Find the Cost of Freedom. Stills, who turns 66 this Monday, has the distinction of being the only person to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice in the same night, once for his work with Buffalo Springfield and the other for his work with the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. He could very well have been inducted thrice, if only his manager in the late 1960s had not failed to pass on a message from his long-time friend Jimi Hendrix, inviting him to join the Experience as its bass player. Ah, the what ifs of life.

The song of the week is profound in its four simple lines: (click on to listen)

Find the cost of freedom
Buried in the ground
Mother Earth will swallow you
Lay your body down

The haunting acoustic guitar intro and accompaniment on the first run through, followed by the quartet’s tight a cappella harmony creates something of an old-time shaped-note gospel feel. It quickly became the standard sing-along closer for CSNY’s concerts. I heard Stills perform the song in Louisville at a rally on the presidential campaign trail of 1984. I’ll have to say, Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro were not the greatest of background singers. The chorus has also become a staple tribute song among veterans groups as a way to honor the sacrifice of soldiers who have paid the ultimate price in defense of freedom. There’s likely to be some resonance of that sentiment with the songwriter, since Stephen Stills grew up in a military family. One story has it that he penned the song after visiting a Civil War battle site.

As you might expect, though, the meaning is more complicated, especially when you remember that this was the B-Side to the protest song Ohio, which Neil Young wrote after seeing Life magazine’s photos of the Kent State shootings that left four young war protesters dead. Legend has it that when the group finished recording Ohio and then realized they didn’t have a B-side picked out, Stephen Stills suggested Find the Cost of Freedom almost as an afterthought. However it came to be, it is a brilliant combination. The complexity of our country’s core values, complete with the tension of patriotism and protest, comes through loud and clear when you listen to the A and B sides together as two parts to one anthem. Diehard draftees did die on battlefields, fighting for their belief in the right of dissent, and tin soldiers did do Nixon’s bidding in mowing down defiant dissenters. Mother Earth has swallowed the bodies of young GIs fighting in Vietnam and young undergrads protesting Vietnam. History shows that many among the platoons and the protesters served honorably, while others acted horrifically. They all comprise the shaped notes of our collective harmony, our country’s fugue of freedom. It’s all part of our history, and it’s all part of the price we pay for living in the sweet land of liberty.

If you care to listen here are a couple more pretty fair covers of the tune:
David Gilmour with David Crosby and Graham Nash
The Sofa Prophets


*Free Ride is a Saturday blog that takes a different song each week and muses on the lyrics of freedom. You can click on the live links in the post to hear various versions of the song by different artists. If you have a favorite “freedom” song (it could be any song that has the word free or freedom in it), feel free to suggest it in the comment box below. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.

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Comments

  • April 15, 2013 at 9:53 pm

    Thinking of this song and found this website because I was thinking about and praying for Boston, those hurt or killed, their families and friends. Praying for all of us and particularly thinking about this line: “when everyone’s talking and no one is listening how do we decide. Find the cost of freedom….

    Glad I found your website

    Comment by Jane

  • April 16, 2013 at 10:10 am

    Jane, thanks for your comment. I’m glad that you found the post meaningful. It is a powerful song, and timely.

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • May 26, 2015 at 12:12 am

    Loved this site and message.

    Comment by Vana Perigo


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