Songs for Sound Minds are our picks of the best music that uplifts, inspires and boosts mental health. Songs written as an anthem to overcoming the storms of life. The songs that give hope in those times when we are struggling. this week we’re heading over the Atlantic for a signature track by Tom Petty.
I Won’t Back Down – Tom Petty
Not many artists can get George Harrison and Ringo Starr to perform as their backing band. Tom Petty can. Fewer still can get half of The Beatles to appear on a song written about an unsuccessful attempt on their life. Tom Petty can.
I Won’t Back Down is a song about not backing down. On the surface the lyrics seem to make it easy to determine the meaning – angry song writer writes about not getting his or her way. It might even seem a bit vacuous. Just another bit of disposable pop music. But I Won’t Back Down is much more than that and far more powerful and important.
Music stars complain about their ‘problems’ a lot in their songs. These days it tends to be about badly behaved partners, inadequately sized private jets or being ‘direspected’. Instead Petty’s classic is about something really serious – an act of arson that nearly killed him.
Out of the ashes
Prior to recording his debut solo album Full Moon Fever, an arsonist burned down Petty’s house while he was in it with his family and their housekeeper. Thankfully everyone escaped the blaze but the house was severely damaged.
For a period of several months the family lived between hotel rooms and rented houses. Out of the ashes of Petty’s house came a song about defiance in the face of real trauma – especially as the arsonist was never caught.
During an interview with Harp in 2006 Petty talked about the song: “That song frightened me when I wrote it. I didn’t embrace it at all. I thought it wasn’t that good because it was so naked. So I had a lot of second thoughts about recording that song.”
Connecting to a song
Despite his reservations the song was recorded: “everyone around me liked the song and said it was really good and it turns out everyone was right – more people connect to that song than anything I ever wrote.” Since the song was released in 1989 it has become a personal anthem for thousands going through tough times: “I’ve had so many people tell me that it helped them through this or it helped them through that. I’m still continually amazed by the power a little 3-minute song has.”
Even amongst a back-catalogue of hits featuring American Girl and Free-Fallin, I Won’t Back Down remains the most important. Written out of real pain, fear and anger, I Won’t Back Down is a song for anyone needing a reminder why it is important to stand your ground and act on what you believe in. Even if that means there is no easy way out.