“What You Do With What You’ve Got” by Si Kahn is the Peace Song of the Day for August 17th, as chosen by Susanna, Duchess of Peace. You can find the lyrics in the Rise Up Singing songbook on page 244, in the “Unity” section.
More about this song…“What To Do With What You’ve Got” is about how important it is to use one’s good health and talents to make the world a better place. Duke Augustus and Duchess Susanna encourage our friends and neighbors to work nonviolently for peace and an end to wars.
“For what’s the use of two strong legs, if you only run away / What good is the finest voice if you’ve nothing good to say”
The language choices in the original, and in the versions of various performers, are interesting. In the original song, there is an “un-politically correct word”, which all the versions I heard keep. I think I would change it to, “Tell me which ones are disabled, and which ones touch the sun?”.
Also, one line says, “Between those who run to evil“, which several singers changed to “Between those who run to glory“. I see a difference which I am not sure makes “glory” a good and precise replacement word.
We would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this song. Also, please direct us to your favorite version. There were only a handful of choices available at Youtube.
2 thoughts on “Share your energy and talents: Peace Song of the Day for 8/17/2011”
Your Royal Highnesses, thanks so much for featuring my song “What You Do With What You’ve Got.”
In terms of history: I was asked to write a song alone these lines some years ago by Jean Stewart, a disability rights activist and author, when she was editing a special issue of “Sing Out!” for the International Year of Disabled Persons. I used to mention that history when I introduced the song in performance.
After a while, I realized that people, including both those who are and aren’t differently abled, heard the song in differing ways, and that a specific introduction was limiting how they might hear it. So I no longer tell the history, and let the song stand on its own.
The choice of the word ‘cripple’ was deliberate. I’m being ironic here, using a perjorative and then commenting on it. But I understand the point, and may start putting scare quotes around the word when I write out the lyrics, as:
Which ones are the ‘cripples’
And which ones touch the sun
In singing the song, it’s also possible to put musical scare quotes around the world, so it’s clearer that what’s going on here is a contrast and comparison.
The same contrast is a consistent theme throughout the song. That’s why I agree with Your Highnesses that ‘glory’ is a poor word substitution and, if you actually think about it, undermines what the song is trying to say.
For that matter, I’m always amazed that so many musicians feel absolutely free to change another musician’s work without even asking if that’s okay. I can’t imagine that someone would publicly read, say, Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening” and change several of the words–or that the listening audience wouldn’t speak up and object.
Every good songwriter I know takes extraordinary care in choosing their words and phrases. Other artists should honor their work and choices.
I am willing to approve occasional word changes when they make sense in terms of the immediate situation in which the song is being presented–but only if people are nice enough to ask first.
All the best,
Dear Si Kahn,
Thank you for the honor of your presence in this place of peace. Your comments and insight are much appreciated.
I am glad you explained your view of the use of the word “cripple”. I like your idea to use the quotes, as a way to underscore that it is not a word you agree with.
I had thought about the fact that using an uncomfortable word in art is a way to bring understanding. So, I am sure that many people are awakened and enlightened by the controversy your song creates.
Glad to hear how carefully you think about language. I am torn between thinking that a songwriter’s words should be respected, because they are equal to the work of a poet, but…in some ways, changing the words is the folk process.
Perhaps you have become a folk legend, and you have not realized it yet.
Many thanks for sharing your thoughts. Your song is truly beautiful.