Soul Song #2:
Love The One You’re With
by Stephen Stills
Soul Song #2: “Love the One You’re With”, by Stephen Stills, contains some of the most misunderstood lyrics ever written. I have always appreciated the song for its high-spirited rhythm; it makes me want to get up and move. Here again, like Soul Song #1, we have a song wherein the music, particularly that organ solo and the background vocals, evokes that Sunday-go-to-meeting gospel sound. It has a great upbeat, sing-along chorus – but those lyrics! What in the world do they mean?
Many interpretations have been shared over the years focusing primarily on the chorus line – “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” and translating it as a statement in support of infidelity, free love, one-night stands, and superficial relationships. But the seemingly flippant lyrics of the chorus do not align with the deep imagery of “There’s a rose in a fisted glove, and the eagle flies with the dove.” Confusion over the apparently nonsensical arrangement of lyrics has led some to hate the song and by association the writer [Read More 1] An extreme response, I know.
In an interview in October 1991, Stills commented about how rock music often gets over analyzed and critiqued, as opposed to important, ongoing events and history which get trivialized, overlooked, and under-analyzed in society. [Watch1] Stills concedes that songs exist for the listener’s interpretation; the writers and listeners are going to interpret meaning and relate to a piece based on their experiences. In this post, I will indeed over-analyze this song AND focus on important real events that were taking place in the mid-to-late 60s leading up to the release of this song in November 1970.
As you read, I ask you to ‘think higher’ as I take you on a journey to the heart and soul of this song. I am also asking that you would, for the purposes of this blog post, suspend any views that say that the word “love” automatically translates to “sex”, but rather see it as Divine Love, or the love of a heart connection between people that emerges from sincere respect and honoring of each other – think higher. Hopefully, you will awaken to an entirely new regard for Stephen Stills, the song, and its message.
I sat with the lyrics of this song, I listened carefully, considered the symbolism involved, and questioned what overarching statement the song might be making. My interpretation: Stills used this song to reflect on actual civil rights events, that took place during the 1960s in America, and on key individuals who were involved in the various actions and protests for civil rights. His lyrics also spoke of the broken heartedness of those who were grieving and mourning the related losses which included – but are not limited to – four young girls killed in a bombed church in Birmingham, assassination of religious leader Malcolm X, Bloody Sunday, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the treatment of black Olympic athletes in response to their nonviolent “Black Power” protest just months after the murder of M.L.K., Jr. It is possible too that the lyrics contain an underlying message for the best actions we each can take to contribute to healing the poison of hatred and racism in America, and to contribute to the overall healing of humanity. In the following paragraphs I share how I came to this interpretation.
The song’s use of symbols helps us understand what is unspoken in the lyrics.
There’s a rose in a fisted glove
The ‘fisted glove’ refers specifically to the iconic image of two young black men during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City (52 years ago this month), with their gloved fists raised high in an attempt “to be seen because they could not be heard”, and standing up for better treatment of black athletes and black people around the world, protesting racism and injustice everywhere. The passion and desire of their souls also rested at the heart of those clinched fists. This event happened in October amid the ongoing civil rights movement in America, and just five months after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in May of 1968; King’s campaign called for basic decency and human rights for everyone living in poverty, regardless of race. These two black men stood with hearts of courage and raised their gloved hands clinched into a fist, palm side out – the fist of strength not threat, a fist of frustration and unity, not a fist of punishment or threat of violence/aggression. The Black Power salute is a symbol of unity and solidarity. It has since been used by people all around the world to protest hatred, racism, brutality, and injustice. [Read More 2 & 3]
The rose is a symbol of beauty, grace, love, desire, passion, and the promise of rebirth. The message is also similar to that of “a rose blooming in the midst of winter, a promise of the return of spring” – a promise of renewal, awakening, and rebirth– a visual assurance that the legacy/the mission of those who have died will be carried on. In rebirth – a flower buds, blossoms, and in time, ultimately dies; but from the seeds sown during its life, there is rebirth in the form of many more flowers to bud and bloom. The rose in a fisted glove is a reminder that it is the power of Love/Source that lies at the center of all things. The rose and the fist are two seemingly conflicting symbols, but love can be radical; it does not have to tolerate. Love is also the strength and courage to speak up for oneself and others who are being treated unjustly. At the heart of the protest is a desire for love, equality, and peace, as well as self-love and love for all of humanity.
And the eagle flies with the dove
The Eagle is a symbol of power, courage, strength through military and warlike determination. The Dove is a symbol of love and peace, unwarlike, with a spirit of forgiveness and hope at the center of all it does. Two seemingly opposing symbols – one predator, the other prey – the pairing of two contrasting things to deepen the meaning and suggest more is being implied (much like the rose and the fist). I believe the eagle and the dove are used here as symbols representing the predominant energies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. – as a nod to each of these civil rights leaders and their different approaches in the struggle for the same goal. But further than that, to reflect aspects of an ignored inner truth that these energies are not mutually exclusive, but that they travel together. Both aspects exist within the eagle, within the dove, within both civil rights leaders, and within the protesters.
Don’t be angry, don’t be sad,
Don’t sit cryin’ over good times you’ve had,
As a result of so many deaths and injuries in the Black community and across America, in the 60s, there was a “wave of national grief”. Following the assassinations of Malcolm X and M.L.K., Jr., frustration and feelings of hopelessness, confusion, and of not being seen or heard as a people led to days of riots, burning, and looting. They were dealing with loss and grief; they were mourning the deaths of loved ones – friends, family, leaders beloved in the community and in the fight for equality. Yet, there was still much work to do and they couldn’t afford to lose focus or lose ground by allowing themselves to get sidetracked by their losses and emotions. They couldn’t lose sight of the dream.
If you can’t be with the one you love
This line could also refer to loved ones who have died, those you can no longer be with in life. Additionally, in the 60s, it was against the law in many instances to love who you loved – if they were of a different race, specifically if they were Black. After eight years of battling, Loving v Virginia – a landmark civil rights decision in 1967 – ruled that the laws banning interracial marriage violated the 14th amendment and therefore were unconstitutional. Prior to this decision, it was a felony for whites to be with members of non-white groups/Blacks; the laws prohibited cohabitation, interracial marriage, issuance of a marriage license, officiating such weddings/ceremonies, and having interracial sexual relations (miscegenation). In Loving v Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that anti-miscegenation laws are unconstitutional. While the law changed, people’s attitudes and beliefs did not change overnight.
Love the one you’re with!
This line represents the most enduring message of the song. You’ve got to love the one you are always with – which is you; through all life’s ups and downs, hardships, inequities, and traumas, you must keep your heart open to yourself. Reconcile and release your internal wounds, hurts, negative beliefs, and judgements about yourself. Stop being so hard on yourself by healing the lack of compassion you have for you, and letting go of the self-criticizing, critiquing, and blaming. The more you deal with what is going on inside of you, the more you are open to remember that you are LOVE.
What you are really seeking resides within you and requires commitment and devotion. Reconnect with the love within which gives rise to your voice of truth and brings forth your sacred heart. Your priority is to be in a healthy, unconditional, loving relationship with yourself; from that place you can connect with your true Divine nature – which is Love – and you will learn to love yourself as you are loved by Source.
“When you find peace within yourself you become the kind of person who can live at peace with others.” – Peace Pilgrim
Once you experience the love that you are, that we all are, you will begin allowing the respect of hearing others and being heard with compassion, of being present for others, and of connecting with others through your soul with compassion. Remember, the way you see, treat, and think about others is a reflection – of how you see, treat, and think about yourself (internally). Loving yourself allows you to: stop judging others, release needing to be in competition with them, and forgive wanting to place others in a lesser/lower position to yourself.
Embracing the ONENESS of the world requires that you be unified within yourself.
If you’re down and confused
And you don’t remember who you’re talking to
Concentration slips away
. . . .
“Turn your heartache into joy!
You ain’t gonna need anymore advice
If you are sad, grieving, depressed, frightened, or confused, seek ways to raise your heart’s vibration – it will give you the wings to, figuratively, soar like a bird while still in your body; you’ll be able to rise above situations, have clear vision, experience pure love, have courage, and receive lofty ideals. Up where the air is clear and movement free, you will see the truth of who you are. Think higher and build your nest on higher ground. There are many ways to raise the heart’s vibrational frequency – singing, nature, dancing, and laughter just to name a few.
Love and peace are what we all hope to find, and we can only get there if we acknowledge we are One. We may look different in outward appearance but we are the same inside – like the energies of the eagle and the dove, we need to learn to work together and appreciate the gifts that others brings to the table. It takes all of us together, seeing the humanity in each other and recognizing we are one, not in competition with each other. Stop hating your brothers and sisters, of any race, and get to know them. Stop hating others because you do not understand them, or because they are different, or unfamiliar. Respect and honor one another. Love everybody. We are ONE and we need each other! Learn this and you truly will not need any more advice.
“We are eagles of one nest…the nest is in our soul.” – Led Zeppelin
Great songs/lyrics resonate and have meaning beyond their specific context. This song is as relevant today as it was in 1970. It has attracted a great following over the years because it has a message and energy that uplifts the heart and soul and changes consciousness, even if the listeners have no idea what the song is truly about. I never found any text or video where Stephen Stills discussed the meaning of this song, except for the comments from others that he received permission from Billy Preston to use the line: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Stills does share that there are song lyrics that come ‘through you’, as opposed to ‘from you’; I imagine that is exactly what took place with portions of the “Love the One You’re With” lyrics. The original song performed by Stills is the best version; while there are many available covers, a few that I particularly enjoy include: the Chaka Khan with Rufus (Love the One You’re With/Sit Yourself Down), as well as the Bob Seger, and The Isley Brothers versions.
Beloved daughter, … we are well pleased with the insight you have presented thus far. The song indeed comes from a sacred space within the writer’s heart. He chooses not to speak about the emotions he felt during this time in history and indeed in some sense is experiencing, once again, in today’s climate of unrest. Bringing through some of the truths buried in this popular song will awaken soul memories in many individuals on the planet. Of this, there is no doubt.
We are well pleased with your ability to hear our whispers of guidance and build upon them. And we appreciate your thoroughness in examining the available recordings for hints (breadcrumbs from Stephen’s life) to guide you on this journey. If you would allow, we would share, in addition to what you have presented, the significance of the repetition of “Love the one you’re with.” Repetitions of 4 at four different intervals within the lyrics and the combination with the musical interlude are quite purposefully done. The four repetition is indicative of awakening and opening to new ideas and understandings. As you have mentioned, listeners do not fully understand why they are so drawn to this little ditty, but their souls know and recognize the calling to a heart expansion and opening.
Next song: How can you be kind to yourself first in life?
1https://youtu.be/v3MZmyLNato – 1991 Stephen Stills – Later with Bob Costas (1991)