“Don’t Know Much” — Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville

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Photo by Scott Broome on Unsplash

We live in world obsessed with knowing more about everything. But we’ve forgotten that how we feel is much more important than what we know.

The tech giants are obsessed with tracking every moment we’re online and selling our data so marketers can sell us more stuff. Yet I don’t know anyone who thinks marketing has got better after 20 years of marketers collecting more and more data. We know more than we ever did. Consumers feel less cared about than ever.

24 hour rolling news channels spend literally 24 hours a day telling us things they think we should know, all the while stoking outrage in order to attract more viewers and thereby more advertising dollars. They make sure we know more about more subjects than we ever did before. Yet society is more fractured than it has ever been.

Politicians talk about being “lead by science” or “data-driven” in their decisions. What they really mean is when some piece of science or data could conceivably provide a justification, however sketchy, for what they wanted to do anyway, they cite that in evidence. And when the science or the data doesn’t serve their purpose they ignore it or make something up. There is more science and data being cited by politicians than ever before, but we’ve probably never trusted our political leaders less.

It’s great to know things, and I’m a big believer in education. But education has its limits. Facts can make us more informed, but they can’t make us feel any different. Sometimes they amplify what we already felt if they supply one more piece of evidence to back up a long-held belief. But facts alone rarely make us feel different.

And, in the end, the state of the world is based on what people feel, not what they know.

It might take a while to get there, but from the French Revolution and the Boston Tea Party through to anti-war movement in the 1960s and Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, right up to the present day, eventually people feel they’ve been mistreated for too long and that their concerns have gone unheard far beyond the limits of their patience.

They become tired of having their feelings brushed aside…of being told their feelings don’t matter in the face of what other people want to do…being told they’re mistaken, or stupid, even, for feeling the way they do…or hearing that things have always been that way so they’d better wise up to the ways of the world.

One day enough last straws have broken enough backs. Seemingly as one, a great movement rises up overnight when enough people say “We’ve had enough. We’re not taking this any more.”

That’s the moment “overnight change” happens.

But if we’d been listening to the feelings of our fellow human beings all along, that “overnight change” would never have come as a surprise. The evidence was there in plain sight all along. Yet everybody turned a blind eye to it.

When those movements get started, no amount of data will persuade people that they’re sadly mistaken in their view of the world. When their feelings are unleashed with enough emotion, indignation and injured feelings attached, people become driven, determined and resolute to put the world right at long last. And they don’t stop until their goal has been reached.

Feelings beat data every time.

And although “Don’t Know Much” isn’t about anything quite so dramatic as a revolution or a million-strong march on the nation’s capital, exactly the same principles apply…

You see, we don’t “know” someone loves us, intellectually. We feel when someone loves us in our soul, then our soul tell our brain so we think we “know” it. But that’s just a trick. The brain doesn’t control the feelings, it’s the other way around…the feelings control the brain.

And feelings over-ride data. Objectively, as Aaron Neville sings, he’s maybe not the handsome young man he once was. But despite that he feels a deep and comforting sense of love for the woman in his life.

Which goes two ways, as Linda Ronstadt takes up the story. She sees someone she loves who’s struggled through life. The data might suggest he’s not worth bothering about, but her feelings tell her otherwise…

“Don’t Know Much” was written by husband-and-wife songwriting team Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, together with Tom Snow.

Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil are one of the best, and most prolific, songwriting teams in popular music, but curiously one of the least well known.

Their huge list of songwriting credits include Eydie Gorme’s “Blame It On The Bossa Nova”, Elvis Presley’s “I Just Can’t Help Believing” and The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”…the latter being the most played song on US TV and radio during the 20th century, to give some measure of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s breadth of talent.

Tom Snow was no slouch in the songwriting department either, writing songs for Barbra Streisand, The Pointer Sisters and Dolly Parton, among others, although he’s probably better known as a composer for movies, with songs including “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” from the movie Footloose, which was a big hit for Deniece Williams.

Although they worked as a team, Barry Mann wrote the music and Cynthia Weil wrote the lyrics. so it’s probably Cynthia Weil we should be thanking for the gentle and tender lyrics for “Don’t Know Much”.

There’s no question Barry Mann knows how to write a lovely tune, and “Don’t Know Much” is no exception to that rule. But Cynthia Weil’s lyrics are what makes this song.

It’s a very simple song in many ways. It’s very stripped back, and there’s not a lot going on in there, musically speaking. Everything apart from the vocal is set well back in the mix…you have to concentrate really hard to even know it’s there.

Keeping everything stripped back was a good decision by record producers Peter Asher and Steve Tyrell, who recorded Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville’s version of “Don’t Know Much” for Linda Ronstadt’s 1989 album “Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like The Wind”.

For a song with lyrics like the ones Cynthia Weil wrote for “Don’t Know Much”, many record producers would be tempted to wheel out a full choir and a 60-piece orchestra. With that treatment, it could easily have become too syrupy and lost the impact of the song’s vulnerability and tenderness.

In songwriting and record producing, as in politics and society as a whole, “more” is not always “better”. Great artists make their reputations by what they leave out, not what they add in. As Michelangelo is reputed to have said when carving “David”, he started with a block of marble and just took away everything that wasn’t David.

Writing and recording a piece of music is the same. Skilled artists do exactly what’s needed and not a note more, before letting their work stand for itself.

In fairness, Peter Asher and Steve Tyrell had a pretty good template to follow. Barry Mann had recorded his own version of “Don’t Know Much” for his 1980 album “Casablanca”, which was pretty much just Barry Mann singing and accompanying himself on the piano…again with the merest hint of some strings…and what I think might be an oboe, but it’s so faint it’s hard to tell…far off in the distance.

I don’t think Barry Mann would be offended if I said that, on balance, Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville were better singers than him, but he does a very nice job of this song, as you can see for yourself here...

At its heart, though, “Don’t Know Much” is all about the tender lyrics. And they’re so beautifully sung — Aaron Neville’s soaring falsetto and Linda Ronstadt’s crystal clear country-infused tones are an inspired pairing.

All the effort in writing, producing and singing “Don’t Know Much” proved worthwhile, though. Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville’s version was the well-deserved winner of the 1990 Grammy for Best Performance by a Duo or Group and reached Number Two in both the Billboard Hot 100 and the UK singles chart.

For all its success, though, the charm of this lovely, tender and insightful song owes a lot to Cythia Weil’s skills as a lyric writer and the way she can tell a story and convey powerful feelings in as few words as possible. That’s artistry of the highest order.

Although she didn’t put it in quite these terms, I like to think Cynthia Weil would agree with me that what you feel is more important than what you know.

What you know controls what you think at that moment.

But what you feel controls your whole life.

And if you feel that someone loves you, and you love them in return…well, that’s all you need to know.

Here’s the lovely Linda Ronstadt and the no-less-lovely, I’m sure, Aaron Neville with their delightful Grammy-winning performance of “Don’t Know Much”…

https://open.spotify.com/track/5z3ZDMP02xF33yCvPFnct3

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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