There probably hasn’t been a more important time for the world to come together and put aside the divisions of the past.
There’s been too much pain, too much violence, too much intolerance.
People we don’t agree with are “enemies”. People with different beliefs are the devil incarnate. People with a different skin colour are “less than human”.
Yet all this at a time when the world has never been richer (even if a greater proportion of that wealth is in the hands of fewer individuals than might be healthy). On average, at least, across the planet we’ve never been better fed, better educated or more wealthy.
At the same time, somehow our divisions have been stronger than ever of late. I’m starting to think there may be a glitch in our programming somewhere.
The mood of the moment, to quote George Michael’s prophetic words from 1990's “Praying For Time” (a tremendous song, by the way) seems to be…
But we’ll take our chances
’Cause God’s stopped keeping score
However, almost 20 years before George Michael wrote one of the finest songs of all time in “Praying For Time”, Stevie Wonder was calling on us all to reinvent a world which had been torn apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s by deep divisions over the war in Vietnam, racial intolerance and inner city riots.
Powers keep on lyin’
While your people keep on dyin’
World keep on turnin’
’Cause it won’t be too long
It’s not like me to disagree with the legend that is Stevie Wonder on anything, but in “Higher Ground” I think we can agree in retrospect he was probably a little over-optimistic on the timescale.
“Higher Ground” comes from my favourite Stevie Wonder album “Innervisions”, although he been no slouch in the songwriting department down the years. “For Once In My Life”, “Superstition”, “Living For The City”, “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” and “I Just Called To Say I Love You” were all his.
Not only that, he has often played all of the instruments on his own recordings in the studio as well. Stevie Wonder is the sort of talent that never leaves me feeling anything other than complete awe for what he can do.
“Innervisions” was a record of social consciousness, not unlike Marvyn Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album from around the same time. Both Stevie Wonder and Marvyn Gaye recognised the world was hurting and tried to encourage us to do something about it.
I’m sure this isn’t much of a spoiler to anyone reading this, but I think we can say nobody listened hard enough to those two albums…of if they did, they weren’t working hard enough to put the clear message they contained into action.
In the case of “Higher Ground”, though, Stevie Wonder takes a slightly more optimistic tack and recognises that life isn’t a one-shot thing. There is an opportunity for each of us, every day, to consider our actions, repent, and take a different path for the future, reinventing ourselves in the process…whatever we have said, done or believed before…
I’m so darn glad He let me try it again
’Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin
I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then
Gonna keep on tryin’
‘Till I reach my highest ground
Although Stevie Wonder used the metaphor of reincarnation in “Higher Ground”, he means it more in the sense of a personal reinvention, a rebirth, if you will, than reincarnation in a purely spiritual sense.
And on that, he’s absolutely right.
We don’t have to do tomorrow whatever we did today. We can choose to leave things just the way they are, of course, and it’s often an easier default setting to keep everything we did yesterday just the same today.
But we don’t have to. We can change if we want to.
Instead of a world where “Soldiers keep on warrin’…Powers keep on lyin’”, we might find the world is a much better place if we pressed on through those experiences and made it to the other side…
Lovers keep on lovin’
Believers keep on believin’
Sleepers just stop sleepin’
’Cause it won’t be too long
The “sleepers just stop sleepin’” is a reference to the fact that many of us are “sleeping” our way through life, being aware of injustice and intolerance around us at some level, and genuinely disapproving of it, but not getting involved.
Maybe we feel it isn’t our place to say something. Maybe we feel we don’t have the power to do anything. Maybe we prioritise what our friends, family and workmates might think about us more than we prioritise supporting a fellow human being experiencing injustice.
I’m not perfect. When I was younger I certainly didn’t speak up as much as I could have done, for a whole host of reasons.
At the time, I told myself it was the best I could do in the circumstances. But, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see the tangible actions I took in support were less than I might have hoped someone would do for me, had the boot had been on the other foot.
Don’t misunderstand me. I have never done anything directly to disadvantage anyone and I have never discriminated against someone based on gender, religion or skin colour.
However there were times I could have spoken up, but remained silent, or could have supported someone publicly, but didn’t.
The world was a very different place 30 years ago but…still…I wish I had done better. I take a more active stance today, that’s for sure.
And that’s Stevie Wonder’s message in “Higher Ground”. What lies behind us isn’t necessarily what lies in front of us.
We can all learn, we can all change, we can all grow.
We are all born with the capacity to do that. The only question is whether today’s the day we’ll take that first step towards the higher ground where we do the most we can to help others, not the least we can get away with.
Much as I love Stevie Wonder’s version of “Higher Ground”, this song has also spawned one of the best cover versions of all time…not quite Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower” standard of cover, but still right up there at the top of the pile.
Although I’m not normally a fan of theirs, and frankly wish they’d keep their shirts on (admittedly that’s probably more a product of my age than anything else), I’ve got to admit the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s cover of “Higher Ground” on their 1989 album “Mother’s Milk” is quite exceptional by anybody’s standards, so I’ve tacked on their video below if you’d like a listen.
But first, here’s the original of “Higher Ground” from the amazing Stevie Wonder.
Every instrument, including the percussion, you hear on the studio recording was originally played by him…so when you see how many people it takes to reproduce that sound to that same standard in a live environment, it gives you some insight into just how talented Stevie Wonder is.
More astonishing than that level of talent itself, Stevie Wonder was just 23 years old when he recorded “Higher Ground”…what a talent…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/1MGZXLbOtaHJv3vt2FtyVX