I woke up in the middle of the night and then again this morning with the megahit 1980s benefit song “We Are the World” running through my head. Remember? I’m not too sure I remember very much. I was a child of the 80s, but a young one. So this post is a memory test – I’m going to go out to find the video on Youtube in a moment, but first I want to see what I recall.
- When? – I think it was 1985, which would have made me 9 years old, I think the 3rd grade.
- What? – A celebrity ensemble benefit song.
- Why? – A benefit for Farm Aid, an organization to help struggling family farms as the spread of corporate farming decimated rural America.
- How? – get a bunch of pop stars to sing a lovely song to sell as a single and play on every radio station constantly, for months, to raise money for and awareness of the plight of the family farmer.
- Who? – Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Willie Nelson, and many more. I don’t really remember if there was one major person who spearheaded the effort, but I think I have Willie Nelson in my mind as a leader.
The only lyrics I recall are from the chorus:
We are the world
We are the children
We are the ones
Who’ll make a brighter day
So let’s start giving
There’s a choice we’re making
We’re saving our own lives
It’s true we’ll make a better day
Just you and me
So, here’s the video. Let’s see what I remembered correctly:
1985? Check. The folks I named? Check. A benefit song? Check. The chorus? Basically, check. But most of my other details were totally wrong.
Breaking it down:
As I wrote out the lyrics above for the chorus, I could not remember any verses, despite trying. But of course the moment I heard the opening melody, the words, “There comes a time, when we heed a certain call…” immediately came back to me. Not too surprised about that – song lyrics are memorized along with the tunes, so it makes sense that my brain needed the musical prompt before pulling up lyrics from an old song.
But even as I started to write the lyrics above that I was able to remember, I began to doubt that they had been written for a family farm related cause. Sure enough, as I looked into it further, it turns out I was wholly wrong about whom this group of recording artists decided to help. The organization they formed is “USA for Africa,” an organization that still exists – I’m sure it gets an occasional royalties check – with the mission “To take action that will help demonstrate the importance and power of individual participation and collective action in helping to solve the problems, address issues and challenges that presently confront our global society.” A minor point of note – “USA” does not stand for the country; the full name of the organization is “United Support of Artists for Africa.”
In addition to the folks I name above, who did all sing along, other notable people I picked out of the crowd include: Diana Ross, Kenny Rogers, Tina Turner, Dionne Warwick, Quincy Jones, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Lionel Ritchie, Harry Bellafonte, and many others I recognize but can’t recall their names. I’ve never been good with pop artists at all.
Finally, instead of Willie Nelson, Lionel Ritchie and Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson were the big forces behind the song.
I decided to look up FarmAid too, because I conflated it with “We Are the World.” It turns out my Willie Nelson confusion came because in addition to singing for “We Are the World,” he was one of the organizers of FarmAid (along with John Mellencamp and Steve Young), which, like USA for Africa, started in 1985. FarmAid remains a vibrant organization that organizes benefit concerts to help family farms, but it didn’t have anything to do with “We are the World!”
So, there you have it. A global sensation that hit when I was in 3rd grade, and I couldn’t have been more wrong about some of the most basic details surrounding the song. Memory is a cocky and faulty tool.
One final tidbit about my memories of the song – I have a concrete memory of walking down a sidewalk with my third grade best buddy at school and chatting about favorite songs; neither of us could imagine anyone having a favorite that was not “We Are the World.” How cute.
Thanks for reading.