The year was 1971 and it was a tumultuous time in American history. The U.S. was still grinding through the Vietnam War; McGovern was running against Nixon for the presidency and, much to the chagrin of many an 18-year-old man, the draft was extended even though it was slated to end that June.
As the ’60s came and went, war protesters were still looking to the politicians to right wrongs, fix social ilk and bring our boys home. The Watergate scandal was on the horizon and Richard Nixon would later be impeached. The mid ’70s were looking to be a continuation of the 10,000-day war and this was unacceptable for the American public. Peering into the horizon, there was no light beyond the dark. What was to become of this once proud country? Where were we headed?
When “Peace Train” made it into the many homes of a country beset in never-ending turmoil, a British-born activist was ready to speak to the American audience about ending social unrest and the ever-important need for change.
Cat Stevens was a superstar in the ‘70s. He was a folk powerhouse who wrote and performed melodies such as “Father and Son,” “Moon Shadow” and “Where do the Children Play?” His mastery of the guitar and shuddering vocals captivated many and brought a voice to a generation itching to say “ENOUGH!” His messages were pure and clear. And as with many of his songs, meaning was to outlast the song itself. Of all his masterpieces to broadcast on the airwaves, “Peace Train” lent the most memorable meaning and fit the sign of the times.
There was no hidden significance in the lyrics. It wasn’t just the Greek-influenced sound of the guitar or the gospel-like background singers, it was the message: “Climb aboard and give peace a chance.” This song alone was Stevens’ show closer when he would play live and was a fundamental way to bring down the house at the end of his shows.
Right out of the gate, the song begins quietly; the simple acoustic riffs and smooth bass line are just the beginning of what is to come as the song progresses. The subtle intrigue at the opening is only held back long enough to get the first verse out of the way. Once the harmony takes off, there is no turning back. It breaks at about a minute in, giving the listener a brief second to grab a breath and then it’s a full-on folk explosion.
As Stevens belts out “Oh peace train sounding louder/Glide on the peace train” and the claps jump in, the song turns electrifying and the ride towards peace has truly begun.
As peace can be considered to be an inner state of centralized feeling, its projection outward is the real benefit of this song. Protest music and the hippie movement of the ‘60s was living proof that one’s feelings can make a difference.
His song of peace is also a song of forward motion. “Peace Train” incarnates a need to get peace moving in a positive and productive direction. There is no rest for the wicked as the song comes to an end. Stevens takes the time to understand that the pain of tyranny is ugly and is in desperate need of a social facelift. “Now I’ve been crying lately, thinking about the world as it is/Why must we go on hating, why can’t we live in bliss” takes the listener into careful reflection. It makes a point to drive out the wretchedness of distaste and create an idyllic, beautiful new world under the banner of peace and love.
Stunning violins and a quiet acoustic guitar take the song to its finish and the soul is left tranquil. Though a song of peace, it’s also one of revolution in the respect that it gets emotions stirring. Between the toe taps and hand claps is the elusive message of revolt.
Stevens preaches “C’mon” throughout the song. It’s not a suggestion; it’s a demand to get the people motivated to make that change.
Stevens’ musical train came to a screeching halt in 1977. He converted to Islam and was reborn into the world under the name Yusuf Islam. He then auctioned his guitars and set out on a new expedition bent on bringing peace and understanding through philanthropic and educational causes in the Muslim community of London and elsewhere.
Critics can argue Yusuf Islam has a radical stance on the views of the Muslim religion. He made mention of condoning Salman Rushdie’s death for defaming the Prophet Mohammed in his book The Satanic Verses. Though contextual, it was counterproductive to Yusuf’s mission. His comments aside about Rushdie, Yusuf Islam’s message of peace makes as much sense now as it did 40 years ago.
Nights of bloodshed in Tripoli, protesters in the streets of Cairo, the youth in revolt in Iran; the Middle East is reaching a tipping point that is pushing all the limits of their respective governments and quite possibly rewriting the future of the Muslim world. All the hate, pain and suffering within the last couple months in the Middle East has sparked a potential civil war in Libya, ousted a president and his cabinet in Egypt and lent a new social face to Tunisia.
Yusuf Islam and his message of peace as Cat Stevens will echo forever in eternity so long as there is a society willing to voice its opinions and make change for the better of its people.
Beyond the darkness, the peace train lies in wait. This proves that the ends are justified by the means. So climb on the peace train and revolt. Stand up for your rights as human beings and demand the peace and inalienable patrimonies owed to every man, woman and child. Stand and face the darkness. Show these governments that civility, peace and equality are a must and political injustices are unacceptable.