Tom Petty's 'I Won't Back Down' Is A Song For Any Struggle Petty's song has been used by striking workers in defiance, by political candidates to show grit, on national stages in the aftermath of tragedy. We asked what "I Won't Back Down" means to you.
NPR logo

'A Song For Any Struggle': Tom Petty's 'I Won't Back Down' Is An Anthem Of Resolve

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/721228788/721552573" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'A Song For Any Struggle': Tom Petty's 'I Won't Back Down' Is An Anthem Of Resolve

'A Song For Any Struggle': Tom Petty's 'I Won't Back Down' Is An Anthem Of Resolve

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/721228788/721552573" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There are songs that grab you from the very first note.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM PETTY SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

CHANG: This slide guitar riff sets up a song whose power comes from its simplicity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

TOM PETTY: (Singing) Well, I won't back down. No, I won't back down. You could stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won't back down.

CHANG: "I Won't Back Down" by the late Tom Petty has served as an anthem of defiance for striking workers, an anthem of grit for political candidates. And for many, it's a deeply personal anthem of resolve. Here's NPR's Melissa Block with the latest in our series American Anthem about the songs that inspire and unite us.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: The lyrics that speak to resilience, empowerment and hope are as simple as they come. And Tom Petty worried about that at first, worried the song was too simple. Here he is speaking on WHYY's Fresh Air in 2006.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

T PETTY: I thought that it was maybe just too direct. You know, I thought, well, there isn't really anything to hide behind here (laughter) you know? It's very bold and very blunt. There's not a lot of metaphor or any - you know, anywhere to go.

BLOCK: But, he said, of all his many hit songs, this one ended up having the most direct impact. People would come up to him on the street or in restaurants all the time and tell him how this song gave them the strength to carry on. He heard so many stories, says his widow Dana Petty.

DANA PETTY: He told me that he heard or read somewhere that it brought a girl out of a coma. It was her favorite song, and they played it, and she came out of a coma, which blew his mind.

BLOCK: Petty recorded "I Won't Back Down" a few years after an arsonist burned down his house. His family survived, but he lost everything. And in the Fresh Air interview, he said that horrific experience probably did filter into the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

T PETTY: Because I felt really elated that they didn't get me, you know? Like, I kind of just - that was the thought that was going through my head as well. You bastard, you didn't get me, you know? I survived.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

T PETTY: (Singing) Well, I know what's right. I got just one life in a world that keeps on pushing me around, but I'll stand my ground. And I won't back down.

BLOCK: "I Won't Back Down" was released in 1989 on Petty's solo album "Full Moon Fever." As his lifelong bandmate guitarist Mike Campbell tells it, the song came together super-fast in just a few hours. Coming up with the lyrics, Campbell says, that was pretty straightforward.

MIKE CAMPBELL: It's like, well, I won't back down - you know, OK, well, what can we do with that? You know, stand my ground. I think I suggested at one point pushing me around, and Tom looked at me like, I was just going to say that (laughter).

BLOCK: George Harrison stopped by that day and played guitar on the track. And Dana Petty says it was Harrison who came up with this line.

D PETTY: There ain't no easy way out. Tom had something like, I'm standing at the edge of the world or something. And George was like, that's terrible, you know?

CAMPBELL: (Laughter) Yeah, George didn't mince words.

D PETTY: Right? And thank God because there ain't no easy way out is a much better line. So thank you, George Harrison, wherever you are up there with Tommy.

BLOCK: As for what makes the song an anthem, Mike Campbell says it's not just the lyrics. Listen for what happens as verse turns to chorus and the mood of the chords switches from minor to major key.

CAMPBELL: You can stand me up at the gates of hell - it's all kind of spooky and minor and then (vocalizing) I won't back down goes up to the major relative chords. It lifts - it's an old musical trick to lift things up, and it works.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

T PETTY: (Singing) And I won't back down. Hey, baby, there ain't no easy way out.

CAMPBELL: A lot of people ask me, what was Tom really like? And that's him. He didn't back down. He stood up to the man at the record company. He stood up to the promoters. He stood up to the band. He stood up to everybody. Nobody told him what to do.

BLOCK: And so it was fitting that in 2001, just days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Petty chose "I Won't Back Down" to play at the televised benefit concert for victims and families. This version - subdued and somber.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

T PETTY: (Singing) Yeah, I will stand my ground and I won't back down. No, I won't back down. I won't.

BLOCK: And others have turned to the song as a way to bind the country together in dark times. In 2017, one week after the mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas, singer Jason Aldean, who was onstage when the assault started, opened "Saturday Night Live" with these words.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

JASON ALDEAN: We're going to walk through these tough times together, every step of the way.

BLOCK: And then.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

ALDEAN: (Singing) Well, I won't back down. No, I won't back down.

BLOCK: It was Aldean's first public performance since the massacre, and it came just days after Tom Petty died of an accidental drug overdose at age 66.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY CASH SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

BLOCK: This stark, acoustic version of the song from Johnny Cash tells its own story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Well, I won't back down. No, I won't back down.

BLOCK: In the documentary film "Runnin' Down A Dream," Tom Petty said the Johnny Cash version is so deep and dark.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "RUNNIN' DOWN A DREAM")

T PETTY: Which almost made me wish I'd never sung it. It was so good. He sang it was such an authority. It sounded like it was written for him.

BLOCK: Cash recorded the song a few years before he died, and the gravity and weight of years that he brought to it add a whole new dimension.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

CASH: (Singing) Gonna stand my ground, won't be turned around.

BLOCK: Rick Rubin produced that Johnny Cash album.

RICK RUBIN: There's something magical about the way Johnny sings and the familiarity of the song gets amplified hearing Johnny's version. There's a trueness about Johnny's version that's thrilling to hear - believability.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

CASH: (Singing) There ain't no easy way out.

BLOCK: This song, Rubin says, and the idea of standing up for what you believe in - definitely anthemic.

RUBIN: Absolutely, absolutely. It's an anthem, and it's a timeless idea.

BLOCK: And maybe that's the truest mark of an anthem - a song someone can take and make completely their own.

ANNAKIM VIOLETTE PETTY: Anyone that's ever sang that came out of a really dark place into a brighter one. It gave them strength.

BLOCK: That's Tom Petty's daughter, Annakim Violette. Her older sister, Adria Petty, says audiences would respond to the song with a huge surge of energy. She remembers being out high above the crowd in London's Hyde Park on her father's final tour listening to tens of thousands of fans join in singing "I Won't Back Down."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

T PETTY: (Singing) Hey, baby.

ADRIA PETTY: You could just feel the sonic vibration of the entire place lift.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

T PETTY: (Singing) Hey, yeah.

ADRIA PETTY: That's what I think of the most with the song is that it belongs to everyone. And they can really raise their voices together with it. And that's the part of it that hits me hard.

BLOCK: It's like a mantra, Adria says, something so simple you can really hold onto it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

T PETTY: (Singing) Stand my ground.

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

T PETTY: (Singing) And I won't back down. No, I won't back down.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.