Tracy Chapman covers "Stand by Me" on Letterman in 2015

Lots of praise for this Tracy Chapman cover of "Stand by Me" on Letterman in 2015.

Tracy Chapman covers "Stand by Me" on Letterman in 2015

...most people try to avoid love, because love involves the terrors of life.

– James Baldwin

Lots of praise for this Tracy Chapman cover of "Stand by Me" on Letterman in 2015. Most say it makes you "cry" and you can hear a "pin drop." I agree with both those sentiments, but I'll add that I've been thinking a bit about why this performance is so affecting. I don't think it's just Ms. Chapman's rich voice or how her guitar functions as a seamless extension of that voice. For me, it's the delivery of "No I won't, be afraid" and "no I won't shed a tear." When you put that together with lyrics about the sky collapsing, mountains falling into the sea, and the song on the stage is the only sound in the room, the effect can't be understated. "Stand by Me" is a plea to stand by me. I'm in awe of how it introduces a feeling we do not understand very well, the need to have love to have courage:


You're scoffing. You're like "we talk about love and courage all the time." I mean, there's liquid courage, after all. We've got wedding vows where we pledge to stand by each other. There are all these love songs where people say they need someone else to live life in any way, however big or small.

You've got to see what I see. Young people mean well, but they're scared of not being accepted. The opposite of that fear isn't courage. When they find someone, they're still scared, this time of being abandoned. I see lots of good couples creating a space comfortable for each other, but it is a space they have trouble stepping out of. I don't think I need to talk too much about bad couples.

Moreover, plenty are skeptical of the words "I love you." They've heard those words uttered by people who acted like monsters. People who did everything they could to instill fear and seize control while acting like victims and saying right-sounding things.

For these reasons I do not believe we readily identify love with courage or understand how they relate. If we did, we'd see more people stand up for each other. We'd see more solidarity and empathy and respect for attempts to cultivate both.


I want to go back to that repetition of "No I won't, be afraid." You don't really sing this as much as say it. You say it twice, you pledge yourself to it, and then it is made conditional: "...just as long, as you stand, stand by me."

No one in their right mind interprets this as weakness. And yet.

I've known some who called children weak for asking for help. Who insisted they were superior because they could survive on their own and children couldn't. The blessing of witnessing someone step into their own was invisible to them. The idea that you love someone and give them courage made no sense in their minds.

Regarding this topic, William Bortz has this amazing little definition of joy that I'm wondering about. First, because it's a definition of joy. Second, because it expresses joy as relative:

William Bortz

a pinpoint of light across a violent gorge.

"[A] pinpoint of light across a violent gorge." Has this been joy for me, when I saw a definite, attainable, but small hope in the middle of hell? I honestly don't know. When I struggled with neglect, rejection, and loss--it's never one at a time, tbh--there was a different "pinpoint of light" depending on the day. If I had committed to a singular hope, would things have been better? I don't know such a thing was even possible. As a practical matter, hope depends on experience. You have to know the shape of what you can work with. You'll still be surprised when things work.

In general, I do think a little bit of light, a little bit of hope, makes a huge difference during tough days. You can, relatively speaking, attain joy. But a courage-inspiring love seems related but distinct. You can't really expect that love to make everyone happy. It can make people braver. It pledges us to each other. But it doesn't automatically give us perfect communities or couples or families.

We learn to be there for each other. We understand why we should celebrate – that taking the time and effort to celebrate isn't just a privilege or a spontaneous result of our natural goodness. You have to know that the sky may fall, the mountains could crash, and that the only light we might have is a speck of moonlight. You'd have to know some people who wouldn't survive are very dear, and those that do we want to hold on to as much as we can.