I’ve searched high and low for an analysis of the lyrics to this great tune, but without any luck. So here’s my interpretation:
It’s 1971. Three years have passed since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and despite all the progress made by the Civil Rights Movement in the US, inequality and hatred still bubble beneath the surface. The 60s are quickly fading into memory, and nobody knows (cares?) where the movement should go next.
Mayfield (whose songs while a member of The Impressions in the 1960s became civil rights anthems) compares this social paralysis to people sitting silently on a bus, staring at each other, staring at the floor, staring at nothing. Lines like, “there’s no one here we can trust” indicate a country that’s still not at ease with race relations, while the great line, “a sister standing and no one seems to care” serves the double purpose of symbolizing a movement that has lost its way, and echoing the legacy of Rosa Parks.
What makes this a beautiful song:
1. His voice. Very distinctive, very mournful, perfect for this song.
2. The wah guitar. With its high-pitched whine, it almost sounds like its singing a duet with Mayfield.
3. The drummer wants to groove at the end, but can’t seem to find the beat. It’s the perfect anti-climactic ending to a song that seemed to be gaining steam…especially if the song is about a human rights movement that was running out of steam.
Recommended listening activity:
Giving someone your seat.