The Meaning Behind the Song: “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty

Tom Petty’s hit song “I Won’t Back Down” has been used as a rallying cry, a fight song, a coalescing sense of purpose for many, and just a plain ol’ radio jam.

But what are the origins of the song? How and why was it written and what does a boiled ginger root from George Harrison have to do with it?

All of that is the subject of this inquiry. So, without further ado, let’s dive in.

Origins

Petty released the song in April of 1989. It was the lead track from his first solo record, Full Moon Fever. Co-written by Petty and his songwriting partner and producer, Jeff Lynne, the track hit No. 12 on the Billboard charts and topped the rock songs for five weeks. Petty’s debut solo record hit multi-platinum status.

George Harrison’s Ginger Root

Speaking to Mojo magazine, Petty recalled being sick when he was recording the song. Of the experience, he said, “At the session, George Harrison sang and played the guitar. I had a terrible cold that day, and George went to the store and bought a ginger root, boiled it, and had me stick my head in the pot to get the ginger steam to open up my sinuses, and then I ran in and did the take.”

It’s A Hit!

One of the reasons the song was so successful and so well-reviewed is because it’s an anthem for standing up for what you believe. Yet, Petty doesn’t much name who the adversary is, for him. As a result, the song stands in as something anyone can play, sing or listen to when needing to stand up to someone in their own life. If Petty had said it was the devil, a mother-in-law, a police officer, a thief, then the song would be that much more unrelateable to those without those foes. Its meaning, therefore, is genius, as it is.

He sings:

Well I know what’s right, I got just one life
in a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
but I’ll stand my ground, and I won’t back down

“I Won’t Back Down” was a popular play on American radio after the tragic September 11 attacks. Petty and the Heartbreakers even performed a rendition of it at the America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon after the attacks.

Sam Smith Controversy

In 2015, Petty and Lynne’s people contacted the smooth singing Sam Smith’s representatives after it was realized that Smith’s hit song, “Stay with Me,” contained a resemblance to “I Won’t Back Down.” As such, Petty and Lynne received 12.5% ​​of the royalties and were credited as co-writers of the song.

Petty commented on the exchange, saying he didn’t think Smith plagiarized him, adding, “All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case, it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement.”

For his part, Smith said he hadn’t heard “I Won’t Back Down” before writing “Stay with Me.” But he acknowledged the similarity, calling it a “complete coincidence.”

Politics

The track has been used at campaign events, including George W. Bush’s in 2000. Petty’s team sent Bush a cease and desist and then the artist later played it for Al Gore at his home after Gore conceded the election to Bush.

Jim Webb later used the song for his successful efforts to be one of Virginia’s Senators in 2006. Hilary Clinton used the song, too, during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary campaign. Others have used it, including Ron Paul of Texas.

In 2020, after his death in 2017, Petty’s family issued a cease and desist letter to President Trump’s campaign for the use of the song at a Trump rally in Tulsa. That letter read, “Trump was in no way authorized to use this song to further a campaign that leaves too many Americans and common sense behind. Both the late Tom Petty and his family firmly stand against racism and discrimination of any kind. Tom Petty would never want a song of his used for a campaign of hate. He liked to bring people together.”

Later, in November 2020, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris played “I Won’t Back Down” at their victory speech in Wilmington, Delaware. Petty’s family later wrote on Instagram that they were “touched to see Tom included on such an important night in America.”

Sports

The song has also had significant meaning when it comes to sporting events, including becoming a tradition at Florida Gators football games. (Petty was born in Gainesville, Florida.)

The San Francisco Giants used the song for Jeff Brantley’s walk-on in 1989. That year, the team went to the World Series to play the Oakland Athletics.

Hey baby
There ain’t no easy way out (I won’t back down)
Hey I will stand my ground
And I won’t back down

Arson

Tragically, an arsonist set fire to Tom Petty’s Los Angeles home in May 1987, bringing most of it to the ground. While his wife and daughter stayed at a friend’s place in nearby Beverly Hills, Petty began to rebuild the place on the exact same plot of land, using his basement recording studio, which was one of the few rooms to survive, as the foundation.

He didn’t want to back down to the fire starter.

Later, when Thanksgiving hit that year, Petty and his family, who had already spent some six months in someone else’s home, decided to play a game of softball to blow off steam. Tom went in search of some mitts.

“I was going to drive down to the Sav-On in Beverly Hills and buy a dozen ball mitts so everybody could play ball,” he told Paul Zollo. “[It] was the only place open on Thanksgiving Day. So I’m at the traffic light, and I look over to my left, and there’s Jeff Lynne, who I’d only just recently seen in England. So I honked my horn, and he turned around, and we pulled over.”

Petty and Lynne talked for a bit, reconnecting later during the Christmas holiday. Later, they formed the super-band, The Traveling Wilburys, in 1988. And when Petty began writing songs for a solo album that year, he employed Lynne to help.

According to Zollo, “I Won’t Back Down” is directed at the person who set Petty’s house on fire.

It would seem he got the last laugh.

Photo by Robert Sebree

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