What is the most influential song of all time?
Clive Davis, chief creative officer, Sony Music
Who will ever forget Joan Baez’s leading a crowd of 300,000 singing “We Shall Overcome” during the March on Washington, or Martin Luther King Jr.’s reciting the lyrics in his final sermon? Whether fighting for civil rights in South Africa or in Ireland or in the U.S., can any song be more inspiring?
Alex Ross, music critic, The New Yorker; author, Listen to This
Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, first performed in Mantua in 1607, was the first opera to endure. The Italian master used a dazzling array of styles—fanfares, dances, arias, laments—to retell the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Four centuries later, it still holds audiences transfixed.
Marin Alsop, music director, Baltimore and São Paulo Symphony Orchestras
In 1967, Aretha Franklin made the Otis Redding song “Respect” thoroughly her own. It not only became her personal anthem, winning her two Grammy Awards, but also came to represent the feminist movement. She added the refrain “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” What more needs to be said?
Ted Gioia, author, The History of Jazz
The most exciting development in modern music is the multicultural mixture of old sounds into new hybrids. And no one mixed them up better than W. C. Handy in “St. Louis Blues,” which brought together the 12-bar blues, Latin rhythms, and the American popular song in one of the biggest hits of all time.
Justin Kalifowitz, president, Downtown Music Publishing
As a radio single, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” had everything stacked against it: it was cynical, angst-ridden, and six minutes long. Yet the magical combination of electric guitar, organ chords, and Dylan’s poetry challenged all prior notions of what popular culture could sound like.
Carly Rae Jepsen, singer/songwriter
Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” In 1965, he shocked, offended, and excited people with this six-minute-and-13-second-long tune. It was a whole new type of rock and roll!!!
Rhett Miller, lead singer, Old 97s
Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” changed the game with an electric rhythm guitar, a six-minute-plus running time, and lyrics that break down the fourth wall by asking, over and over, “How does it feel?”
Rodney Crowell, singer/songwriter
Louis Armstrong’s 1928 recording of Joe “King” Oliver’s “West End Blues” distilled the myriad elements struggling to define early-20th-century jazz and blues, and became the template for future compositions. And without Elvis Presley’s version of “Heartbreak Hotel,” chances are Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Iggy Pop, Van Morrison, Joe Cocker, Freddie Mercury, Eric Burdon, Eric Clapton, and Tom Waits—to name but a few—might have settled for a more sanitized version of rock and roll.
Jon Caramanica, music critic, The New York Times
The moment Steven Tyler pokes his mic stand through a wall in the video for Run-DMC’s 1986 version of “Walk This Way” and finds the rappers staring back at him, miffed and incredulous. The right answer is probably the first time a white guy ripped off a black song, but this reversal had teeth, and punch, and legs.
Laura Jean Grace, lead singer, Against Me!
Music is still feeling the aftershock of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which hit at the peak of MTV’s and radio’s power on the populace. Love it or hate it, I don’t think you could find anyone who could say “I’ve never heard that song.”
Macy Gray, singer, The Way (out this summer)
“Dreams,” by Fleetwood Mac, is a song of heartbreak and loss, which everyone can relate to—and Stevie Nicks’s voice singing the words is something very special.
Baauer, DJ, “Harlem Shake”
“Africa,” by Toto, has a really ’80s vibe but also feels entirely timeless. As the world ends and buildings crumble all around us, it will be playing from space and will make perfect sense.
John Carter Cash, singer/songwriter
“Amazing Grace,” originally a poem by John Newton, has uplifted millions. It begs us to consider that although we are trapped in our human condition, through God’s grace we are forgiven.
Walter Martin, multi-instrumentalist
Unintelligible lyrics, missed cues, sloppy drum fills, off-key vocals—where do you think all the cool bands got these great ideas? Not from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Not from Blonde on Blonde. The Kingsmen’s version of “Louie Louie” is rock and roll celebrating its beautiful (and brilliant) dumbness.
Jessie Scott, director, Hill Country Live
“Ol’ Man River” (Kern/Hammerstein) from Showboat is filled with longing and resignation, yet cathartic. It provides an eternal fist-shake against the fates.
Alynda Lee Segarra, lead singer, Hurray for the Riff Raff
“We Shall Overcome” began as a gospel hymn and was passed down to a generation ready for a revolution. The song brought out the strength of an oppressed people, and taught us what a powerful tool music can be.
Suzanne Vega, singer-songwriter
“We Shall Overcome,” for its impact on the U.S. civil-rights movement and its symbolism today.
Ben Ratliff, music critic, The New York Times
Footsteps and heartbeat—the portable rhythm section—which gave rise to it all. The song they make—like all great songs—sounds different according to the listener’s place and time: boring or comforting or inspiring or terrifying.
“Weird Al” Yankovic, music parodist
The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” was loud, dumb, and pointless—basically, everything great about rock and roll distilled into one song. Not many people had the courage to equate the bird with the word back in those days, but now it’s a widely accepted fact.
This is an expanded version of May 2014’s Big Question. Readers have been sharing their answers on Twitter—here are some of our favorites.
@AlexwilliamsNYC : “All My Loving,” just because nothing was the same, ever, after those first few bars on Ed Sullivan.
@TheRamonLuna : The Kink’s Nine to Five. Changed the way I looked at work and how I deal with the stress. Everyone can use it.
@stb5g5 : La Marseillaise
@ProfDaley : I am going to go with rhapsody in blue by Gershwin. Fusion of classical and jazz
@AlexColangelo : The Gregorian chants for their influence on worship and music
@trialmaster “ “Crossroads” by Robert Johnson. No Mr. Johnson, no rock & roll.
@jbwardrop : “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & The Comets. As a mainstream musical genre, rock n’roll started here.
@jonathanalgar : Beethoven’s Ode to Joy—became anthem for an entire continent.
@element_104 : “I love you. You love me…”