[SoundStage!]For a Song
Back-Issue Article

May 2006


Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us,
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Livin’ for the day…

Imagine there’s no country
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be one.

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us

And the world will live as one.

A Hymn to No Religion: John Lennon's "Imagine"

The Beatles officially break up in 1970 amidst spite, recrimination, and public speculation. John Lennon has already launched a separate career. In 1971, Lennon releases his second solo album, Imagine, he and Yoko Ono already having made four LPs together. The title track is as little mired in pettiness, personal quarrels, or defiance as one can imagine.

Years earlier, the relevance bug had bitten Lennon. He had begun to move the Beatles away from their pop origins and toward "topical" material (as it used to be called), influenced by Bob Dylan, the civil rights and peace movements, and the sexual revolution. Without overstating the influence or the comparison, it is not outlandish to think of "Imagine" as something of a Lennon "Blowin’ in the Wind" a decade after Dylan’s (discussed in the first "For a Song" column).

Both songs address, in their different ways, the seeming inability to put an end to war and live together in peace. Each consists of three short verses and a refrain. That Lennon’s refrain is only sung after the second and third verses and is slightly different the second time is not highly significant. And both songs use ingenious, artistic rhetorical devices to raise difficult subjects without heavy-handed preaching: "Wind," a series of rhetorical questions; "Imagine," a series of exhortations to imagine a desirable human world contrasting the one in which we live.

Sending up religion again?

Early on in Beatlemania, in a display of what would become his trademark irreverent wit, Lennon elicited Bible Belt venom and mass burnings of Beatles records (they really happened!) when he stated publicly that the band had quickly become "more popular than Jesus." Now he suggests the world would be a better place without a belief in heaven and hell. But rather than baldly recommend abandoning these long-cherished beliefs, he treats the idea, first, as if it must be inaccurate -- "Imagine there’s no heaven" -- and then as if sympathizing with difficulty the listener might experience at the thought -- "It’s easy if you try."

Then, rather than repeat the same structure for hell, he proposes the more resonant "No hell below us / Above us only sky." "Below" and "above" possess moral implications, not just geographical meaning. In just eight words, the lines suggest that people who believe heaven awaits those who are good and hell those who are bad make life difficult for themselves. They are unable to live "for the day," in the present.

Knowing there’s some good and some bad in us produces constant worry about the past and the future. Have past sins already got us locked out of the Pearly Gates? Will a choice yet to come doom us to eternal fire? A world in which "all the people" live free of such worry might be worth imagining, visualizing, ostensibly as a step toward creating such a world. On the one hand, the phrasing enables people to tolerate the subversive thought. On the other hand, "it’s easy if you try" -- i.e., why should it be so difficult to think of a less distressful existence when quite possibly, and ironically, we know heaven and hell are imagined anyway. No one has ever provided objective confirmation of their existence; it’s imagining their existence that makes life so hard.

No country either?!

With similar irony, the second verse implies the listener might find it difficult to imagine a world without "country," when establishing, maintaining, and defending countries is itself extremely difficult, requiring people "to kill or die for" it -- to wage war. Eliminating symbolism, boundaries, and privilege associated with country would ostensibly end war. As if an afterthought, "And no religion too" identifies the other institution for which wars are fought.

If not for these two conflict-generating institutions, "all the people" could live life "in peace." Rather than merely the absence of war, arranged temporarily and precariously between and among nations, peace is a more positive state of affairs characterized, according to the song, by human beings’ living life -- perhaps a richer experience than just inhabiting a particular territory or adhering to a set of precepts.

Our stuff, too?!

In telling us to imagine "no possessions," the third verse uses different phrasing than the first two. The parallel structure would be "Imagine there are no possessions." The difference might seem small, but perhaps it is significant. I think "I wonder if you can" suggests we put considerable energy into the opposite: imagining possessions, things we would like to have but do not. And maybe things we own, what we need to do to take care of them, what they say about our social status, and such. Imagining "no possessions," then, would empty our minds of what currently occupies them. It goes a bit further than just imagining a world without possessions.

That contrasts strikingly with the song’s saying it is easy to imagine there’s no heaven and it isn’t hard to imagine there’s no country. Imagining there’s no heaven and imagining there’s no country are easy, but is imagining no possessions something we might not be able to do? Maybe the song says we would be able to give up the more abstract beliefs we’re accustomed to -- religious and political ones -- if we were not afraid doing so would eliminate a social order that enables us to live in relative comfort. Maybe the degree of comfort we enjoy is an obstacle to a greater good.

That treatment of possessions, distinct from the treatment of concepts and institutions mentioned before, might be owing to each individual person’s concrete relationship to his or her own sets of possessions and an imagined one. To a large extent, by contrast, heaven, hell, country, and religion are concepts shared by large groups. So, when we then hear "No need for greed or hunger," we know we are being told private property and imagining possessions nurture the vice of greed and the feeling of hunger. In "hunger," we might also note the understanding that some people’s possessing enormous wealth can prevent others from having enough to eat.

I find particularly insightful the paradox that by forsaking possessions, "all the people" might "shar[e] all the world." The image of each of us fearfully guarding the little that we can keep inside our individually owned walls and fences gives way to one of all of us benefiting from what we need when we need it. Something like the common wealth available to all in a free library.

OK, I’m a dreamer

The seemingly self-effacing first line of the refrain, "You may say I’m a dreamer," implies the singer is fending off an accusation that naturally arises from what he has already sung. But the opposite is what the song really says: "I’m not the only one." We are all dreamers -- otherwise how did we invent heaven, hell, country, and religion? What we dream is what we create. For the world to "live as one," rather than perpetuate the institutions dreamt up thousands of years ago that produced endless war, conflict, and obsessive materialism, the listener will have to adopt the dreams proposed in the song. Already some dreamers exist. It is up to "you" -- each of us -- whether to "join [them]."

Perhaps that is why "may" is used rather than "could" or "might." The singer is giving permission for the listener to say he’s a dreamer because the song is saying dreamers are precisely whom we need to end needless suffering.

I hear something in Lennon’s performance of "Imagine" that is not included in any version of the lyrics I was able to locate. At the beginning of both renditions of the refrain, I don’t think the way Lennon wails an extended "yoohoo-oo-oo" is merely a first "you" in "You may say I’m a dreamer." It sounds to me like "Yoo-hoo!" He's calling out to the listener as an individual. That is consistent with the moral burden the song places on each of us by calling upon us to imagine the singer’s concept of a better world.

Reaching people in their cars, houses, and places of business nearly four decades after its initial release, this deceptively simple song remains a dream, but a real one, enabling us to see through empty rhetoric used to bolster a violent and demeaning status quo. Hearing it while on the way to a religious ceremony, an election involving a choice between "two evils," or to buy vegetables lacking nutrients due to the ravages of agrichemicals, we might imagine what the world would be like if Lennon were still alive and if more of us were dreamers.

...David J. Cantor

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