Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)

Note: I feel I should tell you that the next several days of Biscuit City will be about 9/11 and its aftermath.  If you were saturated by coverage of the tenth anniversary and can’t read or listen to or watch any more about it, I understand.  I can’t do much more with it other than write this because of our experience singing “Memorial” this past Sunday at the Lincoln Center. I’ll be back to the usual random musings next week. Thank you.

I am not an Allen Jackson fan (I think he wrote “Chattahoochee” and the video shows him or someone water skiing on cowboy boots), but one of his songs continues to tear me up. I actually heard it first a few years ago on a three-CD collection entitled Song of America, an historical collection of American songs sung by contemporary singers starting with a “Lakota Dream Song,” continuing through Revolutionary War Songs, pioneer songs, Stephen Foster songs, spirituals, Sousa marches, music of World War I, the ‘twenties, the Depression, World War II, the ‘fifties and sixties, up to the present day. It was sung by Adam and Shannon Wright, about whom I know nothing except that their version of the song brought tears to my eyes the first time I heard it and other times thereafter.

The genesis of the song is interesting. Wikipedia notes,

(Allan) Jackson wanted to write a song expressing his thoughts and emotions, but he found it hard to do so for many weeks. “I didn’t want to write a patriotic song,’ Jackson said. ‘And I didn’t want it to be vengeful, either. But I didn’t want to forget about how I felt and how I knew other people felt that day.’

Finally, on the Sunday morning of October 28, 2001, he woke up at 4 a.m. with the melody, opening lines and chorus going through his mind. He hastily got out of bed, still in his underwear, and sang them into a hand-held recorder so he wouldn’t forget them. Later that morning, when his wife and children had gone to Sunday school, he sat down in his study and completed the lyrics.

Initially, he felt squeamish about recording it, much less releasing it, because he disliked the idea of capitalizing on a tragedy. But after he played it for his wife Denise and for his producer, Keith Stegall, and it met with their approval, Jackson went into the studio to record “Where Were You” that week. On Stegall’s advice, Jackson played the finished track for a group of executives at his record label. “We just kind of looked at one another”, RCA Label Group chairman Joe Galante said later. “Nobody spoke for a full minute.”

Here are the lyrics to the song with some of my comments.

Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning) 

Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
Were you in the yard with your wife and children
Or working on some stage in L.A.?
Did you stand there in shock at the sight of that black smoke
Risin’ against that blue sky?
Did you shout out in anger, in fear for your neighbor
Or did you just sit down and cry?

I was teaching then, and we had not been back from summer vacation for many days.  It was during a second period junior English class that our principal, Ann Monday came on the P.A.  It was about twenty minutes before class ended which was unusual in and of itself.  Principals tried to hold announcements and make them the first few or the last few minutes of class.

The iconic long distance shot of the buildings with black smoke pouring out of them is indelibly etched in my mind’s eye.

Did you weep for the children who lost their dear loved ones
And pray for the ones who don’t know?
Did you rejoice for the people who walked from the rubble
And sob for the ones left below?
Did you burst out in pride for the red, white and blue
And the heroes who died just doin’ what they do?
Did you look up to heaven for some kind of answer
And look at yourself and what really matters?


The genius of this song is in the way Jackson shows us a wide variety of Americans at different daily tasks brought up short by the horrible news. This verse asks several questions which enumerate possible reactions.  For me, the answers were yes to all of the above.

The interviews with the children of the lost were unbearable to watch. Matt Lauer interviewed a little boy who was so grief-stricken. They showed that again this weekend and that’s when I turned the set off.

[Chorus:]
I’m just a singer of simple songs
I’m not a real political man
I watch CNN but I’m not sure I can tell
you the difference in Iraq and Iran
But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love

Jackson characterizes himself as a “singer of simple songs.”  This is not a simple song. And today I would say we all know the difference between Iraq and Iran. He speaks of turning to God and Jesus in this trial. I love the affirmation from Corinthians 13, “Now endure faith, hope and love, these three, but the greatest is love.”

Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
Were you teaching a class full of innocent children
Or driving down some cold interstate?
Did you feel guilty ’cause you’re a survivor
In a crowded room did you feel alone?
Did you call up your mother and tell her you loved her?
Did you dust off that Bible at home?

I was teaching a class full of children, although how innocent they were is debatable. They were finishing up a class assignment when the announcement came, and they quietly continued. I went to my computer in the back of the room and looked at the news feed. We had been to the top of the Twin Towers exactly three weeks before.  I remember looking down on light aircraft flying along the Hudson River and idly thinking about what would happen if one of them crashed into one of the towers.  I doubted it would do much damage and initially that was my thought. I wondered why Ann had announced that a light aircraft had crashed into the towers. When I saw the news feed I knew it was much, much worse.

The students finished their work and passed it in and asked if we could turn on the television that was in all our classrooms.  I said, “We can watch but you won’t like what you see.”  I turned the set on and a shocked silence descended on the room. When time for the end of class came, they got  up quietly and filed out.

I remember being frustrated that, since it was so near the beginning of school, I didn’t know them well enough to be of any help or comfort to them.

School pretty much dissolved after that.  I didn’t have a class–not that anyone was in class–so I went to the office to help the parents find their way to classrooms to pick up their children, which many of them did.  The students were clustered in the hallways, crying and hugging. Word passed that the Pentagon had been hit.  We had great numbers of students with parents that worked in the Pentagon.  I let one girl use my cell phone to try to make contact with her father who worked there.  The lines were jammed and she couldn’t get through.  As upset as she was, she thanked me through her tears for the use of my phone. I will never forget that stricken tear-stained young face.

Later we found out that one student did lose a parent.  It wasn’t the girl I loaned my phone to.

 Did you open your eyes, hope it never happened
Close your eyes and not go to sleep?
Did you notice the sunset the first time in ages
Or speak to some stranger on the street?
Did you lay down at night and think of tomorrow
Or go out and buy you a gun?
Did you turn off that violent old movie you’re watchin’
And turn on “I Love Lucy” reruns?


My mother called after I got home from school to tell me that my brother, a pilot for Delta Airlines, was safe on the ground in Chicago.  He spent several days there in a motel before he could get home to Atlanta.

I kept thinking it was all a bad dream when I woke up for the next week or so. We didn’t have school the next day.  No one knew if the attacks would continue or not.

Since then I cannot stomach violence on TV or in movies.  I’m about the only person on earth who doesn’t think Lucille Ball is at all funny, so I usually watch Frasier reruns instead of I Love Lucy. Same effect.

Did you go to a church and hold hands with some strangers
Did you stand in line and give your own blood?
Did you just stay home and cling tight to your family
Thank God you had somebody to love?

We had a service at the church for the victims and their families some time that week. I think I wrote a prayer for it.  I never felt so inadequate to a task in all my life.

Amy was working in Fairfax at the time and living in Oakton and Alyssa was in college but at home for some reason.  We had dinner together as a family and talked.  It was warm and comforting to be together. I do thank God every day for my family and friends.

[Repeat Chorus 2x]
And the greatest is love.
And the greatest is love.

Where were you when the world stopped turning that September day?

These ten years I have had to keep reminding myself that love is stronger than hate. The greatest of these is love. 

Allan Jackson said an interview recently, I’m glad we did it (recorded it) because I’ve had nothing but wonderful comments ever since, you know, 10 years ago. People told me how much the song meant to them and affected them. It still does.

He said that, despite the fact that he is blessed with more than enough hits for three shows in a row, people still come just to hear “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).”

People seem like they expect me to do it and they enjoy hearing it all these years later. I’ve seen people even get up and leave after the song’s over, like they’ve been waiting for it the whole show, he said.

Jackson, like most Americans, remembers exactly what he was doing on that morning a decade ago.

I was actually here at home in Nashville, and I was walking outside. We have a big piece of property and I was walking for exercise. It was a beautiful day, just like it was up in New York. Early fall, blue sky. And I came in the house and saw it on the television, just like most people did, he said.

He paused, as if the memory had jarred something in him. His Southern manner of speech slowed even further. He said he often can’t help but notice air traffic, especially in a travel hub like Nashville. He continued: I’m a pilot and I just remember … I remember them shutting down all the air travel. I just remember, that day, it was the first time – ever – that there hadn’t been airplanes in the sky. After that morning, there were none. There were no planes anywhere. The skies were so … quiet. 

We live about 17 miles from Dulles Airport and, depending on the wind, are under one of the landing patterns. For several days there was an eerie quiet as none of the big birds flew over on their way to a landing.

Allan Jackson may or may not be a “singer of simple songs,” but he got this one exactly right.

Tomorrow: My commentary on Part 1 of Memorial, “September Morning.”



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