“Imagine”: Behind the Beloved Song for World Change

Imagine all the people living life in peace…From “Imagine” (1971) by John Lennon and Yoko Ono

Covered by countless other singers and the most successful single in the non-Beatles career of John Lennon (1940-1980)“Imagine” continues to strike a chord in people all over the world who strive for better ways to live.

Although originally credited solely to Lennon, he eventually admitted other strong influences (Biography.com):

…(T)he song had been inspired by poems from [Yoko] Ono’s book Grapefruit…(In 2017, Ono was finally given a songwriting credit.) He said he would have done that for any male artist he worked with, but at the time, he was still backwards thinking and wasn’t ‘man enough’ to do the right thing…His other lyrical influence was a Christian prayer book given to him by comedian/activist Dick Gregory, which touted the concept of positive prayer. The imagination, Lennon was telling us, is the most powerful tool we have.

If you don’t already know them, the lyrics follow:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today (ah ah ah)
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as 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 that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

Several lines have been controversial, with “No religion too” the main one. But according to Allan Kozinn, Washington Post, “Lennon said he was advocating the freedom to believe (or not) in any or all religions – a summary of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, in effect.”

To this day, Yoko Ono declines the frequent requests she receives from artists wanting to vary these words in order to suit their own beliefs (SongFacts.com).

Kozinn adds that “Lennon’s exhortation to imagine a world with no countries is argued similarly, and ‘Imagine no possessions,’ which always seemed odd coming from someone who owned a great many of them, is explained as addressing what Lennon saw as deep-seated insecurity that drove him to be so acquisitive.”

SongFacts: “…Ono addressed this in a 1998 interview with Uncut, where she stated regarding her husband’s intentions: ‘He sincerely wished that there would be a time when all of us could feel happy without getting too obsessive about material goods’.”

Interestingly, Lennon sometimes made his own lyrical tweaks in performances (Biography):

A year after the song was released, during a performance at Madison Square Garden on August 30, 1972, he’d already changed two of the lines. ‘Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can’ became ‘Imagine no possessions / I wonder if we can,’ and ‘Nothing to kill or die for / A brotherhood of man’ changed to ‘Nothing to kill or die for / A brotherhood/sisterhood of man.’

Whatever you think of the song’s wording as a whole, “it’s a song of positivity and hope,” concludes Biography, “about the possibilities of a better human existence. Feelings of peace and acceptance are swirled around lyrics suggesting we abolish some of the things people hold most dear.”

Below is the original video version of “Imagine” along with two newer cover versions that stand out:

I. John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band (with the Flux Fiddlers):

II. From Herbie Hancock‘s 2010 “Imagine Project” (featuring vocalists Pink, Seal, India.Arie)

III. Lady Gaga at 2015 Olympics opening ceremony in Baku:

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