What've I Done to Help?

Album: Reunions (2020)
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Songfacts®:

  • Over sweeping strings, a self-indicting Jason Isbell wonders what he's done to make this world a better place.

    What've I done to help?
    And not myself?


    During the second verse he expresses remorse for the breakdown of his first marriage to ex Drive-By Truckers bandmate Shonna Tucker.

    I broke my word, I lied on a Bible
    Just to feel a little free
    She didn't deserve it; nobody ever deserves it


    In the third verse Isbell laments living in a world that is "burning down." However, he is too entranced by life with his second wife Amanda Shires and their daughter Mercy Rose to do his bit for the broken society.

    The world's on fire and we just climb higher
    Till we're no longer bothered by the smoke and sound
    Good people suffer and the heart gets tougher
  • Isbell started writing "What've I Done to Help" for a movie but kept it for himself because he thought they might make a host of changes. The singer ended up sending them a different song that they never used.
  • The song is the opening track of Reunions and sets the mood for the rest of the album. Isbell told Apple Music: "It's a little bit indicting of myself, but I think it's also a positive message: Most of what I'm talking about on this album is trying to be as aware as possible and not just get lost in your own selfish bubble, because sometimes the hardest thing to do is to be honest with yourself."
  • The song originated with the chorus, which Isbell found himself repeating as he was driving around close to his house pre-Covid. "I was writing, I think, about pre-existing social conditions that really the virus just exacerbated or at least turned a light on," he said. "We had a lot of division between the people that have and the people that don't, and I think it's made pretty obvious now."
  • Isbell realized the chorus shared melodic similarities to Michael Kiwanuka's 2016 song, "One More Night." He tried to make it sound different, but none of the alternate versions sounded right to him, so Isbell's people reached out to the English singer. Kiwanuka let him use it in return for a songwriting credit.
  • In 2018 David Crosby noticed that Jason Isbell was covering the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young hit "Ohio," so he reached out to thank him. They became friends and Isbell brought him in to sing harmony on this song and "Only Children."

    Isbell told Uncut that he leaned how to sing harmony singing along with Crosby Stills & Nash records. "I'm still trying to figure out what he was doing," he said of Crosby. "He would switch between different parts and make it sound like there was more than one person singing harmony. He would sing up and then down below the melody. He would just fill up all this space."

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