Tracy Chapman: The History of ‘Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution’

Tracy Chapman appeared as a musical guest on Late Night with Seth Meyers on Nov. 2 to perform her song “Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution.” The singer/songwriter has been performing that song since before she recorded it for her 1988 debut album. For the Election Day Eve performance, Chapman added the line “go vote” to the song’s lyrics. 

Talkin' 'bout a Revolution singer Tracy Chapman
Tracy Chapman | Fred Hayes/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival

Showbiz Cheat Sheet takes a look back at the history of Chapman’s political song. The 2020 election is only the most recent in a long history of social causes which used “Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution.”

Tracy Chapman wrote ‘Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution’ in the 1970s

In a June 1988 profile in Rolling Stone, Chapman discucssed her history as a singer/songwriter. She started writing songs at age 8. She earned a scholarship to Wooster and wrote “Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution” during her time at school 

“I have to say that I never thought I would get a contract with a major record label,” Chapman told Rolling Stone. “All the time since I was a kid listening to records and the radio, I didn’t think there was any indication that record people would find the kind of music that I did marketable. Especially when I was singing songs like ‘Talkin’ bout a Revolution’ during the Seventies – you know, fit right in with the disco era. I didn’t see a place for me there.”

Chapman added that her time at Wooster exposed her to more political discourse.

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“At that time, I met a lot of students, and also teachers, who were involved in political causes,” Chapman said. “A lot of the people who were teaching us were just a few years out of college, and they were pretty aware. During my first year there was all this talk about the reinstatement of the draft, and people were really focused on that and the whole question of nuclear weapons. So I started to deal with some larger political issues, outside of where I had come from, what I had grown up seeing.”

Tracy Chapman’s debut album

Chapman recorded 11 songs for her first self-titled album. “Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution” was the first track, but the second track, “Fast Car,” became her first hit single. By Sept. 22, 1988, Chapman was already the subject of another Rolling Stone profile discussing her political influences.

“As a child, I always had a sense of social conditions and political situations,” Chapman said. “I think it had to do with the fact that my mother was always discussing things with my sister and me — also because I read a lot. A lot of people in similar situations just have a sense that they’re poor or disenfranchised, but they don’t really think about what’s created the situation or what factors don’t allow them to control their lives.”

“Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution” only reached 75 on the Billboard music charts according to The Hollywood Reporter. However, she was already performing it on an Amnesty International tour advocating to free Nelson Mandela. 

Tracy Chapman Amnesty
Tracy Chapman performing during Amnesty International’s “Human Rights Now!” concert tour | William F. Campbell/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

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I think people are foolish to believe that there won’t be major social changes in this country before we possibly, ultimately, destroy ourselves. There’s only so far you can push people before they start to push back, and I’ve seen that in my life. That’s where the things I write about come from. It’s wrong not to encourage people to hope or to dream or even to consider what’s thought to be impossible. That’s the only thing that keeps people alive sometimes. For me and my family, that was one of the only things that kept us going.

Tracy Chapman, Rolling Stone profile, 9/22/88

Covers of ‘Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution’

THR noted that many other bands have covered “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution.” Some notable covers include Living Colour, Reel Big Fish, Ben Jelen and Clarence Barker. The Washington Post reported that Bernie Sanders was using Chapman’s song at his 2016 campaign rallies. 

During the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions, Israeli band Shmemel recorded “Talking About an Arab Revolution.” Smemel lost the apostrophes and added a verse about the Arab Spring revolutions.