'A Song For Any Struggle': Tom Petty's 'I Won't Back Down' Is An Anthem Of Resolve

May 8, 2019
Originally published on May 8, 2019 5:11 pm

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.

Editor's note: This story includes discussions of depression, addiction and suicide.


Of all his many, many hit songs, the one that Tom Petty said had the most direct and powerful impact on his fans was "I Won't Back Down."

Well, I won't back down
No, I won't back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won't back down

The song was released in 1989 on Petty's solo album Full Moon Fever. The artist told interviewers that people would come up to him all the time, or would write to him, sharing stories of how this song — with its plainspoken message of resilience and empowerment — helped steer them through difficult times.

"He told me that he heard, or read somewhere, that it brought a girl out of a coma," recalls his widow, Dana Petty. "It was her favorite song and they played it and she came out of a coma, which blew his mind."

"It's a very simple song, but a very powerful song," says Petty's lifelong bandmate, guitarist Mike Campbell. "It's as deep as you want to go. That was one of Tom's talents, that he could say a lot with very few words."

Petty died of an accidental drug overdose in 2017, at age 66.

"A lot of people ask me what was Tom really like," Campbell says. "And that's him. He didn't back down. ... He stood up to everybody. Nobody told him what to do."

"He had a lot of fight in him," Dana Petty agrees.

Over the 20 years that Dana went on the road with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, "I Won't Back Down" was a fixture. "They played that every night," she says. "Tommy never got tired of that one, because of the audience response."

There were times, she remembers, when the tens of thousands of fans singing along were so loud they would drown out the band. "It's a song that touches everyone in their own way," she says. "You could see that they were all singing about their lives every night. And it's a pretty amazing thing to witness."

The song's universal appeal stems from its simplicity, says Tom Petty's daughter Adria Petty. "It's like a mantra. It keeps building you up, stronger, stronger, stronger. Every word of the song is culminating in more tenacity."

Her younger sister, Annakim Violette, adds, "Anyone that's ever [sung] that came out of a really dark place into a brighter one. It gave them strength. That's why it's an anthem. It's an anthem for finding strength."

YouTube

Your 'I Won't Back Down' Stories

We asked NPR listeners to tell us how "I Won't Back Down" has inspired them as a personal anthem, and more than 700 people responded. Here are some of those stories, which have been lightly edited and condensed. For more on the history of "I Won't Back Down," listen to the full radio story at the audio link.


Ashley Ellis
Buffalo, N.Y.

Ashley Ellis has lyrics from "I Won't Back Down" tattooed on her shoulder blade.
Courtesy of Ashley Ellis

Throughout my life, from the time I was a child, I lived and breathed Tom Petty's music. As I got older and began suffering from depression, anxiety and self-harm, his music became the light that guided my way, especially "I Won't Back Down." Every concert I attended, he would play that song more beautifully than I ever could imagine, and I would stand there and bask in the music and let it take me away from all the sadness I felt at that moment. Following his death, I knew I wanted a part of his music to be with me forever, and I got the most important quote of my life tattooed: "You can stand me up at the gates of Hell, but I won't back down."


Vallerie Drorbaugh
Springfield, Neb.

Vallerie Drorbaugh has her mantra printed above a doorway in her home.
Courtesy of Vallerie Drorbraugh

When I was preparing to have intensive spine surgery, a friend advised me to have a prayer or mantra ready for when it was time to try to walk, because it would be very painful, very challenging. The lifelong Petty fan that I am (my home is named Dreamville), I of course chose "I Won't Back Down." My surgeon played it for me as I was going under anesthetic before the seven-hour surgery, and I played it during recovery to walk to, my goal being to walk to the rhythm as I walked around my staircase. I did recover, my spine fused, and I was stronger than ever and went back to work after a few months.

Shortly after returning to work, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I will never forget going to the nursing home with my brother to tell my 89-year-old mother that I had cancer. We sat outside in the courtyard. I told her I was about to have a double mastectomy, and we wouldn't know my prognosis until the results from the surgery came in. I said, " Mom, you know what a Tom Petty fan I've been all my life? Well, I used this song to get me through the pain and recovery from the spine surgery, and it's gonna get me through this, too." And I played "I Won't Back Down" for her. I held it up to her ear and she and my brother and I just sat with tears in our eyes and listened. She listened to the whole thing, sitting there in the courtyard. It was epic.

My next two surgeons played "I Won't Back Down" for me. On April 12, 2019, it was seven years since I was diagnosed, and I am cancer-free.


Erica Kufus
New Richmond, Wis.

Erica Kufus with her father, Bradley Bundgaard, at her high school graduation in 2000.
Courtesy of Erica Kufus

When I was 5, my parents divorced. My dad would come pick me up on the weekends and we would go for a drive in the country, listening to Tom Petty (and of course this song) loud with the windows down in his old wood-panel van, or in later years, his red Ford Probe. We would get lost and then find our way out of backroads. It was so much fun! I stayed a Tom Petty fan ever since.

When I was 30, my dad died by suicide with a gunshot through his chest. My husband, my 1-year-old daughter and I were the last to leave the funeral home. As we began driving, this song began to play. It wasn't sad, it was an anthem. I felt at peace. I felt freaked out this coincidence happened, but the car was so quiet as we all listened without saying a word. The line "There ain't no easy way out" took on a new meaning. I knew he had been sick with mental illness and addiction for many years and suffered at the end of his life with these battles. Suicide is an intensely sad option to get out of this broken world, but man, there was no easy way out.


Sara Register
Marietta, Ga.

Sara Register with her daughter, Rhiannon, at a Tom Petty concert at Red Rocks, Colo., during his final tour in 2017. A huge rainstorm soaked the crowd.
Courtesy of Sara Register

Several years ago, after a harrowing 48 hours in which her house burned down and she finalized her divorce, Sara drove across the country with her young daughter.

We put thousands of miles on my vehicle, and I was happiest when there was a black shimmering strip of highway extending from my hood to the far horizon coupled with endless blue skies. The boundless enormity of our country made my previous problems feel so small. And always, while driving outside cellphone range and social media's reach, there was Tom Petty. I have a lot of favorite songs of his that are lesser known, but there is no greater feeling than crossing the plains of South Dakota, window down, belting "I Won't Back Down." Because I wouldn't. I didn't let being alone keep me from seeing the places I had always dreamed of.

When I slept once by myself on the side of a mountain, completely sure that a cougar was going to come by and snack on me, I sang that song from the safety of my hammock. And when I saw [Petty] live for the second and last time at Red Rocks a few months before he passed, I sang just as loudly, surrounded by several thousand fellow fans belting with the same force that I did. There really never had been an easy way out of what I had gone through. But I made it.


Aaron Thomas
Clarksburg, Md.

Aaron Thomas
Courtesy of Aaron Thomas

I played this song in the midst of dealing with a close friend's suicide and having to figure out how to officiate his funeral with a broken heart (I'm a minister). My wife and I listened to this song on a cross-country trip together after I lost my job and we had to move in with my parents for a time. Our worship leader occasionally breaks out in this song prior to Sunday service just to entertain me. If there's a time I need to be reminded of hope, warmth, good memories, God, or those I love: This is the song. As a Christian, I believe some of our principles are to bring hope to the hopeless and strength to the weak. If there was ever a song to sum up these principles, it's "I Won't Back Down." It's the anthem of my life.


Kelli Sexton
Mountain View, Calif.

Kelli Sexton (left) with her sister, Jamie Stauffer, at Parris Island, S.C., on the day Sexton graduated from Marine Corps boot camp.
Courtesy of Kelli Sexton

When I was in high school, I decided to enlist in the Marine Corps. As the time got closer for me to leave for boot camp, my fear of the unknown was rising. A recruiter asked me if I had an anthem, and the stand-your-ground lyrics of "I Won't Back Down" immediately came to mind. "I Won't Back Down" became my mantra, and I used the lyrics to reassure myself that I would get through the rigors of training. To this day, I give Tom Petty credit for getting me through what I considered to be my toughest challenge at the time. The lyrics not only encouraged me to keep going, [they] gave me a mental escape to the happy times at home with family.


Niki Vonderwell
Mannheim, Germany

The phrase "I won't back down" is engraved on the wedding rings of Niki Vonderwell and her husband, Matthias Luft.
Courtesy of Niki Vonderwell

Niki is from Ohio. In 2011, at a small IT security conference in Dayton, she met a German man who — six years later — would become her husband:

I heard his voice before I saw him, and I held my breath as he made his way up the stairs while telling some joke to his colleagues. When I saw him, I couldn't formulate a single thought in my brain other than "Wow!" We spent the rest of the day flirting, and by the second day I had volunteered to drive him on an errand he needed to run. We had gotten to know a little about each other the day before, but my true test of compatibility was coming: Did he know Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and if so, what did he think? I explained as we got in the car this was my favorite band in the whole world. I associated every big milestone in my life (and some small ones) with a different song from the band (no pressure, right?). He had never heard of them, but gamely asked to hear a few songs while we drove. I played "I Won't Back Down" first, and he was hooked thereafter.

He flew back to Germany the next day, and we decided a week or so later to try long-distance dating. For 2 1/2 years, we played "I Won't Back Down" when the distance got to be too much and we were missing each other like crazy. It was a reminder that no matter what the statistics said about long-distance relationships, we could make it work. We would not back down from what was important to us: our relationship. I moved to Germany eventually, and two years ago he proposed. When I said yes, he asked how I felt about engraving our rings with "I Won't Back Down" and making it our first dance. It was perfect. The week after our wedding, we flew to London for the Heartbreakers' only European stop in 2017. Of course they played "I Won't Back Down." I remember swaying back and forth with my husband in this blissful moment, thinking how amazing it was to have come full circle, in a way. Tom Petty died just over two months later.


Carla Corpancho
Beaverton, Ore.

Carla moved to the U.S. from her home country of Peru in 2001. Her sister used to play this song all the time back in Lima, and it has special meaning for her now, in this country.

I love that song. It's my song. I am an immigrant, and even after being treated horribly because I look different and because I have an accent, I won't back down. I won't give up. I will never lower my head in front of anyone. Never. This song speaks to me and gives me the energy to fight and never give up. I don't care how many times people call me names and say, "You don't even speak English," I won't back down. I deserve a good life, and I sing this song from the depth of my heart.


Jim Benes
Lincoln, Neb.

Jim Benes as a Coast Guard air crew member on a rescue helicopter in 2005.
Courtesy of Jim Benes

Who hasn't felt beaten, bruised and battered, turned on the radio and belted this tune at the top of their range while driving down a road?

I fell in love with this song and a lot of Tom Petty songs when I joined the U.S. Coast Guard. I was stationed on a river boat in Iowa, and I was a closeted gay kid from Nebraska. I felt really out of place, and I felt like I was lost, wondering what I had done, if I had made a mistake. I joined the military immediately following 9/11, as an impulsive response to a surge of patriotism and the pull to do something. Like all good moments when I've gone out on a limb, joining the Coast Guard turned out to be one of the best decisions I've ever made.

Tom's Petty's music served as a soundtrack to these tough times, and got me through a lot of seemingly hopeless personal moments as I struggled with my sexuality in a "don't ask, don't tell" military service. I'm happy that this policy is no longer in place.


Monica Owings
Canton, Ga.

Monica Owings in her garden.
Courtesy of Monica Owings

As an introvert who fought through deep depression and crippling anxiety, I had to fight a constant internal battle invisible to those around me. Music was an elixir, and specifically Tom Petty music. At 30, I had a breakdown of sorts. My depression and anxiety were consuming me. Although I had a successful career, what internal strength it took to battle the demons of the depression became insurmountable. I distinctly remember waking up and knowing I just couldn't go on. I didn't want this feeling to go on; I'd rather be dead. The alarm clock went off, and I heard Tom Petty sing, "They can stand me up at the gates of hell and I won't back down." In that very moment, I made a choice. The choice to carry on and live.

Over my lifetime, as I've lived with chronic depression, this song has become an anthem of sorts for me. Tom Petty's lyrics have fueled my desire to choose life. The words Tom Petty wrote literally made the difference in me living or dying. They came on the radio that morning at that moment, and because they did, I'm here today writing this. Many of Tom Petty's songs were inspirational to me, but I will remain forever grateful to a man I'll never know who saved my life.


Heather Williams
Los Angeles

Heather Williams at a Los Angeles teachers' strike action in January.
Courtesy of Heather Williams

In 2008, Heather was at a conference of grassroots labor activists in Dearborn, Mich., when steelworkers were on strike nearby.

As a part of the conference, we were encouraged to leave the hotel and go support the striking steelworkers. It was freezing cold outside, so cold that the picketers had started fires in two trash barrels. The picket line didn't have many people on it when we arrived on our bus. Apparently the strike had been going on for nearly two years and was struggling. Our group of conference attendees swelled the line to over 100. The mood instantly improved. We began quietly marching on the picket line. The weather was miserable. After a few minutes of this, a man pulled up in a pickup truck alongside the picket line. We didn't know if he was there to be supportive or to abuse us. He hung his head out the window and yelled "Hey!" and then cranked his stereo. "I Won't Back Down" started playing. He never got out of his truck, but put the song on repeat. It played four or five more times. Everyone started singing. It was really wonderful. I'll never forget it.


Melissa Hughes
Olympia, Wash.

Melissa Hughes (center) with her sisters Michelle Feist (left) and Jessica Feist (right) at a Tom Petty concert in Seattle in August 2017.
Courtesy of Melissa Hughes

"I Won't Back Down" is a battle cry, an anthem with lyrics that grasp straight to the heart. It is a song for any struggle.

When I hear the first few strums, I'm instantly transported back in time. Suddenly I'm 11 in my dad's Ford Ranger on the way to soccer practice. I was a nervous kid. Even with my dad being the best pre-game motivational speaker to convince a shy, well-mannered 11-year-old to get amped, it wasn't enough to get my head in the game. My dad would say, "Melissa, you've got to get mad! Run like you're angry."

Cue Petty on vocals, Campbell on guitar, and the lines so etched on my heart, "You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won't back down." I'd headbang along, strapping my shinguards in place, mentally preparing as if going into battle. I could feel it, hit repeat, then again, heart racing, deep inhales, as centering as a meditation, as holy as a prayer. It was the quintessential mantra that made me dash out with pride onto every field. It was the method for dealing with any insurmountable obstacle. It provided the fortitude to keep trying.

Petty's words gave me the grit I needed to make it through college as the first girl in my family ever to do so. Currently, I climb mountains. I lug my heavy pack along river bends and cliff faces, and all over the hills I hear, "No, I'll stand my ground, won't be turned around."


Jason Enright
Scottsdale, Ariz.

Jason Enright and his son, Connor, meeting Tom Petty on his tour bus in June 2013, with the guitar Jason made for Petty at Connor's urging.
Andy Tennille / Courtesy of Jason Enright

I'm a single full-time dad. My wife and I split just before my son Connor's third birthday. I was faced with raising him on my own six days a week and it was somewhat terrifying: Will I be good at this? Am I going to mess him up somehow? How do I get him to eat anything other than chicken nuggets and mac and cheese? But, as I had done a lot of times in my life when I was stressed or in pain or scared, I turned to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The music would ease the stress, numb the pain, and make whatever I was scared of a lot less scary.

One day early in our us-against-the-world battle, we decided to set out for Southern California for a few days to leave the "real world" behind. I glanced in the rearview mirror and looked at Connor sleeping in his car seat, the endless desert stretched out behind him in the rear windshield. Again, the thought crossed my mind: How am I going to do this and do it well? Not even 10 seconds later, "I Won't Back Down" came on the radio. I let out a loud "Ha!"

There was TP once again, letting me know that everything was going to be all right as long as I didn't give up.

Fast-forward to a few years later. We're in Hollywood in a guitar store because I wanted to buy a T-shirt. After I bought my shirt, I found Connor standing next to a three-quarter-size guitar. "Can I get this?" he asked. "I can learn to play Tom Petty songs with it." We were on our last day of vacation, low on money. I checked my bank account. If I returned the T-shirt, if we ate fast food for dinner, and if we could get home on a tank of gas, we could pull it off. He slept with that guitar in the hotel that night. He was 6 years old.

Arriving home, he took lessons. The first song he learned? "I Won't Back Down." He soon played every day and learned one Heartbreakers song after another. A year later he asked for a "real" guitar, specifically a Telecaster, because TP played a Telecaster in concert when we saw him here in Phoenix.

He picked one out he liked, but it was $2,000. I never wanted to let him down, so I explained as best as I could why we couldn't afford something like that. "But," I said. "Maybe I could just make you one."

I'd never made anything in my life. I didn't own any tools. We lived in an apartment.

"OK!" he said.

Honestly, I thought it would just buy me some time to find him a cheaper one. But one of our golden rules is, "Do what you say you're going to do." So I found a cheap Telecaster on Craigslist and tore it down to refinish it, just to see if I could even do that. It turned out all right, so I started reading websites and books on how to make an electric guitar.

I ordered wood and parts off the Internet, and over the next few months, I made an electric guitar. I finished it about 30 minutes before Connor's eighth-birthday party. I found out I was pretty good at it and made a couple more.

Looking at a block of wood one night in our apartment, mouth full of spaghetti, Connor looked up at me and said, "You could build one for Tom Petty. You make nice ones and he likes guitars."

"I don't think it works that way," I said.

"Sure, but you didn't think you could even make one and that happened," he said. "We already have tickets to see them in LA in June, anyway. Plus, if you make him one I could give it to him and I'd get to meet him." He smiled.

So, as any single dad/crazy person would do, I fired off a long email to Tom Petty's management company that probably made them think I was bananas. A few weeks later, Evan from the company contacted me, said Tom got my email, and if I could bring the guitar to the show, there was a really good chance we'd get to give the guitar to Tom.

On the day of the show, we received a call from him letting us know that it was going to happen: Tom was going to meet us prior to the show so we could give him the guitar. Later at the Fonda Theatre, we were sitting in the lobby when Evan came to talk to us. "I can't believe I'm going to say this, but ... he wants to meet you on his bus. And no one gets to go on his bus."

He led us to the back of the building and suddenly, I was standing next to my wide-eyed 9-year-old son, on Tom Petty's tour bus, holding a guitar I built for him. A moment later, Tom emerged, with his wife, Dana, right behind him. He was larger than life (but actually shorter than I expected; onstage he looks 10 feet tall).

Tom smiled, walked right up to my son, leaned over and shook his hand and said, "Hey, you must be Connor. I'm Tom. Nice to meet you." He then shook my hand, introduced us to Dana, and just fell into conversation with Connor. It was — and still is — surreal. He greeted us like family he'd never met. Despite Evan telling us the meeting would be brief, we spent a good 15 minutes on his bus.

Jason and Connor Enright with Tom Petty in 2013.
Andy Tennille / Courtesy of Jason Enright

He gushed over the guitar when we opened the case and gave it to him. As he went to put it back into the case, Connor was in conversation with Dana, so I leaned over to Tom. "There are no words, man," I said. "Thank you so much for doing this. He's going to remember this for the rest of his life."

Tom looked at me and then down at the guitar.

"But look what you did for me," he said. "I know these aren't easy to make. And you thought enough of me to go through all this trouble." He put his hand on his heart and said, "Really, I'm just touched. I'm humbled. Thank you for doing this for me."

He gave Connor some guitar picks and signed a concert poster for him. We shook hands, he hugged Connor, and off we went back into the venue. We probably weren't in there more than a couple minutes before the Heartbreakers took the stage.

About halfway through the show, a woman leaned over to me and said, "Your boy knows all the words to every song! He's so cool! You're such a great dad!" I thanked her and thought, "You have no idea where we were an hour ago."

After the show, we went to a Denny's and ate biscuits and gravy and rehashed the evening over the next few hours. We were too amped up to sleep.

"I'm curious," I said to Connor. "Does this whole experience teach you anything?"

"Yeah," he said, slurping on a chocolate shake. "Anything is possible. Anything."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There are songs that grab you from the very first note.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM PETTY SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

CHANG: This slide guitar riff sets up a song whose power comes from its simplicity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

TOM PETTY: (Singing) Well, I won't back down. No, I won't back down. You could stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won't back down.

CHANG: "I Won't Back Down" by the late Tom Petty has served as an anthem of defiance for striking workers, an anthem of grit for political candidates. And for many, it's a deeply personal anthem of resolve. Here's NPR's Melissa Block with the latest in our series American Anthem about the songs that inspire and unite us.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: The lyrics that speak to resilience, empowerment and hope are as simple as they come. And Tom Petty worried about that at first, worried the song was too simple. Here he is speaking on WHYY's Fresh Air in 2006.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

T PETTY: I thought that it was maybe just too direct. You know, I thought, well, there isn't really anything to hide behind here (laughter) you know? It's very bold and very blunt. There's not a lot of metaphor or any - you know, anywhere to go.

BLOCK: But, he said, of all his many hit songs, this one ended up having the most direct impact. People would come up to him on the street or in restaurants all the time and tell him how this song gave them the strength to carry on. He heard so many stories, says his widow Dana Petty.

DANA PETTY: He told me that he heard or read somewhere that it brought a girl out of a coma. It was her favorite song, and they played it, and she came out of a coma, which blew his mind.

BLOCK: Petty recorded "I Won't Back Down" a few years after an arsonist burned down his house. His family survived, but he lost everything. And in the Fresh Air interview, he said that horrific experience probably did filter into the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

T PETTY: Because I felt really elated that they didn't get me, you know? Like, I kind of just - that was the thought that was going through my head as well. You bastard, you didn't get me, you know? I survived.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

T PETTY: (Singing) Well, I know what's right. I got just one life in a world that keeps on pushing me around, but I'll stand my ground. And I won't back down.

BLOCK: "I Won't Back Down" was released in 1989 on Petty's solo album "Full Moon Fever." As his lifelong bandmate guitarist Mike Campbell tells it, the song came together super-fast in just a few hours. Coming up with the lyrics, Campbell says, that was pretty straightforward.

MIKE CAMPBELL: It's like, well, I won't back down - you know, OK, well, what can we do with that? You know, stand my ground. I think I suggested at one point pushing me around, and Tom looked at me like, I was just going to say that (laughter).

BLOCK: George Harrison stopped by that day and played guitar on the track. And Dana Petty says it was Harrison who came up with this line.

D PETTY: There ain't no easy way out. Tom had something like, I'm standing at the edge of the world or something. And George was like, that's terrible, you know?

CAMPBELL: (Laughter) Yeah, George didn't mince words.

D PETTY: Right? And thank God because there ain't no easy way out is a much better line. So thank you, George Harrison, wherever you are up there with Tommy.

BLOCK: As for what makes the song an anthem, Mike Campbell says it's not just the lyrics. Listen for what happens as verse turns to chorus and the mood of the chords switches from minor to major key.

CAMPBELL: You can stand me up at the gates of hell - it's all kind of spooky and minor and then (vocalizing) I won't back down goes up to the major relative chords. It lifts - it's an old musical trick to lift things up, and it works.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

T PETTY: (Singing) And I won't back down. Hey, baby, there ain't no easy way out.

CAMPBELL: A lot of people ask me, what was Tom really like? And that's him. He didn't back down. He stood up to the man at the record company. He stood up to the promoters. He stood up to the band. He stood up to everybody. Nobody told him what to do.

BLOCK: And so it was fitting that in 2001, just days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Petty chose "I Won't Back Down" to play at the televised benefit concert for victims and families. This version - subdued and somber.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

T PETTY: (Singing) Yeah, I will stand my ground and I won't back down. No, I won't back down. I won't.

BLOCK: And others have turned to the song as a way to bind the country together in dark times. In 2017, one week after the mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas, singer Jason Aldean, who was onstage when the assault started, opened "Saturday Night Live" with these words.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

JASON ALDEAN: We're going to walk through these tough times together, every step of the way.

BLOCK: And then.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

ALDEAN: (Singing) Well, I won't back down. No, I won't back down.

BLOCK: It was Aldean's first public performance since the massacre, and it came just days after Tom Petty died of an accidental drug overdose at age 66.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY CASH SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

BLOCK: This stark, acoustic version of the song from Johnny Cash tells its own story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Well, I won't back down. No, I won't back down.

BLOCK: In the documentary film "Runnin' Down A Dream," Tom Petty said the Johnny Cash version is so deep and dark.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "RUNNIN' DOWN A DREAM")

T PETTY: Which almost made me wish I'd never sung it. It was so good. He sang it was such an authority. It sounded like it was written for him.

BLOCK: Cash recorded the song a few years before he died, and the gravity and weight of years that he brought to it add a whole new dimension.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

CASH: (Singing) Gonna stand my ground, won't be turned around.

BLOCK: Rick Rubin produced that Johnny Cash album.

RICK RUBIN: There's something magical about the way Johnny sings and the familiarity of the song gets amplified hearing Johnny's version. There's a trueness about Johnny's version that's thrilling to hear - believability.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

CASH: (Singing) There ain't no easy way out.

BLOCK: This song, Rubin says, and the idea of standing up for what you believe in - definitely anthemic.

RUBIN: Absolutely, absolutely. It's an anthem, and it's a timeless idea.

BLOCK: And maybe that's the truest mark of an anthem - a song someone can take and make completely their own.

ANNAKIM VIOLETTE PETTY: Anyone that's ever sang that came out of a really dark place into a brighter one. It gave them strength.

BLOCK: That's Tom Petty's daughter, Annakim Violette. Her older sister, Adria Petty, says audiences would respond to the song with a huge surge of energy. She remembers being out high above the crowd in London's Hyde Park on her father's final tour listening to tens of thousands of fans join in singing "I Won't Back Down."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

T PETTY: (Singing) Hey, baby.

ADRIA PETTY: You could just feel the sonic vibration of the entire place lift.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

T PETTY: (Singing) Hey, yeah.

ADRIA PETTY: That's what I think of the most with the song is that it belongs to everyone. And they can really raise their voices together with it. And that's the part of it that hits me hard.

BLOCK: It's like a mantra, Adria says, something so simple you can really hold onto it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

T PETTY: (Singing) Stand my ground.

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T BACK DOWN")

T PETTY: (Singing) And I won't back down. No, I won't back down. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.