The Guess Who, at the time the world’s top rock band, performed it at a gala for a distinguished audience including US President Richard Nixon and Prince Charles on July 17, 1970.
Released in Canada by Nimbus 9 Records and in the USA by RCA Victor as a 45-rpm single (0367), Hand Me Down World was produced by Jack Richardson (who went on to become the band’s long-standing producer) as the follow-up to The Guess Who’s massive No. 1 success, American Woman. The B side was Runnin’ Down the Street.
Hand Me Down World appeared on The Guess Who’s 1970 album “Share The Land” (LSP 4359), their first after headliner Randy Bachman’s departure. The band offered Bachman’s place to another Winnipegger, Kurt Winter, who conveniently brought with him Hand Me Down World.
As luck and talent would have it, both album and single went gold. Hand Me Down World spent two months on Billboard’s singles chart, peaking at No. 17 in August 1970, while “Share the Land” reached No. 14 and charted for a full 25 weeks. At home in Canada, Hand Me Down World hit No. 3 on the CHUM chart in August, and No. 10 on RPM’s Top 100 Singles chart the following month, while RPM’s Top 50 Canadian chart featured it in the Top 10 for several weeks.
The Guess Who won back-to-back Juno awards for Top Vocal Instrumental Group in 1970 and 1971, and the single earned a 1971 BMI Canada Certificate of Honour. The song gained international exposure when the band performed it on the Johnny Cash television show, for which they draped a full-sized red-and-white maple leaf flag over Cummings’ keyboard.
Hand Me Down World was a protest song in an age when there was much to protest about: damage to the environment (“Anybody here see the sky weeping tears for the ocean”), the Vietnam war, and restrictive social mores. Burton Cummings told broadcaster Bob Mersereau, “We needed a follow-up to American Woman…We were really scrambling not to lose the momentum we had. The lyrics to Hand Me Down World were in the same vein as American Woman – it was a ‘Hey, wake up, world’ song.”
And wake things up, it did, from the introduction – featuring the drummed pitter-patter sound of running feet (perhaps in those hand-me-down shoes that the singer rejects?) – to the ad-libbed final lines that show off Cummings’ vocal flexibility. Winter’s lyrics, still relevant decades later, embody the perennial frustrations of socially conscious youth objecting to the complacency of the middle-aged who have turned a blind eye to society’s problems.
The Guess Who featured Hand Me Down World on various “best of” albums and anthologies, including the 2000 live album “Running Back Thru Canada,” and played it on a Canadian television special in 1978. Over the years, it has been performed by the complete band, by Bachman and Cummings as a duo, and by Cummings alone. Among the countless concerts where The Guess Who have performed the song was a charity event at Toronto’s famous El Mocambo nightclub.
Fittingly, the song’s title graces the book “Hand Me Down World: The Canadian Pop-Rock Paradox,” by Greg Potter.
Kurt Winter (1946‒1997), from Winnipeg, Manitoba, played with various bands through the 1960s before joining The Guess Who as lead guitarist from 1970 to 1974. He later starred with the Jim Kale version of the band from 1977 to 1979. Winter wrote or co-wrote (with Cummings and others) several songs that became SOCAN Classics: Rain Dance; Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon; Follow Your Daughter Home; and Clap for the Wolfman.