ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Libby Roderick never set out to write a song heard round the world. But her simple folk tune "How Could Anyone" has been embraced by a global audience ranging from prisoners to politicians.
It has been sung at a China women's conference, by monks and AIDS orphans in Zambia, and in Spanish by Texas nuns. The lyrics have been reprinted in a Japanese book for people recovering from eating disorders. It has been translated into Yupik Eskimo at a sexual assault prevention workshop in Alaska and used in a U.S. presidential campaign.
"It's like you have a child who goes out into the world and you hear all these great stories about them," the 46-year-old singer-songwriter said. "It's not about me. It's about this phenomenon, and I'm just the vessel."
The brief song, which took Roderick five minutes to compose, asks how cruelty can exist amid the miracle of humanity:
How could anyone ever tell you
you were anything less than
How could anyone ever tell you
you were less than whole?
How could anyone fail to notice
that your loving is a miracle?
How deeply you're connected to
"People are made to feel bad about so much," Roderick said. "They're too fat, they're too thin, too poor, too old -- but I think that deep down inside they know they're better than others may think.... I think that's why it's touched so many people."
One of those touched is Vern Herd, who came upon the song in 1990 while serving a 27-year murder sentence in Washington state. The song was foreign to the message he grew up hearing: that he was ugly and stupid and would never amount to anything.
After his release nine years ago, Herd became a prison counselor. He wraps up workshops on violence alternatives and self-esteem with Roderick's song.
"People sing along with it. Some people hold back emotionally ... some get choked up and I've seen some flat-out cry," said Herd, 52. "For a lot of people, the message helps shake up beliefs about themselves."
Roderick said the song poured out after she got a phone call in 1988 from a friend going through a difficult spell. She never intended to be a professional musician, but friends began taking her recordings out of state, and "How Could Anyone" was always the favorite.
"This song has been mistaken as an old Quaker hymn, as an Eastern spiritual tradition," Roderick said. "It's been attributed to so many sources. A lot of people think no one wrote it, like it emanated from the folk consciousness."
Over the years, Roderick has fielded a steady stream of requests from people and organizations asking for permission to use her signature song.
Recently, "How Could Anyone" was adopted as the unofficial theme song for supporters of a bill introduced by Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) to create a federal Department of Peace and Nonviolence.
The song mirrors the goal of the Peace Alliance, a group lobbying for the bill, said Dot Maver, alliance executive director. Maver also used the song when she ran the 2004 presidential campaign of Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), who introduced the legislation in the House.
"It speaks to our essential humanity," Maver said. "It calls for us to be kind, compassionate, wise -- and it recognizes our interconnectedness."