The Common Good
November-December 2002

Earle's Blues

by Mark Lewis Taylor | November-December 2002

Since Sept. 11, country music stations have blared songs like Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." and Aaron Tippin's "Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly"

Since Sept. 11, country music stations have blared songs like Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." and Aaron Tippin's "Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly"—uncritical paeans to American pride. Or Toby Keith's mix of patriotism and revenge, "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue": "And you'll be sorry that you messed/With the U.S. of A./'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass/It's the American way."

Mixing folk and rock with country music genres, Steve Earle's Jerusalem challenges all this unbridled patriotism, especially with its hotly debated ballad about John Walker Lindh—the so-called "American Taliban" facing 20 years in prison for aiding the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. "John Walker's Blues" has earned Earle adjectives like "unpatriotic"; he is someone who "glorifies a traitor," according to Nashville radio host Steve Gill, and whose album deserves the "dustbin of history."

Although a nominee and winner of numerous country music awards, Earle has often violated canons of the Nashville music establishment. He's long opposed the death penalty and fought for welfare rights. In the space of a single song, "Christmas in Washington" on his 1997 El Corazón, he invoked the ghosts of Woody Guthrie, Emma Goldman, Malcolm X, Joe Hill, and Martin Luther King Jr., calling them to lead a new march for freedom against the government's union-busting and so-called welfare reform.

Jerusalem's controversial ballad doesn't endorse Walker Lindh's actions or beliefs. Earle simply imagines his way into the young man's life, combining elegant melody with Quranic chant, and offers musings toward deciphering the man's enigma. What perhaps rankles some is that the song portrays Walker Lindh as seeking a way out of the dim life of being "an American boy raised on MTV"—he chose to travel, experiment with Islam, and study Arabic instead of plugging in the headphones, mesmerized like some good MTV kid.

MOST OF THE ALBUM'S 11 songs challenge the easy patriotism of post-Sept. 11 America. The first cut, "Ashes to Ashes," fuses a menacing rumble with rock beats and whispered lyrics that warn, "every tower ever built tumbles/No matter how strong, no matter how tall." Here is no Falwell-type belief in terror as punishment for personal or national sin; it is simply a grim remembrance that towers of power crumble, especially when the powerful make idols of their towers.

"Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)" uses groaning guitars and clanging percussion to wail over wreckage of the American dream: HMOs not working like we hoped, the wealthy walled into their country clubs hoping to keep the restless at bay. "[w]e can just build a great wall around the country club/to keep the riff-raff out until the slump is through/Yeah, I realize that ain't exactly democratic, but it's either them or us/And it's the best we can do."

Then there's the jaunty lament ("What's a Simple Man to Do?") Earle offers about a Mexican man working a maquiladora in Tijuana who takes a small, illegal job across the border in San Diego—and gets nabbed by police before he can get back home. The man writes in a letter to his Graciela, "I know I said I'd never cross the border.../But I lost my job in the maquiladora.../All I wanted was a little money/All I needed was a week or two.../What's a simple man to do?"

The title track, "Jerusalem," ends the disc by turning to another troubled scene, Palestine: "...death machines were rumblin' 'cross the ground where Jesus stood." Here, Earle lets guitar, harmonica, and drums roll out a vibrant hymn to hope. A surprising confidence rises from his vision of "one fine day," when "all the children of Abraham will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem." This seems like a desperate wish, but somehow the power of a stately rhythm and aching lyric yield a measured hope. Earle throws it up against the trauma exposed in the entire Jerusalem album: "And there'll be no barricades then/There'll be no wire or walls/And we can wash all this blood from our hands/And all this hatred from our souls."

Earle's songs of social pain are welcome amid today's patriotic hype, but his political critique often comes with a rant and sneer that may drive some deeper into easy nationalism. It is fortunate, then, that Jerusalem also has a softer side: a poignant love song with Emmylou Harris ("I Remember You"), a song co-written with Sheryl Crow ("Go Amanda"), and "The Kind," in which Earle's playful sarcasm parodies the kind of story, song, and picture often served up by mainstream country. He also offers "Shadowland," presenting himself not as self-righteous doomsayer but as a mortal man wandering a hard place, "a heartbroke pilgrim in the shadowland." These other songs invoke a common humanity and just might win a wider hearing for Jerusalem's bracing politics. Maybe. Time will tell. In the meantime, Jerusalem offers music for losing and finding oneself, with a message for pondering in post-Sept. 11 U.S.A. 

Mark Lewis Taylor is professor of theology and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. His most recent book is The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America (Fortress Press).

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