During wartime–and, officially, it’s still wartime–the super-patriots are ever more watchful for acts of cultural treason. And the latest victim of the red-white-and-blue lynch mob is musician Steve Earle, whose offense is writing and recording a song entitled “John Walker’s Blues.” Before the tune was released, the cowpies were being hurled. First, Steve Gill, a conservative talk-show gabber in Nashville, denounced the song. Then Fox News Channel and The New York Post picked up the story. The website of the latter headlined its dispatch, “Twisted Ballad Honors Tali-Rat” and claimed “American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh is glorified and called Jesus-like in a country-rock song…by maverick singer-songwriter Steve Earle.” Another Nashville DJ, Phil Valentine, called the song “politically insane.” Gill declared, “This puts [Earle] in the same category as Jane Fonda and John Walker and all those people who hate America.”
Wire services and The Washington Post covered the fuss, with the Post‘s Richard Harrington, usually a fine music critic, reporting the “song offers a sympathetic view of Lindh.” Reuters echoed this sentiment: “It offers a rare sympathetic view of Lindh.” The New York Post noted that the ballad is “backed by the chanting of Arabic prayers and praises Allah.” While the phones went berserk at the Nashville office of Earle’s manager, Earle was on vacation in Europe and declined to respond to the attacks.
The to-do says more about Earle’s detractors than his song. The track, which is part of Earle’s forthcoming album, Jerusalem, hardly glorifies Lindh. Nor does Earle compare him to Jesus. The tune is “sympathetic” only in the sense it seeks to understand how Lindh viewed himself. It praises neither Lindh nor his choices. It does not recommend that others emulate him. The anti-Earle criticism shows that those eager to root out traitors often don’t have time to think. Here are the complete lyrics to “John Walker’s Blues”:
I’m just an American boy–raised on MTV/And I’ve seen all those kids in the soda pop ads/But none of ’em looked like me/So I started lookin’ around for a light out of the dim/And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word/Of Mohammed, peace be upon him
A shadu la ilaha illa Allah/There is no God but God
If my daddy could see me now–chains around my feet/He don’t understand that sometimes a man/Just has to fight for what he believes/And I believe God is great/All praise due to him/And if I should die I’ll rise up to the sky/Just like Jesus, peace be upon him
We came to fight the Jihad/ And our hearts were pure and strong/As death filled the air we all offered up prayers/And prepared for our martyrdom/But Allah had some other plan/Some secret not revealed/Now they’re draggin’ me back with my head in a sack/To the land of the infidel.
Earle’s song–which features his growling voice over sparse, guitar-driven instrumentation–explores what Lindh was thinking. Earle speculates Lindh believed he would receive Jesus-like treatment if he sacrificed his life for jihad. It is Lindh who is praising Allah, not Earle–not that there would be anything wrong with Earle doing so. And the ending–mullahs reciting a Koran passage–is eerie, not an endorsement. This is storytelling. In fact, Lindh ends up screwed in the song. He expects holy reward but finds himself shit-out-of-luck in chains and a sack. If you had to squeeze a morale out of the song–and I doubt Earle set out to preach–the lesson could well be, kids, don’t try this at home. But since the song does not blast Lindh–what rhymes with scum-sucking maggot?–it’s deemed a pro-Taliban anthem. Apparently, 9/11 killed nuance, as well as irony.
Earle is a lefty redneck. Once a rising country-rock star, he became a close-to-dead junkie and then resurrected himself and his career as a gritty, eclectic, whiskey-voiced singer-songwriter. He has long been a passionate foe of the death penalty. “I’m somewhat to the left of Mao,” he told me five years ago. (See “Death-House Troubadour,” The Nation, August 25, 1997.) And he’s no fool. He foresaw the storm. When he performed “John Walker’s Blues” at a Canadian folk festival earlier this month, he cracked, “This song just may get me fucking deported.”
In the PR material for the new album, Earle says of the track, “I’m happy with the way the song came out, but I’m nervous, not for myself, but I have taken some serious liberties with Walker, speaking as him, in his voice. I’m trying to make clear that wherever he got to, he didn’t arrive there in a vacuum….My son Justin is almost exactly Walker’s age. Would I be upset if he suddenly turned up fighting for the Islamic Jihad? Sure, absolutely. Fundamentalism, as practiced by the Taliban, is the enemy of real thought, and religion too.”
The new album, due out September 24 on the Artemis Records label, contains several topical or political songs. On “Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do),” Earle pokes at HMOs, walled communities and the war on drugs. “The Truth” questions the over-reliance on incarceration to fight crime. The title track challenges the belief that conflict in the Middle East is inevitable and ends on a hopeful note. The album reflects Earle’s worry that post-9/11 fear has trumped democratic principles. He calls the USA Patriot act “an incredibly dangerous piece of legislation. Freedoms, American freedoms, things voted into law as American freedoms, everything that came out of the 1960s, are disappearing, and, as any patriot can see, that has to be opposed.”
In a statement he wrote on July 4–before he started catching flak–Earle declared, “Lately, I feel like the loneliest man in America. Frankly, I’ve never worn red, white, and blue that well. I grew up during the Vietnam War and whenever I see a flag decal I subconsciously superimpose the caption: AMERICA–LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT across the bottom stripe. Back then, as now, it was suggested by some that second-guessing our leaders in a time of crisis was unpatriotic if not downright treasonous….In spite of our worst intentions and ignorance of our own history, our Constitution has, thus far, proven resilient enough to withstand anything that we throw at it, including ourselves….It was framed by men whose names we are taught to remember by rote: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Patrick Henry, Aaron Burr….In times like these, it is also important to remember the names of John Reed, Emma Goldman, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King…those who defended those same principles by insisting on asking the hardest questions in our darkest hours. God bless America, indeed.”
Any rightwing commentator who pays true attention to what Earle writes, sings or says–which is often over-the-top–can find plenty of material worth a debate. But “John Walker’s Blues”–neither anti-American nor pro-Taliban–does not warrant the hair-pulling. The hyperbolic reaction to it, though, confirms Earle’s fears about post-9/11 America. He might want to thank his critics for making his point for him.