Last spring, in an attempt to make President Bush appear to be more of a regular guy, the White House released a list of the tunes the commander-in-chief was listening to on his iPod. The list featured mostly country, alt-country and blues artists, including John Fogerty, John Hiatt, Alan Jackson, George Jones and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Perhaps the most interesting name on Bush’s listening list was that of James McMurtry, the brilliant Austin-based songwriter who used his 2004 live CD to poke fun at the president’s attempts to fake a Texaser-than-thou accent.
McMurtry responded to the news that Bush’s playlist included his song “Valley Road” by politely suggesting that the president might not be the most serious listener of his songs, which frequently detail the damage done to Americans by rampaging corporatists and an uncaring government.
In case there was any doubt about the differences between George W. Bush’s worldview and James McMurtry’s, the musician posted a savage critique of the president and his pals, “We Can’t Make It Here,” on his Web site shortly before last year’s election. That song, a haunting reflection on corporate globalization and wars of whim, was the highlight of McMurtry’s set last month when he played at Camp Casey, the protest vigil organized outside the president’s Crawford, Texas, ranch by Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in Iraq.
McMurtry did not write the song to cheer on Sheehan’s demand that the president meet with her. Nor did he write it in response to White House neglect of the suffering along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But “We Can’t Make It Here” captured the mood of the moment in Crawford, just as parts of this epic song touch on sentiments that run deep among the evacuees from New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile and all the other battered communities of the southeast.
Ultimately, however, “We Can’t Make It Here” is about more than the White House’s failures with regard to one mother or one crisis. It is about the dismissal of thousands of neglected communities and millions of neglected Americans who — without the benefit of media attention — regularly echo the the blunt closing cry of McMurtry’s song for attention to the working poor who have lost their jobs to “free trade” and federal neglect and their children to a war founded on lies.
Written in the voice of a textile worker whose job was lost when a factory was shuttered and the production sent overseas, McMurtry closes his opus by asking:
Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin
Or the shape of their eyes or the shape I’m in
Should I hate ’em for having our jobs today
No I hate the men sent the jobs away
I can see them all now, they haunt my dreams
All lily white and squeaky clean
They’ve never known want, they’ll never know need
Their sh- – don’t stink and their kids won’t bleed
Their kids won’t bleed in the damn little war
And we can’t make it here anymore
Will work for food
Will die for oil
Will kill for power and to us the spoils
The billionaires get to pay less tax
The working poor get to fall through the cracks
Let ’em eat jellybeans let ’em eat cake
Let ’em eat sh- -, whatever it takes
They can join the Air Force, or join the Corps
If they can’t make it here anymore
And that’s how it is
That’s what we got
If the president wants to admit it or not
You can read it in the paper
Read it on the wall
Hear it on the wind
If you’re listening at all
Get out of that limo
Look us in the eye
Call us on the cell phone
Tell us all why
George Bush refused to look Cindy Sheehan in the eye. He won’t do any better by the workers who share the experience James McMurtry portrays. And, while this particular singer may have a place on the presidential iPod, he won’t be singing at the White House anytime soon. But he will be singing to America. McMurtry begins touring this week in support of a great new album, Childish Things, which includes the track “We Can’t Make It Here.” (Readers can find the schedule at www.jamesmcmurtry.com) Don’t make the mistake of missing the man whose songs speak more truth about America in five minutes than George W. Bush has in five years.