What does it mean to be “American”?
I admit asking myself that question at the odds times these days – driving down the freeway past the 14th Walmart I’ve seen in 10 miles, watching Sean Penn rush to help Hurricane victims with his PR agent in tow to photograph his humanitian efforts for the fans, or just the simplicity of watching America’s great pasttime played on a September evening by a group of kids on a sandlot that looks like a Norman Rockwell painting in 3D.
Writing songs and albums that are attempts at capturing what it means to be “american” is as old as Cole Porter. Whether unbridled patriotism or protesting Uncle Sam with righteous indignation – pop music has been a medium to define and ultimately promote a particular slant on the U.S. of A. Perhaps the battle to define what it means to be ‘american’ in the 3 1/2 minute pop song stems from the fact that no artistic form in recent memory captures the ‘shape’ of the American soul – immediately accessable and easy to sing along to even if the melody is forgotten.
My vote? Probably one of the most ‘patriotic’ albums in recent years has been Steve Earle’s “Jerusalem”.
If you haven’t gotten into Steve Earle – he is a national treasure… or traitor depending on your views. Earle has been, for the past two decades, one of the more compellingly engaged figures on the American cultural landscape. He is the author of best-selling works of fiction (“Doghouse Roses”) and a playwright. Best known as a alt.country musician par excellence, his contribution to the merging of progressive country to the wider rock audience remains huge. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that the entire genre of “alt. country” would not exist without Earle’s ground-breaking extension of what used to be called “folk-rock.” His recorded work, from the classic 1986 Guitartown onward through such excitingly heartfelt/redemptive works as Copperhead Road, I Feel Alright, El Corazon, Transcendental Blues, to the current The Revolution Starts…Now, represents an extraordinary catalogue of deeply personal music which compares favorably with such esteemed heroes as Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, or even Bob Dylan.
In describing, Jerusalem, Steve Earle’s sixth album in six years, Earle says, “This is a political record because there seems no other proper response to the place we’re at now. But I’m not trying to get myself deported or something. In a big way this is the most pro-American record I’ve ever made. In fact, I feel URGENTLY American. I understand why none of those congressmen voted against The Patriot Act, out of respect for the Trade Center victims’ families. I’ve sat in the death house with victims’ families, seen them suffer. But this is an incredibly dangerous piece of legislation. Freedoms, American freedoms, things voted into law as American freedoms, everything that came out of the 1960’s, are disappearing, and as any patriot can see, that has to be opposed.”
One of the most controversial songs in recent memory is the song “John Walker’s Blues”, which deals with John Walker Lindh, the Marin County teenager and admitted Taliban fighter. Opening with the lines, “just an American boy, raised on MTV…I seen all the boys in the soda pop bands and none of them looked like me” and finishing with a recitation of Sura 47, Verse 19 of the Qur’an, Earle wrote the song as the newspapers clamored for Walker to strung up for treason.
“Would I be upset if [my son] 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. But there are circumstances. Walker [John Walker Lindh] was from a very bohemian household, from Marin County. His father had just come out of the closet. It’s hard to say how that played out in Walker’s mind. He went to Yemen because that’s where they teach the purest kind of Arabic. He didn’t just sit on the couch and watch the box, get depressed and complain. He was a smart kid, he graduated from high school early, the culture here didn’t impress him, so he went out looking for something to believe in.”
The album is tight and the questions it raises are simply electric. Earle says Jerusalem is his “most Old Testament record,” noting that “I’ve only got one chick song on it, the one I sing with Emmy [Emmylou Harris]. His critique of fear based paranoia (“Conspiracy Theory”) seems to be more true today than ever.
However, at its most apocalyptic with the likes of the opening track “Ashes to Ashes” which feels at home alongside Tom Waits’ “Earth Died Screaming”, Jerusalem is essentially a CD of hope. As Earle states: “I am really optimistic. That’s the idea of “Jerusalem,” the last cut on the disk you hear the bad news. You know it is not a lie. What happened on 9/11 was a horror, what happens every day in Israel and Palestine can be a horror. But you try to see past that. You have to believe this will be better. To some redemption, I’m someone who has always wanted to believe. I’m good at it.”
Maybe being American is something more than America after all? Maybe the idea that formed that drive to find the New Jerusalem across the Atlantic over 200 years ago still animates and illumines the hearts and minds of artists willing to ask hard questions and sing difficult words in a hope beyond hope…and points us toward concerns outside our national interests and toward a humility of Kingdom centric love…
As Earle muses in the closing song “Jerusalem”:
I woke up this mornin’ and none of the news was good
And death machines were rumblin’ ‘cross the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say
And I almost listened to him
Yeah, I almost lost my mind
Then I regained my senses again
And looked into my heart to find
That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem
Well maybe I’m only dreamin’ and maybe I’m just a fool
But I don’t remember learnin’ how to hate in Sunday school
But somewhere along the way I strayed and I never looked back again
But I still find some comfort now and then
Then the storm comes rumblin’ in
And I can’t lay me down
And the drums are drummin’ again
And I can’t stand the sound
But I believe there’ll come a day when the lion and the lamb
Will lie down in peace together in Jerusalem
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
And I believe that on that day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem
[If you are interested in a free download of Steve Earle, you can sample “Guitar Town” off his recent Live from Austin, Tx. CD or pick up his rather timely duet with Jason Ringerberg entitled “Bible and a Gun”.]