Critical Writings -> Academic
“The American Taliban: Steve Earle, John Walker Lindh, and the ‘problem’ of socio-political commentary in songwriting at times of (inter)national crisis”
Steve Earle was born in Fort Monroe, Virginia in January 1955, but raised in San Antonio, Texas. Though he showed a talent for music, he was a wild child, often getting into trouble with local authorities. Furthermore, his rebellious, long-haired appearance and anti-Vietnam War stance was scorned by local country music fans. He left home at the age of sixteen and began travelling across the state until eventually, at the age of eighteen, he settled in Houston, where he met and was influenced by singer/songwriter Townes Van Zant. A year later he moved to Nashville, where Guy Clark was another important mentor.
In the strictest sense, Earle is not a country artist, he is more of a roots rocker. He emerged in the mid-’80s, after Bruce Springsteen had popularised populist rock’n’roll and Dwight Yoakam had kick-started the neo-traditionalist movement in country music. At first, Earle appeared to be more toward the rock end of things than country. He played stripped-down neo-rockabilly that occasionally verged on outlaw country. However, his unwillingness to conform to the rules of the Nashville music scene, which in its usual conservative way was at that time favouring sanitised versions of country like Garth Brookes, or to the rules of the rock’n’roll industry, which in its equally cautious way was leaning towards the bombast of stadium rock, meant that he never broke through into the mainstream. Instead, he cultivated a dedicated cult following, drawing from disparate elements in both the country and rock audiences. In this sense, his closest contemporaries stylistically were acts like Green On Red and The Long Ryders, while he can also be seen to presage the current alternative country scene, which took off in the early ’90s with bands like Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown. However, Earle’s own career in the early ’90s was thrown off track by personal problems and substance abuse, and he did not make a new studio album for five years. But in the mid-’90s he re-emerged stronger and healthier, producing some of his most critically acclaimed work.
Since then, for those of you more familiar with television than music, he has appeared on and off in the much lauded HBO series The Wire, as recovering addict and Narcotics Anonymous member, Walon. Some would say it was type-casting, or as the title of the Johnny Russell / Voni Morrison song recorded by Buck Ownes and covered by The Beatles on Help, a case of ‘Act Naturally’.
Earle has also been called, in Ian McEwan’s Booker-nominated 2005 novel Saturday, albeit in the voice of a character rather than the author’s, ‘the thinking person’s Bruce Springsteen’, which may be justified. For while Springsteen’s 2002 album The Rising contains songs like ‘Worlds Apart’, which features a Sufi choir, and ‘Paradise’, which is written from the point of view of a suicide bomber, it can be argued that while Springsteen, rather like Bono of U2, tends to deal in cosy and calming abstractions and generalisations, Earle concentrates on specifics, which prove rather more challenging.
Which brings me to the song and story that I want to focus on today. The song is ‘John Walker’s Blues’ from Earle’s 2002 album Jerusalem, and the story is that of the person and events it was written about, John Walker Lindh, or ‘the American Taliban’ as he became known, having first being referred to by that epithet on the cover of Newsweek magazine.
John Walker Lindh was born in Washington, D.C. in February 1981, and was baptised and raised Roman Catholic, in Silver Spring, Maryland. When he was ten years old, his family moved to San Anselmo, in Marin County, California.
He became a devoted fan of hip-hop, and engaged in extensive discussions on internet newsgroups, sometimes pretending to be an African-American rapper who would criticise others for ‘acting black’. The Spike Lee film Malcolm X impressed him deeply and sparked his interest in Islam. He later wrote in his autobiographical statement for the court, before his trial: ‘I had first become interested in Islam during 1993, after becoming aware of the Hajj, in which thousands of Muslims all over the world gather at Mecca, a holy site in Saudi Arabia. I learned that all Muslims are required to make this religious journey at least once in their life. I was very moved by the image of thousands of people praying together. Perfectly equal and perfectly humble. I began to read all that I could about Islam.’
In 1997, Lindh officially converted to Islam and began regularly attending mosques in Mill Valley and later San Francisco.
In 1998 he travelled to Yemen, and stayed for about ten months to learn Arabic so that he would be able to read the Qur'an in its original language. He returned to the United States in May 1999 because of visa problems, living with his family for about eight months before going back to Yemen in February 2000. He then told his parents he was having further visa problems in Yemen, and that he wanted to enrol at a madrassa (a religious school) in the town of Bannu, in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province, and left for Pakistan in November 2000. His teacher there, Mufti Mohammad Iltimas, said he was a model student. In his conversations with him, he said, John Walker talked about feeling alone in the U.S. and ‘comfortable and at home’ at the madrassa. However, not even at the madrassa did he seem to like socialising, reportedly saying it was a waste of time.
According to John’s father, Frank Lindh: ‘In late April of 2001, John wrote to me and his mother to say that he wanted to go up to the mountains of Pakistan to get away from the heat… What he didn't tell us, what we didn't learn until later was that John was going over the mountains, into Afghanistan, intent on volunteering for military service in the army of Afghanistan.’ After that, the first news his parents had of their son came eight months later when they saw him on television in the hands of U.S. troops. He gave his name as Abdul Hamid.
What happened to him in the interim is highly disputed, given the amount of conflicting evidence and the lack of hard proof, and so is determined to a large extent, as far as I can see, by what area of the ideological spectrum you occupy. The main documents I am working off, which are included in my handout, are a report by John Andrews on the World Socialist Website, ‘U.S. torture of John Walker Lindh exposed as frame-up continues’, from June 2002; the text of an address delivered by Frank Lindh in January 2006 to the Commonwealth Club of California; and an article entitled ‘Innocent’ by Tom Junod, which appeared in Esquire in July 2006.
But before those details, it is useful to sketch briefly the geopolitical situation in Afghanistan prior to Lindh’s arrival. The Soviet Union, as you know, invaded Afghanistan in 1979. They imposed a communist puppet government upon the country. From the time of that invasion right up to 2001, Afghanistan was engulfed in constant war. After the Soviets withdrew, the country descended into a civil war among the factions – many of whom had been funded by the United States in the war against the Soviets.
Afghanistan had by far the largest refugee population in the world. Many of these refugees lived in terrible conditions in camps across the border in Pakistan. Eventually, the Taliban, which rose up out of those refugee camps, managed to consolidate power over most of the country. By 2001 they controlled all of the country except the Northeastern region, which was still in the hands of the Russian-backed Northern Alliance, a group of warlords.
America's allegiance with the anti-Russian factions in Afghanistan extended not only through the presidencies of Carter, Reagan and the first President Bush, but also to the second Bush administration. In the spring of 2001, roughly at the same time Lindh went to Afghanistan, Secretary of State Colin Powell personally announced a grant of $43 million to the Taliban government for opium eradication, which the New York Times then referred to as ‘a first cautious step towards reducing the isolation of the Taliban by the new Bush administration.’ Powell released a press release in which he said, ‘we will continue to look for ways to provide more assistance to the Afghans.’ This is the context in which Lindh arrived in Afghanistan. It was only the global shock of 9/11 that brought the American army to this war torn place and, as those who would defend Lindh might ask, ‘If George W. Bush couldn't see 9/11 coming, how could Johnny Walker?’ Frank Lindh has also argued along these lines in his son’s defence: ‘But for those attacks, John's activities…would have been treated with indifference, or perhaps curiosity here in the United States. But, viewed through the prism of the September 11th attacks, those very same activities caused this young man to be vilified as a traitor and a terrorist.’
When he did go into Afghanistan, Lindh received infantry training at a government-run military training camp. The training camp was funded by Osama bin Laden. Osama bin Laden had two operations going on. One was to finance the Afghan army operations – these training camps for infantry. But he also, as we now know, had a highly secret terrorist organisation under way, called al Qaeda. Twice in the course of his training there, Lindh actually saw Osama bin Laden, and met him on one occasion. Yet these facts, in themselves, are not damning.
In the course of Lindh’s subsequent criminal cases, the lawyer retained by Frank Lindh to defend his son, James Brosnahan, hired a professor named Rohan Gunaratna, who is head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, to interview John Walker Lindh and write a report for the court before his sentencing. Gunaratna has made a career out of interviewing terrorists and writing about terrorism and had served as an expert witness for both the United Nations and the United States government on al Qaeda. He is regarded as one of the world's leading authorities on al Qaeda and has written a book called Inside al Qaeda. Gunaratna interviewed Lindh extensively, and made the following conclusion: ‘Those who, like Mr. Lindh, merely fought the Northern Alliance, cannot be deemed terrorists. Their motivation was to serve and to protect suffering Muslims in Afghanistan, not to kill civilians.’ Gunaratna spoke to Lindh for over eight hours and decided emphatically that he was not a terrorist. ‘He had no intention of killing civilians,’ Gunaratna wrote. ‘He was not Al Qaeda. At Al Farooq, there was military training for soldiers in the Taliban and very specialised training for Al Qaeda. He trained as a soldier. He wore a Taliban uniform. It has become common to speak of Al Qaeda and the Taliban as if they are the same thing, but they are not. In fact, he was asked by (Al Qaeda lieutenant) Abu Mohammad al-Masri if he wanted to go to the United States or Israel as a martyr. John answered that he came to Afghanistan to serve on the front lines against the Northern Alliance. It's very difficult to refuse in a place like Al Farooq. But he refused.’
After rejecting the invitation to participate in operations outside Afghanistan, Lindh became a member of the Army of the State of Afghanistan and joined the Taliban front lines in the Takar region of Northern Afghanistan on September 6, 2001, the week before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He stayed there until early November, when forces under the control of the notorious warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, backed by U.S. firepower, routed the Taliban troops.
After the September 11th attacks, the United States declared war on Afghanistan. There was a period of one month in which the United States attempted to negotiate the extradition of bin Laden and his terrorist group. When those negotiations failed, almost a month later, in October, the United States began its invasion.
In the period in late 2001, Taliban forces in Northern Afghanistan were overrun by the Northern Alliance forces after an aerial bombing by the United States. The American strategy was to use Northern Alliance troops as a proxy rather than commit American troops to the ground. This may have been a sound military strategy; however, it appears that the American generals who planned this invasion made no provision for the handling of the prisoners of war.
Lindh’s unit retreated on foot fifty miles to Kunduz in two days. There was little food and water, the weather was very cold, and the retreat was confused, resulting in the death of between thirty and forty of the soldiers through ‘friendly fire’. Lindh’s unit surrendered to Dostum after ten days trapped in Kunduz. A deal was made for the soldiers to receive safe passage to Herat, then still under Taliban control. Instead, the prisoners were taken to the Kuala Jangi fortress outside Massari Sharif. One of the detained Afghan soldiers detonated a grenade as he was being unloaded from a truck. As a result, the remaining prisoners, including Lindh, were crammed into a basement, and a grenade was dropped down an air duct, killing and wounding several men. Dostum’s guards made the prisoners stay in the basement.
The next day, November 25th, the prisoners were led out of the basement and into the yard. Their arms were bound behind their backs, and they were made to sit in rows. Dostum’s guards walked among them, randomly hitting and kicking prisoners. Lindh was struck in the back of the head and almost lost consciousness. C.I.A. agent Johnny “Mike” Spann and another agent, working with Dostum’s men, singled out Lindh and questioned him at gunpoint.
Interestingly for us, as was shown on British Channel 4 news, Spann asked Lindh, ‘Are you a member of the IRA?’ He was asked this question because an Iraqi in the group identified Lindh as an English speaker when asked by Spann. Lindh had been told to say he was Irish in order to avoid problems. They can also be heard threatening Lindh with death.
Moments after this video was shot, the last of the remaining four or five hundred prisoners jumped Dostum's guards as they were being brought out of the basement, and seized their weapons. The Northern Alliance troops opened fire, mowing down the rows of bound prisoners with automatic weapons. In the ensuing pandemonium Spann was killed. According to other captives interviewed later by CNN correspondent Robert Pelton, Lindh was fully aware of the planned uprising, yet remained silent and did not cooperate with the Americans. He did not report his American citizenship to his captors, in spite of the fact that it may have provided him better treatment. This is one of the disputed areas of the story, since Spann’s father claims Lindh caused the death of his son, while Lindh’s father says Lindh did not cooperate because he believed the two C.I.A. agents were working for Dostum, which, in a manner of speaking, they were.
Lindh was shot in the leg while fleeing the carnage. He lay on the ground for twelve hours, surrounded by corpses and pretending to be dead, while U.S. aircraft bombed the compound, blowing up living and dead prisoners. In the middle of the night, Lindh and several other survivors in the yard made their way back into the basement. Wounded, starving and freezing, Lindh was trapped there for the next seven days, and there was a deliberate effort by Dostum, supported by the United States Special Forces, to simply exterminate all of the Taliban prisoners in the fortress. It began with the Americans attempting to drop a 1,000-pound bomb on the building, but it was misdirected and actually killed some of Dostum's troops instead. Then Dostum’s men would periodically drop grenades down air shafts, killing many. One wounded Lindh with shrapnel.
On the fourth day, Northern Alliance troops poured burning diesel fuel into the basement and ignited it, incinerating several men. Then Dostum’s soldiers fired rockets into the areas of the basement where the men had fled to escape the flames, littering the area with body parts.
On the sixth day, Dostum’s troops flooded the basement with freezing water from an irrigation ditch. According to government disclosures, an eyewitness said that the water, ‘…was about waist high for one full day. Those who were too injured to stand drowned, and the water was full of blood and waste.’ Lindh and others were forced to drink the water to stay alive. Unable to stand without assistance, Lindh alternated between leaning on a stick and a fellow soldier to keep from falling under the water and drowning. At least once, Lindh tripped over a dead body and was submerged in the freezing water, which resulted in his suffering hypothermia.
On December 1st, wounded, starved, frozen and exhausted, Lindh emerged from the basement with the other survivors, less than eighty-five of the more than three hundred prisoners brought to the Kuala Jangi fortress the week before. Dostum’s forces bound his arms behind his back once again, and he was crammed into a metal shipping container with other wounded and sick prisoners for six hours, doubled over with abdominal cramps caused by drinking the polluted water in the basement.
Lindh was transferred to an open-air truck full of dying prisoners and learned that there were media and Red Cross representatives in the area. One told him that Dostum would have killed all the survivors were they not there. Still wet from the basement, Lindh was driven three hours through the cold night to Sheberghan, where he was taken by stretcher into a room where he was left with approximately fifteen other dead or dying prisoners.
It was there that the CNN correspondent Pelton found Lindh and began questioning him on videotape. Lindh at first refused to be interviewed, but relented after Pelton arranged for him to receive food and medical attention from the U.S. military. He was moved into a room without other prisoners. While armed U.S. soldiers stood guard, a medic removed Lindh’s clothes and began treatment. As he answered Pelton’s questions, Lindh was receiving morphine and other medications intravenously. The interview was widely shown on CNN during the month of December.
Pelton told Lindh’s parents about his predicament, which was when they retained the prominent San Francisco trial lawyer James Brosnahan, who immediately faxed demands that the U.S. government not interrogate Lindh until they consulted him, and offered to travel to Afghanistan to meet with his new client. Although these letters were faxed to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and other government officials on December 3rd, Brosnahan was not allowed to speak to his client until January 25th, almost two months later, moments before Lindh’s first court appearance in the United States.
Following the Pelton interview, Lindh was interrogated by a member of the U.S. Special Forces at Dostum’s compound without first being advised of his right to remain silent and his right to counsel. The next day, the same Special Forces officer bound Lindh’s hands with rope and placed a hood over his head. Lindh was taken to a schoolhouse in Massari Sharif, where he was held in a room with the windows covered so that he could not tell the time of day. Round-the-clock armed guards taunted Lindh with epithets like ‘shitbag’ and ‘shithead’. Lindh was given some food, but was always left hungry. Military interrogations began again, lasting several hours and continuing for several days. Lindh was not advised of his constitutional rights, and when he asked for a lawyer, he was told none was available. His bullet wound was left untreated, apparently ‘to preserve the chain of custody’ of the bullet for its use as evidence at trial.
On December 7th, heavily armed U.S. soldiers blindfolded and handcuffed Lindh, scrawled ‘shithead’ across the blindfold, and posed with him for photos. One U.S. soldier told Lindh that he was ‘going to hang’, and then the pictures could be sold and the proceeds donated to a Christian organization. Another told Lindh that he wanted to shoot him then and there. Lindh was cuffed so tightly that his wrists were scarred, and his hands were numb for months.
Later that day Lindh was taken to Camp Rhino, a Marine base in the Afghanistan high desert, the bullet still in his thigh. When Lindh arrived at Camp Rhino he was stripped and restrained to a stretcher, blindfolded and placed in a metal shipping container. This was standard practice for the prisoners from the Battle of Kuala Jangi. While bound to the stretcher his picture was taken by American military personnel. He was later to complain that as military personnel passed the echoing cargo container around each twenty-four hour cycle, they hammered on its metal sides and shouted abuse and threats. He remained in severe pain from the bullet that remained in his leg. The photograph of him naked was cropped so as not to show his leg wound. On at least one occasion he was interrogated while naked, drugged and with the bullet still in his leg. On December 9th, Lindh was dressed in a hospital gown and taken into a room or tent. When his blindfold was removed, an F.B.I. agent presented him with a form waiving his constitutional rights. The note Lindh’s parents sent to him through the Red Cross, advising that they had retained a lawyer for him, was not delivered. Although Brosnahan was still trying to reach him, the agent repeated than no attorneys were available. Desperate to improve the conditions of his confinement, Lindh signed the waiver and answered the F.B.I. agent’s questions. He was held at Camp Rhino until he was transferred to U.S.S. Peleliu on December 14th, where he was treated for dehydration, hypothermia and frostbite. The next day the bullet was removed from his leg. On December 31st, 2001 he was transferred to the U.S.S. Bataan, where he was held until January 22nd, 2002, when he was flown off the Bataan to begin the journey back to the United States to face criminal charges.
On February 5th, Lindh was indicted by a federal grand jury on ten charges, most of them terrorism-related offences such as supporting al Qaeda, and also conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens or U.S. nationals. If convicted of these charges, Lindh could have received up to three life sentences and ninety additional years in prison. On February 13th he pleaded not guilty to all ten charges.
Then the photo from his captivity of him being held, naked and bound, and wearing a blindfold, emerged. Details of the other abuse and humiliation also came to light, plus the facts that he was repeatedly denied access to a lawyer and was threatened with denial of medical aid if he did not cooperate. That he was held for over a week in U.S. custody before his wound was treated and the bullet removed was also cited as a violation of his human rights.
The court scheduled an evidence suppression hearing, at which Lindh would have been able to testify about the details of the torture to which he claimed he was subjected. The government faced the problem that a key piece of evidence, Lindh's confession, might be excluded from evidence as having been forced under duress. To forestall this possibility, Michael Chertoff, then-head of the criminal division of the U.S. Department of Justice, directed the prosecutors to offer Lindh a plea bargain, to wit, Lindh would plead guilty to two charges: serving in the Taliban army and carrying weapons. He would also have to consent to a gag order that would prevent him from making any public statements on the matter for the duration of his twenty year sentence, and he would have to drop any claims that he had been mistreated or tortured by U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan and aboard two military ships during December 2001 and January 2002. In return, all other charges would be dropped.
Lindh accepted this offer. On July 15th, 2002, he entered his plea of guilty to the two remaining charges. In the end, the government dropped all of the terrorism-related charges. Lindh pleaded guilty to providing assistance to the Taliban government in violation of the economic sanctions that President Clinton had imposed. For that offense, and because he carried a weapon in its commission, on October 4th, 2002 Lindh was sentenced to twenty years without parole, which he is now serving in Southern California. By all reports, he is a model prisoner, and still a devout Muslim, who goes by the name of Hamza. His father is constantly campaigning to have his sentence commuted.
Steve Earle's refusal to condemn Lindh in his lyrics quickly made the song he wrote about him, ‘John Walker’s Blues’, a political hot potato, with much outrage being directed against Earle himself. But Earle embraced the controversy and became a frequent guest on news and editorial broadcasts, defending his work and clarifying his views on terrorism, patriotism, and the role of popular artists in a time of crisis, which, if nothing else, makes him interesting for my purposes here. His argument tended to centre on the fact that his empathising with Lindh did not automatically mean he was therefore sponsoring terrorism.
The album the song is taken from, 2002’s Jerusalem, was followed by a live album in 2003 called Just An American Boy, the title of which comes from the first line of ‘John Walker’s Blues’, and so invites an identification between the writer and his subject. This package also includes a concert-cum-documentary DVD with interviews which provide great insight into Earle’s indefatigable activism and the Walker imbroglio. According to Earle, the song came about because of the way America ‘…focused on John Walker Lindh because we couldn't get Osama bin Laden, and [it's] people's anger and the need for retribution [that's] always the real issue. Whether retribution is worth it is always the real issue around the death penalty, and I think it figures into this – the idea that someone has to pay, even if it's the wrong person.’
These comments remind us that Earle has long been an anti-death penalty campaigner, in songs like ‘Billy Austin’ from 1990’s The Hard Way, ‘Eilis Unit One’ from the soundtrack to Tim Robbins’ 1996 film, Dead Man Walking, and ‘Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song)’ from 2000’s ‘Transcendental Blues’, and suggest that his interest in justice for Lindh may have grown out of his opposition to capital punishment. He is also quoted as saying, in response to the media furore that surrounded the capture of Lindh, ‘Just remember that no matter what you hear, that it's never ever unpatriotic or un-American to question anything in a democracy, no matter what Time or anybody on CNN says it is.’
This sentiment was first aired by Earle in his liner notes to Jerusalem where, with reference to Vietnam, he wrote: ‘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.’ He goes on to offer a broad definition of patriotism, one that encompasses not only the authors of the Constitution but also John Reed, Emma Goldman, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King (most of whom were originally name-checked in a song called ‘Christmas in Washington’ from the 1997 release El Corazon, which added to the list by invoking the ghosts of Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill), because they defended American ideals ‘by insisting on asking the hardest questions in our darkest hours.’
That is exactly what Earle is doing with these ornery narratives about post-9/11 America. He starts out talking in Biblical allegories on ‘Ashes to Ashes’, and later goes street level to sketch a portrait of a Mexican man who becomes an unwitting pawn in the War on Drugs on the hillbilly stomp ‘What's a Simple Man to Do?’, while ‘Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)’ laments the bottom-line thinking of the so-called ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ which had infected every corner of American life, as Earle bitterly observes, There's doctors down on Wall Street sharpenin' their scalpels and tryin' to cut a deal/Meanwhile, back at the hospital, we got accountants playin' God and countin' out the pills.
In other hands, such ripped-from-the-newspaper or television screen material would sound hectoring, but Earle is a sly storyteller, and even when he is peering into the mind of John Walker Lindh, on the eerie Eastern devotional incantation of ‘John Walker's Blues’, he's really telling a tale of great disillusionment, about a lost Every Kid who goes on a lonely search and finds out how faith can be twisted to justify extreme acts.
Besides, ‘John Walker’s Blues’ was always more interesting than the redneck, knee-jerk, ‘Angry American’ country pap that followed 9/11 and the ensuing war in Afghanistan. Instead of asking searching questions and trying to figure out why so many people in the world hate America, it seemed that many artists contented themselves with parroting jingoistic government platitudes, like the infamous Toby Keith on ‘Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue’, which includes the gung-ho line, An you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. /’Cos we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way. Even Paul McCartney chipped in his tuppenceworth with one of his worst ever songs, the risibly saccharine ‘Freedom’.
But not Steve Earle. He uses ‘John Walker’s Blues’ as a meditation, daring to suggest that the MTV faux culture teenagers are indoctrinated with might not provide enough spiritual sustenance, and that when people go out looking for fulfilment, they do not always end up in a happy place. Indeed, the biggest disparity between the Lindh of Earle’s construction and the real life model is that Lindh in reality seems far from ordinary and representative, as the song makes out, but much more singular and idiosyncratic, a typical loner.
The politically engage tenor of these two albums was sustained with 2004’s The Revolution Starts…Now, the title track of which includes lyrics such as The revolution starts here/Where you work and where you play/Where you lay your money down/What you do and what you say, which seem to advocate a species of permanent revolution, or at least the idea that change only begins to happen with the shouldering of individual responsibility. While titles like ‘Rich Man’s War’ are self-explanatory, it is worth noting that Earle’s ire is not unleavened by an injection of humour, such as on the tongue-in-cheek, reggae-inflected, love letter to Condoleezza Rice, ‘Condi Condi’, which features couplets like Shank for me Condi, show me what you got/They say you’re too uptight, but I say you’re hot. In the liner notes, Earle again returns to the constitution:
‘The constitution of The United States of America is a REVOLUTIONARY document in every sense of the word. It was designed to evolve, to live, and to breathe like the people that it governs. It is, ingeniously, and perhaps conversely, resilient enough to change with the time in order to meet the challenges of its third century and rigid enough to preserve the ideals that inspired its original articles and amendments. As long as we are willing to put in the work required to defend and nurture this remarkable invention of our forefathers, then I believe with all my heart that it will continue to thrive for generations to come. Without our active participation, however, the future is far from certain. For without the lifeblood of the human spirit even the greatest documents produced by humankind are only words on paper or parchment, destined to yellow and crack and eventually crumble to dust.’
This chimes uncannily with what John Walker Lindh’s father Frank Lindh has written in his defence of his son, ‘The Real Story of John Walker Lindh’:
‘As I tell law students when I speak with them about John's case, the Constitution of the United States does not live in a vault at the National Archives, the Constitution lives in our hearts, and it's up to us as people to maintain the values embedded in the Constitution. We cannot trust the politicians and the media to do the job for us.’
Finally, to address briefly the supposed ‘problem’ of socio-political commentary in songwriting at times of (inter)national crisis alluded to in the title of this paper. There is a notion abroad that conscripted songs are the first to die, because if they are written to the moment they will not have longevity. In many ways this binary opposition between aesthetics and politics is quite a high modernist concern, which can appear quite quaint and almost meaningless in the postmodern, or post-postmodern age we all inhabit now. I would suggest that it attained currency because of the sort of social realism in art which was promoted most vigorously during the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union, where state-approved poets were required to write state-sponsored sonnets in praise of new combined harvesters and increased grain yields, or about innovative industrial machinery and record factory production, and where jazz, for example, was vilified as a symbol of western decadence. For the fact is that the kind of songs under discussion here are not conscripted at all, in that no one was pressurising or forcing Steve Earle, for example, to write about John Walker Lindh, for example. He did so of his own volition. One of the strengths of the constitution he so frequently endorses is that its First Amendment allows him to do so.
Earle himself has self-consciously addressed the problem of being perceived as an overtly political writer in the song ‘Steve’s Hammer’, from his most recent studio album, the rather more contented and at times even serene Washington Square Serenade (2007). It includes the verses: One of these nights I’m gonna sing a different tune/All night long beneath the silvery moon/When the war is over and the union’s strong/Won’t sing no more angry songs/One of these nights I’m gonna sing a different tune and One of these days I’m gonna lay this hammer down/Leave my burden restin’ on the ground/When the air don’t choke ya and the ocean’s clean/And kids don’t die for gasoline/One of these days I’m gonna lay this hammer down. That the album marks a reining in of the starkly politicised elements of the previous three collections might in part be attributable to changes in his personal life, like marrying wife number six (or number seven, if you take into account that he has been previously married to the same woman twice), fellow singer/songwriter Allison Moorer, and that he has relocated from Nashville to New York’s Greenwich Village, because, as he says, ‘I needed really badly at this point in my life to see a mixed-race, same-sex couple holding hands in my own neighbourhood. It makes me feel safer.’
The sometimes opposing claims of aesthetics and politics are perhaps made more concrete when looked at from the point-of-view of the artist. Accomplished singer and songwriter Lucinda Williams, who released a digital-only EP of protest songs called Lu in ’08 a week before last November’s Presidential election, has spoken about the difficulty of social comment in songs, and how protest songs do not come naturally for her: ‘I’ve found protest songs or topical songs to be the most challenging types of songs for me. I find myself having a hard time not sounding either too in-your-face angry or too sugar-coated sappy, like ‘OK, everybody get together.’ It’s just so hard to do.’ She attributed making herself do it this time to the fact that, ‘Actually, I’m just terrified about the possibility of a McCain/Palin victory.’
So the ‘problem’, such as it is, and as it is with all art, lies not in the subject matter, but in the execution. Perhaps it is not a case of whether you write about society or the self, about politics or the personal, but how you write about either, and how you locate one in the other. For if the personal is political, then so too is the political personal. There is no inherent reason why artistic quality control should suffer because of social commentary or commitment. Just because a song can be construed as a protest song, why should different rules apply which make it permissible for it to be shoddily constructed, or for there to be no riveting guitar solos? Perhaps there are just as many bad love songs as there are bad protest songs. Thus, while Steve Earle mounts a soapbox through much of Jerusalem and his two subsequent albums, his skill as a songwriter, which remains razor sharp, or his vocals, which are murky but emphatic, fortunately do not take a back seat to his political views.
The more I delve into this question, the more apparent it becomes to me that most artists do not care much about the personal/societal, public/private, aesthetics/politics dichotomies. We all of us lead private and public lives. Artists are not any different from the rest of us, in this regard. So why shouldn’t they be able to write about anything they want to, from whom they love to how they vote? That they do is palpably demonstrable: while Woody Guthrie may be most famous for songs like ‘This Land Is Your Land’ or ‘Talking Dust Bowl Blues’, he can also write a lyric called ‘Ingrid Bergman’, about how he fancies Ingrid Bergman; similarly, Nina Simone can follow a song like ‘Backlash Blues’, which she co-wrote with Langstan Hughes, or ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’, with ‘The Other Woman’ or ‘I Want Some Sugar In My Bowl’; and Steve Earle can write romantic songs about his new wife like ‘Sparkle and Shine’ and ‘Days Aren’t Long Enough’, as well as ‘John Walker’s Blues’.
The conclusion which emerges from these considerations would seem to be: whether you are writing songs about your private life or the public world, the personal or the political, the self or society, the important thing is not to forget about the craft of words and music.
‘US torture of John Walker Lindh exposed as frame-up continues’, by John Andrews, World Socialist Website, June 25, 2002.
Text of an address delivered by John's father Frank Lindh on January 19, 2006 to the Commonwealth Club of California at Oakland College. (http://www.alternet.org/story/31211/)
‘Innocent’ by Tom Junod, Esquire, July 1, 2006.
This paper was presented at the Irish Association for American Studies Postgraduate Symposium ‘Engaging Exception: Perspectives of Cultural Identity and the Nation’ (UCD Clinton Institute, January 2009), and at the ‘War and Identity’ International Conference (UCD Clinton Institute, March 2009)