The Ballad of "John Walker's Blues"
July 22, 2002 10:29 AM   Subscribe

The Ballad of "John Walker's Blues" Not long after Lindh pleaded guilty to aiding the former Afghan regime, maverick country-blues musician Steve Earle released a controversial ballad, "John Walker's Blues," that has infuriated the American heartland with lyrics like: We came to fight the jihad, our hearts were pure and strong/We filled the air with our prayers and we prayed for our martyrdom/Allah has some other plans, a secret not revealed/Now they're dragging me back with my head in the sack to the land of the infidel.
posted by laz-e-boy (32 comments total)
Y'know, I'd sort of like to hear the whole song before making any judgment here. Sounds like he's writing from the viewpoint of Lindh, and not endorsing or condemning him in any fashion. Also, the music is described as setting a "nightmarish" tone. Doesn't sound irresponsible from this vantage point, but how am I supposed to know or be "infuriated" from words describing music? Maybe I'll go look the song up on of them online music-stealing thingies, come to think of it.
posted by raysmj at 10:39 AM on July 22, 2002

Steve Earle is the most overrated, grunting, tone-deaf bag of worn out musical tricks in America. Comparing John Walker Lindh to Christ is nothing compared to the outrage Earl committed in producing the most recent Ron Sexsmith album, "Blue Boy." He took this brilliant, unique young songwriter, stuck him with a bunch of tired studio hacks, stripped him of the intimacy that was the glory of his sound, and turned out a run-of-the-mill 1980s country-rock album. Anyone who's heard Sexsmith's earlier albums will be able to measure the extent of the vandalism Earle committed on this kid and his career. Thanks Steve! It figures you'd be a traitor too!
posted by Faze at 10:43 AM on July 22, 2002

"............... is the most overrated, grunting, tone-deaf bag of worn out musical tricks in ................"

Permission to pilfer, Mr. Faze, sir! ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:46 AM on July 22, 2002

"It figures you'd be a traitor too!"

I was taking you seriously until I read this.
posted by interrobang at 10:48 AM on July 22, 2002

Not having heard the rest of the song, or been able to find the full lyrics anywhere, I can't say for sure, but its pretty common in country music (and for Earle in particular) to sing a song from the perspective of different characters, esp. outcasts and losers.

I understand this is a very tricky concept, and hard for the inbred hicks good folks of the nashville industry to understand, but it might very well be whats going on here. Either that, or maybe Johnny Cash really did shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die.
posted by malphigian at 10:57 AM on July 22, 2002

Damn, I can't find a copy of the song on Kazaa or any newsgroups. It must not exist.
posted by mathowie at 11:04 AM on July 22, 2002

I heard some of the song on msnbc when I was home for lunch. It sounded pretty crappy imo, regardless of political content. But the press will make a big stupid deal about it. I'm mean I'm sure there are plenty of songs out there that would offend someone's political viewpoints if they knew the song existed. Why get all outraged just because one guy writes one song that people don't agree with?
posted by stifford at 11:06 AM on July 22, 2002

I enjoy the music of Steve Earle. He gets heavy airplay in Austin, TX. (that may drop off now, though)

And even if you find his music mediocre at best, give me that over goddamned Lee Greenwood anyday...
posted by ColdChef at 11:09 AM on July 22, 2002

I have heard the entire song, when Earle was in Orillia, Ontario a few weeks ago. I can't speak to the "nightmarish" music (although reversed guitar sounds aren't as rare as the author makes them out to be) as it was just voice and guitar, but yes, he is speaking from the perspective of Lindh and I didn't get the sense that he was either endorsing or condemning. He expanded on this in his introduction to the song, saying that he has a son of about 20, and where people were seeing some kind of monster, he just saw a kid the same age as his son. I think the song is an attempt to figure out what was happening with this kid instead of just lashing out at him reflexively and antagonistically.

I also think that the article is misrepresenting the song when it says Earle compares Lindh to Jesus. I think something quite complex is happening in the lyrics there. First of all, we are hearing the perspective of Lindh, but I don't think that Lindh (i.e. the character in the song as opposed to the real guy) actually thinks of himself as a Christ figure; rather it's put in there to emphasize an idea that comes up in other songs that will be released on Jerusalem, and, if the ones he played were representitive, is the major theme of the album, namely the geographic and ideological proximity of the world's three major religions, and how the wedges that we drive between us are ultimately small and self-constructed.
posted by transient at 11:10 AM on July 22, 2002

Oh, and by the way, when the article says that Earle joked: "This song just may get me ... deported", the word in the ellipsis is "fuckin'."

In case there was doubt.
posted by transient at 11:14 AM on July 22, 2002

I've been hearing about this, and though I haven't heard the full song yet, it reminds me already of 1970's era Randy Newman.

I highly doubt this is a song of praise. It sounds more like a song about a dumb kid who gets really, really mixed up into some trouble. With an emphasis on dumb. The only controversy will come from those who don't get the song's actual message. But until I hear the whole song, who knows??
posted by jeff-o-matic at 11:23 AM on July 22, 2002

Of course, if it were a song of praise he deserves to be horsewhipped to within an inch of his life and the attacks on him in that article would be more than justified. Can´t have someone saying (singing!) stuff we don't like.
posted by andrew cooke at 11:29 AM on July 22, 2002

I may be generalizing here, but country music fans tend to represent pretty narrow demographics. It's hard for singers to go "outside of the box" when it comes to controversial subjects.

I know that many people stopped listening to Garth Brooks when he release the song "We Shall Be Free" which included these lyrics:

When the last thing we notice is the color of skin
And the first thing we look for is the beauty within
When the skies and the oceans are clean again
Then we shall be free

We shall be free
We shall be free
Stand straight, walk proud
'Cause we shall be free
When we're free to love anyone we choose
When this world's big enough for all different views
When we all can worship from our own kind of pew
Then we shall be free
We shall be free

posted by ColdChef at 11:49 AM on July 22, 2002

I worry about media folks' basic literacy (at least, ability to understand the words of a song) when they decide that Earle feels the first-person confessions of his Walker persona. Come on, this is a guy who is famous for singing in the words of prison guards, criminals, lowlifes, etc. (Not to imply there is no sympathy there, of course.)

I like some of Steve Earle's music. I'm a little dubious about the calls to prayer & all--this may well make me cringe--but I'll have to wait to hear it.
posted by Zurishaddai at 12:02 PM on July 22, 2002

I'm a big Steve Earle fan.Here are the lyrics, supposedly.

Just an American boy
Raised on MTV
And I've seen all them kids in the soda pop ads
None of them look like me.
So I started looking around
For a light out of the dim.
And the first thing I heard
That made sense was the word
Muhammad peace be upon him.

Chorus: Ash hadu alla Ilaaha illallah, there is no God but God.

If my daddy could see me now
Chains around my feet
He don't understand sometimes a man
Has got to fight for what he believes.
And I believe God is great
All praise to him
And if I should die
I'll rise up in the sky
Just like Jesus peace be upon him.

Chorus: Ash-hadu alla ilaaha illallah, there is no God but God.

We came to fight the jihad
Our hearts were pure and strong.
And when death filled the air
We all offered up prayers
Prepared for our martyrdom.
But Allah has some other plan
Some secret not revealed
Now they're dragging me back
With my head in a sack
To the land of the infidels.

Chorus: Ash-hadu alla ilaaha illallah, there is no God but God.

posted by BarneyFifesBullet at 12:02 PM on July 22, 2002

And even if you find his music mediocre at best, give me that over goddamned Lee Greenwood anyday...

Talk about shooting fish in a barrel...
posted by y2karl at 12:09 PM on July 22, 2002

I really enjoyed Fox's "fair and balanced" account along with the unflattering pic.

For those that still don't get it, here is a Nashville piece of crap.

Just a taste of "Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue (The Angry American)".

Now this nation that I love
Has fallen under attack
A mighty sucker punch came flyin' in
From somewhere in the back
Soon as we could see clearly
Through our big black eye
Man, we lit up your world
Like the 4th of July

Hey Uncle Sam
Put your name at the top of his list
And the Statue of Liberty
Started shakin' her fist
And the eagle will fly
Man, it's gonna be hell
When you hear Mother Freedom
Start ringin' her bell
And it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you
Brought to you Courtesy of the Red White and Blue

Every lame songwriter in Nashville wrote one of these ditties after 911.They don't have a problem making money off of it.

Steve Earle can fart in his sleep and do better.
posted by BarneyFifesBullet at 12:10 PM on July 22, 2002

Given all that I find thus far of the lyrics on this post, I see nothing objectionable, unless one feels that only Christians have a heaven without 72 virgins and Muslims have their own, with babes.
What the song's rejection by Fox et al does tell us is that our educational system has gone AWOL and people seem unable to comprehend the meaning.
posted by Postroad at 12:59 PM on July 22, 2002

Hey, If we're going to bring God and country music into this, I want Robbie Fulks on my side.

A world filled with wonder, a cold, fathomless sky
A man's life so meager, he can but wonder why
He cries out to Heaven its truth to reveal
The answer: only silence, for God isn't real.

Go ask the starving millions under Stalin's cruel reign
Go ask the child with cancer who eases her pain
Then go to your churches, if that's how you feel
But don't ask me to follow, for God isn't real.

He forms in his image a weak and foolish man
Speaks to him in symbols that few understand
For a life of devotion, the death blow he deals
We'd owe Him only hatred, but God isn't real.

Go tell the executioner of the power he can't defy
Go tell his shackled victim of the mercy on high...
Then go to your churches, go beg, pray, and kneel,
But don't ask me to follow, for God isn't real.

No, no matter how He should be, God isn't real.

posted by dhacker at 1:02 PM on July 22, 2002

Nice to know the United States is still filled with idiots who still care about such things. Dicky Goodman anyone?
posted by ParisParamus at 1:02 PM on July 22, 2002

Big "Hell, yeah!" for the Robbie Fulks lyrics. My favorite Fulks song: "She Took A Lot of Pills (And Died)". (Also good stuff: Fulks' friend and co-conspirator Wayne "The Train" Hancock, "Thunderstorms and Neon Signs").

Anyhoo, back to Steve Earle. He's made some bad music, sure, but he's also done some great stuff, and anyone who's down with Lucinda Williams is OK in my book.

I sure would hate to live in a society unable to distinguish between an artist playing a role in a song, and the artist himself. Trying to figure out what makes this Lindh kid tick is important, and taking imaginative risks in doing so is what brave artists do.

Earle may be totally wrong, I don't know, haven't heard the song. He may be offensive to our brethren with overlarge belt buckles and simplistic worldviews. The song may suck.

But if trying to express what he imagines was going through John Walker Lindh's mind makes him a traitor, Faze, then I guess I'd better line up for the firing squad since I may have committed thoughtcrime as well......
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:19 PM on July 22, 2002

unless one feels that only Christians have a heaven without 72 virgins

As I recall, the Christian heaven is a rather arid place compared to the fairly sensuous Muslim heaven, with "being in the presence of the Lord" and streets of gold being the key attractions. Give me Allah's boudoir in the sky any day for sheer volume of afterlife goodies.
posted by UncleFes at 2:37 PM on July 22, 2002

Perhaps I've just spent too much time teaching Robert Browning, but my instant response to this song was "dramatic irony." In fact, the ending reads very much like the conclusion to Browning's "Porphyria's Lover," in which the very insane speaker, who has strangled his beloved Porphyria with her own hair, meditates on his situation:

Porphyria's love: she guessed not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word!

Swinburne's response to "Porphyria's Lover," "The Leper," does something very similar at the end:

I am grown blind with all these things:
It may be now she hath in sight
Some better knowledge; still there clings
The old question. Will not God do right?

While this Earle song doesn't quite strike me as being on the same level as the two poems just cited, the basic technique appears to be the same: the insane speaker seeks approval from a just God, but God remains silent--thereby leaving the speaker trapped by his inability to interpret his own actions properly. The speakers have no internal moral controls, as it were: they need external justification in order to make sense out of their place in the world.

In any event, dramatic irony doesn't necessarily ask the reader to suspend moral judgment; rather, it calls attention to the speaker's own fatal blindness.

Or, of course, I could just be over-reading.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:34 PM on July 22, 2002

Perhaps I've just spent too much time teaching Robert Browning, but my instant response to this song was "dramatic irony." In fact, the ending reads very much like the conclusion to Browning's "Porphyria's Lover," in which the very insane speaker, who has strangled his beloved Porphyria with her own hair, meditates on his situation...

Reason number one million and one of "Why I love MetaFilter." This place rox.
posted by ColdChef at 4:56 PM on July 22, 2002

Been a big fan of Earle for years. I stuck by him even during the crack-addled songs of his last studio albums before prison. Not having heard this song yet (inflection solves a lot of the ambiguity of the written word) I'm not sure what Steve Earle's position is, but I can hazard a guess that it's not something a lot of people would like. He strikes me as cut from the same cloth as Patty Smith who at her Memorial day concert dedicated a song to Lindh and ticked off a lot of people who brought their children out (free concert in the park). But fun thread so far. As coldchef said this place rox!
posted by rodz at 5:31 PM on July 22, 2002

So does this mean the Steve Earl is the real Slim Shady?
posted by jedro at 2:07 AM on July 23, 2002

There was an article in today's (23 July) Washington Post about the reaction in Nashville to the song. Apparently he is being compared to Hanoi Jane by Steve Gill -- who coincidentally previously defended Earle in a case where Earle got into a "scuffle with police." Gill is calling for a boycott of the radio stations that play the song or stores that sell the LP. I think Earle's own words say everything that needs to be said:
"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. I don't condone what he did. Still, he's a 20-year-old kid. 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 culture here didn't impress him, so he went out looking for something to believe in."
I worry about the future of free speech.
posted by terrapin at 10:18 AM on July 23, 2002

Here is the original NY Post story that Fox News ran along with a byline. Anyone able to find an email address for the author Aly Sujo. I have a few words for him/her on the quality of his/her journalistic efforts. I am a Steve Earle fan, but this is a hack job no matter how you look at it.
posted by tdstone at 12:03 PM on July 23, 2002

Source for the quote Terrapin?
posted by tdstone at 12:05 PM on July 23, 2002

Just poking my head in long enough to say that my brother was married to Steve's sister for a short while back in the 70's and he says that even then Steve was not quite on the same page as everyone else.
*knows this doesn't really add to the conversation, but it is my one rare opportunity to be closer than 6 degrees of someone, and just my luck it's him*
posted by thatothrgirl at 5:27 PM on July 23, 2002

Don't just poke your head in. Stay a while. The water is nice (when no one pees in the pool).
posted by ColdChef at 8:38 PM on July 23, 2002

Source for the quote Terrapin?

yeah. The article to which I linked ;)
posted by terrapin at 9:51 AM on July 24, 2002

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