NASHVILLE SKYLINE: The Fightin’ Side of Me

“… at this very moment there are 100,000 fools of our species who wear hats, slaying 100,000 fellow creatures who wear turbans, or being massacred by them …”

  –Voltaire, “Micromegas,” 1752
“I’m just an American boy, raised on MTV, And I’ve seen all the kids in the soda pop bands, But none of them look like me. So I started looking round, and I heard the word of God. And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word of Allah, Peace be upon him.”
  –Steve Earle, “John Walker’s Blues,” 2002
“We’ll put a boot in your ass, ’cause it’s the American way.”
  –Toby Keith, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” 2002
“When you’re runnin’ down our country, man, you’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.”
  –Merle Haggard, “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” 1970
“This ain’t no rag it’s a flag and we don’t wear it on our heads. It’s a symbol of the land where the good guys live.”
  –Charlie Daniels, “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag,” 2001

In Voltaire’s prescient story “Micromegas,” written in 1752, Micromegas is a space traveler from Sirius to whom philosophers are attempting to explain what he sees on earth. Mainly, he sees tribes of people slaughtering each other over a symbol or an insult or over a patch of disputed ground. Such struggles have always been with mankind — and one suspects they will always be. They have often inspired story or song, and country music now and then weighs in with songs on such topics.

Country music has not lost its ability to inflame passions and spark controversy, I am glad to see. After a spate of patriotic and kick-ass songs inspired by 9/11, a topical song of another nature now shows up amid an accompanying furor. Alt-country rebel poet Steve Earle takes a look at another side of the coin with “John Walker’s Blues,” from his upcoming (Sept. 24) album release, Jerusalem.

“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. If I should die, I’ll rise up to the sky like Jesus.”
  –John Walker’s Blues”

Earle’s try at an empathetic look at the so-called “American Taliban,” John Walker Lindh, will likely be the most controversial song in an already controversial career. Lindh is an obviously addle-brained and clueless young man. Still, you know, even the most fuzzy-headed Marin County living-room liberal should know you don’t go off and fight for the enemy and then expect to come home to a roaring welcome.

Earle is, it’s plain to see, attempting to see the world — or at least Lindh’s world — through Lindh’s eyes. Without hearing the song, it’s hard to judge how successful Earle’s attempt is. Thus far, what people have heard about it is not attracting a great deal of sympathy for Earle or the song. Word about the song, still not released but performed at least once in public by Earle, has already caused much conservative teeth gnashing — amid cries of treason — and caused liberal apologists to rush forward to Earle’s defense. It would be greatly edifying, as well as entertaining, if we could convene a roundtable on the subject of patriotic and war songs, with the panelists to include Steve Earle, Charlie Daniels, Toby Keith and Merle Haggard. Unfortunately, it’s not likely to happen.

Earle, who has perhaps wisely made himself unavailable to the media, says on his Web site that he’s generally happy with how “John Walker’s Blues” turned out. His only worry, he reports, is that he’s nervous because he took “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.” Earle notes that “fundamentalism, as practiced by the Taliban, is the enemy of real thought, and religion too. But there are circumstances … the culture here didn’t impress him, so he went out looking for something to believe in.”

The album Jerusalem itself, says Earle, will be “a political record, because there seems no other proper response to the place we’re at now.” By that, he says he’s referring to the USA Patriot Act, signed last September by President Bush to increase government’s unfettered ability in detecting, monitoring and fighting domestic terrorism. Earle calls the 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 any patriot can see that has to be opposed.” So, we’re likely to hear a great deal more on the subject from Earle.

Earle has long been a lightning rod for controversy. His songs and activism in campaigning against the death penalty polarized many of his music fans, and “John Walker’s Blues” will only multiply that controversy. Still, long may he have the freedom to stir up such controversy. Socially aware songwriters — who aren’t afraid to speak out — are few and far between these days. It’s been a long time since Bob Dylan was kicked around for daring to wonder — in “With God on Our Side” — how both sides in a war could claim that God was on their side.

“The dispute concerns a lump of clay,” said the philosopher, “no bigger than your heel. Not that a single one of those millions of men who get their throats cut has the slightest interest in this clod of earth. The only point in question is whether it shall belong to a certain man who is called Sultan, or another who, I know not why, is called Caesar. Neither has seen, or is ever likely to see, the little corner of ground which is the bone of contention; and hardly one of those animals, who are cutting each other’s throats has ever seen the animal for whom they fight so desperately … it is not they who deserve punishment, but rather those armchair barbarians, who from the privacy of their cabinets, and during the process of digestion, command the massacre of a million men, and afterward ordain a solemn thanksgiving to God.”

  –Voltaire, “Micromegas”

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo)