Norman Blake Takes on the Neo-Cons

Fabled Guitarist Goes Beyond His Usual "Gentle" Protests

Norman Blake admits that some of his musical protests have been so “gentle” that they passed right over the heads of his listeners. That certainly can’t be said of his latest political outcry, his resolutely unambiguous “Don’t Be Afraid of the Neo-Cons.”

In the song (recorded with his wife Nancy), the Grammy-winning guitarist scorns virtually every aspect of the George W. Bush administration — from the disputed Florida election of 2000 to the continuing Hurricane Katrina debacle. His refrain is: “Don’t send your money to Washington/To fight a war that’s never done/Don’t play their games, don’t be their pawns/And don’t be afraid of the neo-cons.”

Blake was so impassioned about the song he wrote about neo-conservatism that he prevailed on his label, Dualtone Records, not only to issue it as a single but also to add it to later editions of the Blakes’ current album, Back Home in Sulphur Springs, which came out late last year.

“It’s just an overall view of things from what I see going on,” Blake tells from his home in rural Georgia. “It’s my personal feelings and my wife’s personal feelings.”

Despite the wealth of headline allusions in the song, Blake only reluctantly owns up to being a news junkie.

“I’m not as avid as some folks, by any means,” he ventures. “I don’t watch it all the time. Sometimes I can’t stand to watch it at all. … I can’t believe some of the things that I see going on in this world. We live in this world, and when you live a sheltered life — or are fortunate enough to do that — and you see what’s going on with some folks [you think], ’There but for the grace of God go I.'”

Blake says he and his wife, who tour sparingly, first performed “Don’t Be Afraid” in October at a concert in St. Louis. “It got a very pro reaction, I thought,” he says. Dualtone recently serviced the single to Americana radio stations.

Kate Borger, a programmer at radio station WYEP in Pittsburgh, has been playing the song on her show, The Roots and Rhythm Mix. Responses from listeners have been generally positive, she reports. But she says there have been complaints as well.

“I will continue to play this song,” Borger asserts, “although, each time the phone rings, I will have a moment of fear before I answer. I know someone will eventually say, ’I will never listen to your show again!'”

Ears sensitively attuned to political overtones will detect another of Blake’s “gentle” protests on the new album in his recording of the traditional lament, “He’s Coming to Us Dead.” The song depicts a grief-stricken father waiting for a train to arrive with the body of his son who’s been killed in the Civil War. Might that have a modern parallel? “Oh, I suppose the consciousness is there,” Blake allows. “Yeah, it’s what’s going on today. It seems relevant.”

A verse in “Neo-Cons” is devoted to war-protester Cindy Sheehan, whose son, Casey, was killed in Iraq “for a noble cause he heard Bush say.”

Blake, who won a Grammy for his participation in the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack album, is an Army veteran. Drafted into service, he was stationed in the Panama Canal Zone during the early 1960s. As a studio musician in Nashville, Blake worked extensively with Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, John Hartford, Joan Baez and others.

Although Blake says he refused the call to re-enlist in the Army for a tour in Vietnam, most of his musical protests have been against the loss of America’s rural heritage.

“I have [also] written lines about nuclear power a time or so,” he adds. “Jimmy, James and John” — a song Blake has never recorded but which appears in a printed anthology of his works — rails against what he sees as America’s historic lust for blood and warns that “the same ones that nailed Jesus Christ to the cross/Will hang you there today.”

Even as he raises the specter of “the erosion of our civil liberties,” Blake acknowledges that “Neo-Cons” is simply “the gospel according to us.” Still, to make sure his point is unequivocal, he adds, “We just do not consider war or violence an option. We think war is stupid. We think war is kid stuff, that it’s a game kids will hopefully grow out of [instead of] imitating their elders.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to