Musician Steve Earle drums up controversy
By The Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. A new tune about John Walker Lindh by Nashville singer-songwriter Steve Earle has kicked up a fight between critics who feel he's unpatriotic and defenders who consider him provocative.
The song, "John Walker's Blues," is not due for release until September. Sung from Lindh's perspective, it describes him as "an American boy raised on MTV" who sought out another culture because he felt alienated from his native country.
"If my daddy could see me now chains around my feet/He don't understand that sometimes a man/Has to fight for what he believes," Earle sings.
Lindh, a 21-year-old Californian captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, pleaded guilty this month to fighting alongside the Taliban militia. In return, prosecutors dropped the most serious charges against him, saving him from a possible death sentence. He is expected to be sentenced to 20 years in prison in October.
In a July 21 story, the New York Post charged that the song glorifies Lindh. Nashville radio personality Steve Gill said on CNN yesterday that Earle was trying "to be outrageous to attract attention."
"We're within a one-year period of the attacks on America, and I think it's too early for a song like this," Gill said. "He is free to put this song out there, and the American people are free to say 'No thank you' when it comes to buying it."
"John Walker's Blues" represents a change in the popular music world in how it responds to the war on terrorism. Until now, most offerings have been stirring calls to arms "Freedom" by Paul McCartney, "Letís Roll" by Neil Young, "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)" by Toby Keith with Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" a doleful, reflective alternative.
Bruce Springsteen's upcoming album, The Rising, is suffused with stories about the aftermath of Sept. 11. Yet it also contains a song, "Paradise," written in part from a suicide bomber's perspective.
"What Earle is doing is what good songwriters and in fact, good poets have been doing for a hundred years, which is trying to get inside and understand the motivations of people who may not be particularly popular right now," said Charles Wolfe, a popular-music scholar at Middle Tennessee State University.
He compared the approach to Bob Dylan's song about the boxer convicted of murder, Hurricane Carter, and Woody Guthrie's songs about the gangster Pretty Boy Floyd. Country singer Johnny Cash, most recently with the chilling song "Delia's Gone," has written songs from a murderer's perspective.
"There's nothing all that unique about Earle's song, except that emotions about the Taliban are very strong right now," Wolfe said.
Earle, 47, has had a checkered career since achieving fame in the 1980s with hits like "Guitar Town" and "Copperhead Road." Critically lauded as a tremendous songwriter and performer, his commercial career has been stalled by drug addiction and political outspokenness, in recent years mostly about his opposition to the death penalty.
Earle was vacationing in Ireland yesterday and unavailable for comment.
In publicity materials to promote the September release of the album Jerusalem, he discusses his motivation for "John Walker's Blues," mentioning he has a son who is a young adult.
"I'm trying to make clear that wherever he (Lindh) got to, he didn't arrive there in a vacuum," Earle said. "I don't condone what he did ... . 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. But there are circumstances. ... 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."
Danny Goldberg, chairman of Earle's record label Artemis Records, cited songs by Cash ("Folsom Prison Blues"), Lloyd Price ("Stagger Lee") and Springsteen ("Nebraska") as examples of great art about controversial topics or people.
"It would be a pretty shallow culture if songwriters only wrote about nice people," he said.
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