Socialist Worker

Steve Earle: the darkest hour is just before dawn

by Martin Smith
Issue No. 1826

'I'm just an American boy, raised on MTV
and I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads
but none of them look like me
so I started lookin' around for a light out of the dim
and the first thing I heard that made sense was the word
of Mohammed, peace be upon him.'

These are lines from 'John Walker's Blues', a song about the real case of a young blue-eyed American boy who joined the Taliban. It is probably the most poignant song on Steve Earle's latest album, Jerusalem. It attempts to explain why a young American would want to join the Taliban – the chorus refrain will gnaw away at your brain.

I'm not a great fan of rock or country music, but I cannot recommend this album highly enough. It is not as musically challenging as some of Steve Earle's previous albums, especially The Mountain, the bluegrass album recorded with the Del McCoury Band. But it is a haunting and poetic album, steeped in the musical traditions of blue collar America. It is the blues of the 21st century.

In songs like 'Conspiracy Theory' and 'Ashes to Ashes' Steve Earle sings of a society scarred by the Vietnam War and the nightmare of US imperialism. You won't be surprised to learn that Jerusalem has sent the warmongers into a frenzy. Radio stations have removed it from their playlists, and some redneck country & western stations have even burned it. So much for freedom of speech and the land of the free!

Steve Earle says in his sleeve notes, 'Lately I feel like the loneliest man in America.' And in places the album feels like that. I'm sure the recent election results in the US Senate will leave Steve Earle feeling even more desolate.

Bush sees them as a green light to wage war on Iraq. And Blair will mistakenly believe war will increase his electoral credibility. But opposition to war is growing in the heart of the beast. Only last month 200,000 people marched in Washington. Every day a growing band of artists, actors and musicians speak out against the madness. Steve Earle comes in a long line of US musicians who have created music that challenges the status quo.

Who remembers the name of any concert hall singer who defended Hitler? Nobody. But despite massive vilification Paul Robeson and Woody Guthrie are known throughout the world for their artistic contribution and the fight against fascism.

Who remembers the name of any band that supported the segregation of blacks in Southern US states in the early 1960s? And make no mistake, they did exist. Again, nobody. One thing is for sure. The music created by the young Bob Dylan and the jazz musician Archie Shepp will demonstrate for generations the fight against racism and the spirit of humanity.

The only heroes any of us remember are those who challenge the status quo. Steve Earle should no longer feel alone. He is in the company of musicians who have defended the principles of peace and socialism by insisting on asking the hardest questions in the darkest hours.

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Sat 16 Nov 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1826
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