Storm Over "John Walker's Blues"

by C.J.

Revolutionary Worker #1162, August 11, 2002, posted at

When Newsweek published that full-color photo from Afghanistan of John Walker Lindh duct-taped nude to a board, it went right off my Richter scale. The accompanying story reassured the public that CIA operatives were on the scene and supervising the "questioning" of the "American Taliban." My extreme response was clearly out of line since all alert Americans had already been drilled on the necessity and moral viability of torture for extracting info in our post-9/11 democracy--and by no less an expert than liberal civil rights attorney Alan Dershowitz (needles under fingertips, okay if you use antiseptic).

While taking in this shocking image, I had to wonder, how did large sections of the populace get here --accepting or even embracing a form of state barbarism which could not be more viciously repellant. At the same time, I was wondering what would lead a 20-year-old kid from northern California to become a foot soldier for this particular brand of twisted, oppressive fundamentalism. The press was no help. The airwaves were flooded with crude bios of Lindh and his family, along with "profiles" of pampered, pot-growing Marin County--an obvious breeding ground for American "terrorists" and other malcontents.

Then a couple weeks ago, I hear about a new song by Steve Earle. "John Walker's Blues" traverses this complex terrain from a different point of view, and with the thoughtfulness that Earle's audiences have come to expect from him. He wrote the song as the newspapers clamored for Walker to be strung up for treason--no questions asked. For Earle the issue was more complicated than that.

Steve Earle: "I'm happy with the way the song came out, but I'm nervous, not for myself, but I have taken some serious liberties with Walker, speaking as him, in his voice. I'm trying to make clear that wherever he (Lindh) 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. But there are circumstances..."

Basically "John Walker's Blues" is an expression of defiance against the "good vs. evil," " our fundamentalism vs. their fundamentalism," mentality polluting the country. Told in Lindh's voice, it is a hard, painful, and truly made-in-the-USA story:

I'm just an American boy--raised on MTV/
And I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads/
But none of 'em looked 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...

If my daddy could see me now--chains around my feet/
He don't understand that sometimes a man/
Just has to fight for what he believes/
And I believe God is great/
All praise due to him/
And if I should die I'll rise up to the sky/
Just like Jesus, peace be upon him

A shadu la ilaha illa Allah/
There is no God but God

We came to fight the Jihad/
And our hearts were pure and strong/
As death filled the air we all offered up prayers/
And prepared for our martyrdom/
But Allah had some other plan/
Some secret not revealed/
Now they're draggin' me back with my head in a sack/
To the land of the infidel.

This is a deep rich blues. As it closes, the tune eerily slides into a recitation of Sura 47, Verse 19 of the Qur'an with a remarkably similar cadence and timbre. And the juxtaposition of Walker's story told in blues to this Islamic prayer asks the listener to consider the similarities between cultures and, at the same time, raises some questions about the power of fundamentalist religious faith to lure people onto a bad path.

There is a sadness in the song, and great irony. This kid went on a really whack trip; he thought he was doing something righteous and it all went awry: "Allah had some other plan, some secret not revealed." Is Earle hinting at the fact that Lindh was used--before and after his capture--by some very worldly powers with hidden and colliding agendas? And how many people does that happen to? For that matter, how many American youth have been sent to fight and die for god and country? And how many are currently being psyched up to wage wars in the interest of the empire on false pretenses?


Not surprisingly, the reason "John Walker's Blues" has come to public attention eight weeks before its September release is because some rampaging DJ's and other reactionary public opinion makers want to make sure you never actually hear the song. A talk-show host from Earle's hometown of Nashville, Steve Gill, led the charge last week: "This puts [Earle] in the same category as Jane Fonda and John Walker and all those people who hate America." Immediately, the New York Post tabloid and web pages were shrieking, "Twisted Ballad Honors Tali-Rat" and reporting that "Music-industry heavyweights are already expressing outrage over the controversial song, and many predict it will be banned from the majority of radio playlists when it is released in late September." Gill suggested that "consumers" also boycott all stores selling the record: "I'm not calling for burning CDs, but people can vote with their wallets as a counter-expression to the free expression Steve's expressed in his song." (And who knows, by the time the CD comes out in September, bonfires may be in order.)

Completely distorting the lyrics as well as Earle's intent, these self-assigned music critics tell us that Lindh "is glorified and called Jesus-like" in the song. Just for the record, "John Walker's Blues" uses the time-honored artistic technique of story-telling--putting the listener in the shoes of this young man and exploring the road he travelled down to get to a place where "fighting the Jihad" seemed to be the best option. This is not Steve Earle's road, and it's a terrible road for humanity, but the last time I checked, narratives in the first-person were still legal, not to mention effective for getting inside a contradiction.

It's part of the blues tradition--songs about people getting caught up in some really negative shit. And as Danny Goldberg, the CEO of Artemis, Earle's record company, remarked, "It would be a pretty shallow culture if songwriters only wrote about nice people. From the classic songs "The Ballad of Jesse James" to Lloyd Price's "Stagger Lee," Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" to Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska," and to Steve's own "Jonathan's Song," songwriters have explored the humanity of murderers and other evil-doers as part of the way they view the world."

What's noteworthy here is that it's now been deemed impermissable for a song to even raise questions about why an American boy would be attracted to the Taliban. Maybe the screamers have good reason not to want to open the fundamentalist can of worms. After all, Lindh was just a teenager when he took up extreme Islam, whereas the current head the U.S. Justice Department who presided over Walker's vilification is a full-grown adult who covers up naked statues and thinks dancing is the work of devil--not to mention his more secular campaigns to enforce indefinite detention without trial and establish a nation of snoops. And then there is the uncomfortable fact that the U.S. government had for years built up the Islamic fundamentalist forces in Afghanistan. And just last year, they were sending $40 million to the Taliban regime in an attempt to shore up U.S. interests in the region--until the game plan changed and plans were on Bush's desk to invade Afghanistan before the events in New York on September 11 ever took place.

In any case, the world is a complicated place, and for revolutionary people around the world, the increased popularity of a fundamentalist Islam that promotes unexamined obedience and a cruel and extreme male domination poses urgent questions. Why are so many among the oppressed attracted to it and even see it as oppositional to western imperialism? This is a serious problem the conscious people of the planet will have to deal with; and posing revolutionary solutions also requires learning more about what is giving rise to this trend -- and why are people reacting to the dog-eat-dog of western culture with fundamentalist solutions.


Steve Earle embraces a view of the promise of American democracy which I don't share, but to his credit, he is bravely unrepentant about this track and the whole CD, Jerusalem, which hits other provocative notes on its highly contemporary journey. In a statement dated July 4, 2002, which appears as the liner notes of the advance pressing of the CD, Earle declares, "Lately, I feel like the loneliest man in America. Frankly, I've never worn red, white, and blue that well. I grew up during the Vietnam War and whenever I see a flag decal I subconsciously superimpose the caption: America--love it or leave it across the bottom stripe. Back then, as now, it was suggested by some that second-guessing our leaders in a time of crisis was unpatriotic if not downright treasonous.... In spite of our worst intentions and ignorance of our own history, our Constitution has, thus far, proven resilient enough to withstand anything that we throw at it, including ourselves.... It was framed by men whose names we are taught to remember by rote: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Patrick Henry, Aaron Burr.... In times like these, it is also important to remember the names of John Reed, Emma Goldman, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King...those who defended those same principles by insisting on asking the hardest questions in our darkest hours."

The distress occasioned by "John Walker's Blues" seems related to the fact that, as an AP reporter remarks, "It 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." He mentions Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)" and "Freedom" by Paul McCartney (another ugly U.S.-uber-alles track which was blasted from the stage of Madison Square Garden last September but only sold about 20,000 copies).

In fact, there are more than a few artists out there these days who are not following the script when pondering such questions as "why does everyone hate America." Earle is particularly irksome to the culture cops because he's not confined to the margins and has a large and devoted audience. Since the '80s, he has stood out as a brilliant, left-leaning country-rock singer/ songwriter; last year, he received his eighth Grammy nomination for "Transcendental Blues." He currently has a role in the HBO series The Wire, and his short story collection, Doghouse Roses , published last year by Harper Row, has gotten serious and good reviews.

In the mid-'90s after a four-month stint in jail during which he beat a drug habit, Earle emerged to tell stories from inside, and later became a tireless fighter against the death penalty. His "Ellis Unit One," another first-person narrative, this time from a CO working on a Texas death row, is a moving tale about the circumstances that put the character in that situation, and the impossibility of living with oneself while participating in death row executions. Earle has appeared at many concerts and events against the death penalty, including a couple performances of The Exonerated , a play based on interviews with people on death row who were later found innocent. He has also written his own play, Karla , about Karla Faye Tucker (the first woman executed in Texas since 1863), which opens this fall at Broad Axe, a theater he helped found in Nashville. Steve Earle is a busy committed artist.

Interestingly, the making of Jerusalem also involved the early support of a forward-looking record company executive. Earle: "One morning Danny Goldberg, who owns [Artemis], calls me up and says my next album should be overtly political. This was a change. I've always gotten phone calls from record companies saying exactly the opposite, like keep a lid on that shit. Danny thought there are some things that needed to be said, especially now, in the world after 9/11. So I told him, `Well, yeah, man, I can do that.'"

(Goldberg, a longtime civil liberties defender, will have another controversial release in September 2002; he co-edited a collection of essays exposing the repressive measures taken by the US government since 9/11.)


I noticed at the end of the AP article that they had helpfully polled their online readers as to whether "Steve Earle's controversial song about John Walker Lindh should be banned in North America." Out of 5,697 votes, 7% said Yes; 62% said No; 8% needed to know more; and 23% said Who Cares. I thought the results were kind of encouraging. They couldn't get even 10% of this skewed grouping to call for open censorship.

The controversy around this song has extra import for the people because the terms the authorities and their compliant media are attempting to set with this whole John Walker Lindh episode are very, very sinister. Recently, under threat of a death sentence, Lindh accepted a terrible plea bargain, pleading guilty to two charges: "providing services" to an organization designated as "terrorist" by the U.S. government, and carrying explosives, for which he received two maximum 10-year sentences to be served consecutively. Thus, the government successfully made their example and avoided a trial which they emphatically did not want, since even most bourgeois observors agree they had little hard evidence against Lindh aside from his own vividly coerced testimony.

But then along comes Steve Earle, suggesting in the special engaging way a good song can do, that people take another look at Lindh and the world that made him. Apparently, even a 3:41-minute track can be a dangerous proposition in a land where adherence to government edicts and official opinion is becoming mandatory. So let the music play on.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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