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September 27, 2002
A Different Kind of Patriotism

John Ashcroft is unlikely to perform a duet with this man.
There have been two distinct phases of Steve Earle’s career. The first was a stint spent saving country music, rocking the Nashville establishment even while he descended into serious drug addiction. The second, following a sobering stay in prison, was a lot more ambitious.

Earle, no longer content with tilting at country music’s impervious windmills, set his sights on the world around him, infusing his music with heaping doses of mythic Americana and activism. In 2000, Earle taught a course at Chicago’s venerable Old Town School of Folk Music, beginning with Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, continuing through Bob Dylan and then landing on Bruce Springsteen, noting how each one successively informed the next. Earle concluded, of course, with his own work, a conflation of all of those formative influences. He’s a protest singer and an anthem writer, all wrapped up in one.

Earle’s political views lean toward the humanist, including such causes as the land mine abolition movement and the fight to nullify the death penalty. Through his words, action and music, Earle seems to be working hard to clean out some of the darker corners of our culture, especially the barbaric remnants of past wars and failed policies that lead only to more death and intolerance. Earle’s issues typically aren’t contemporary so much as they’re perpetually timely. His moral stance stresses the sanctity of the freedoms laid out in the Constitution, while at the same time acknowledging that changing mores sometimes necessitate varying, malleable viewpoints.

That’s the gist of “Amerika v. 6.0,” the second song from Earle’s deeply cynical new album Jerusalem, the most contemporary and specific release of Earle’s career, and certainly the most contemporary and specific of the surprisingly scant responses to 9/11 yet released. The song acknowledges some of America’s past and present wrongs via the perspective of someone regretful but unwilling to ensure that our country doesn’t do wrong again: “Everybody’s gotta die sometime, and we can’t save everyone, that’s the best that we can do,” he mutters with mock compassion that barely clouds lazy defeatism.

While other Jerusalem songs address the state of the prison system (“The Truth”) or even that time-honored weapon of mass destruction, heartbreak (“The Kind”), for much of the disc Earle rails against the complacency of America’s citizens and criticizes those who exploit patriotism to stifle debate. But that’s not to say Earle necessarily believes one can’t trust the government or should fear patriotism. Rather, Earle acknowledges the value if not the validity of different points of view.

Earle’s not picking sides, either, let alone picking a fight: Others have already done that. His is just another argument in the sea of arguments that eventually evolve into a coherent movement or even add up to cogent public policy. America is a melting pot, yes, but that doesn’t mean the ingredients have completely gelled, and Earle is irked by critics and politicians who don’t understand that the variety of opinion floating around this country is just the thing that sets us apart from the repressive and restrictive enemies we face. (Try publicly dissenting from the Saudi line and see what happens.)

Earle’s didactic critics don’t—or can’t—see things this way. They can’t see how someone could be proudly patriotic yet still appear objective and even-handed when approaching an ambiguous subject like John Walker Lindh, the privileged Marin County youth and former hip-hop fan who headed to Afghanistan and took up arms against the United States in the name of jihad.

Lindh is, of course, the focus of Jerusalem’s most controversial and most bandied about track, “John Walker’s Blues,” controversial not just because of its content, but also because Earle, in a moment of ill-thought self-importance, half-boasted on stage that the song might get him deported. Earle shouldn’t turn in his passport and start packing his bags just yet. In the song, sung from Lindh’s point of view, Earle doesn’t criticize the United States so much as he acknowledges the confusion of the modern age we all find ourselves suddenly, perhaps belatedly, living in. This is a time when cultures collide on such a regular basis that a young person like Lindh, faced with so many conflicts and mixed messages, might not know where he belongs. In the song Lindh rejects his upbringing, converts to Islam and heads off to wage war, but his head is still filled with remnants of American culture. “If I should die, I’ll rise up to the sky, just like Jesus,” sings Earle as Lindh, stressing Lindh’s religious confliction as much as his conviction.

Several defenders of Earle have compared his first-person tale to Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” where Cash’s protagonist shoots a man in Reno “just to watch him die.” Earle’s version of Lindh is nowhere that sure of himself or what he wants. He’s just a confused kid, and through his fictional version of the young defector, Earle notes some of the confusion many of us still feel. Is it possible to be for our country and against war? Or against our country and for war?

Jerusalem’s title track addresses the propulsion of the Middle East conflict to the top of the world’s “to do” list. “Jerusalem” is a song literally about breaking boundaries, envisioning a future Middle East that has no need for walls. “I believe there’ll come a day when the lion and the lamb will lie down in peace together in Jerusalem,” Earle sings with a neutrality almost unheard of these days. “And there’ll be no barricades then … and we can wash all this blood from our hands, and all this hatred from our souls.”

If “John Walker’s Blues” gives the listener a glimpse inside the mind of one of this war’s most curious others, “Jerusalem” takes a collective view of this ongoing conflict we find ourselves thrust in. The song hints at what any conflict can become if we don’t find ways to share ideas and beliefs in addition to resources and land. Earle sees a light at the end of the tunnel in his narrative, but the track’s sense of optimism is tacked onto an implied warning that things can always get worse.

Yet Earle, through his often intentionally confrontational songs, seems to understand first and foremost that staid silence is not an option. Speak up for something, speak out against something, but most important of all, he tacitly implores, speak: Silence is the enemy of us all. As Earle sings in “The Truth,” “For every wall you build around your fear, a thousand darker things are born in here.”


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