An American Voice
In a scene from “Just an American Boy,” a 2003 documentary of singer-songwriter Steve Earle, Earle is picking the opening riffs to his “Christmas in Washington,” and talking to the audience. Earle tells the crowd that the song, from his 1997 album “El Corazn,” isn’t about Christmas, and isn’t about Washington. “It’s about heroes,” concludes Earle.The song references several of Earle’s heroes: Martin Luther King, Joe Hill and especially Woody Guthrie, the subject of the chorus. (“So come back Woody Guthrie, come back to us now.”) Introducing the song, Earle mentions several others he considers heroic: Abbie Hoffman, labor martyr Hill, former Illinois governor George Ryan. Also among the honor roll is Joan Baez. Earle considers Baez a hero because at Woodstock she sang the protest song “Joe Hill” for her husband Richard Farina, an imprisoned draft resister who, Earle notes, “was locked up for no other reason than he wouldn’t shut up and they couldn’t make him kill anybody.”Earle has a lot of respect for people who won’t shut up. Earle, who performs a solo show at the Wheeler Opera House tomorrow, Saturday, Jan., 17, holds a lot of causes close to his heart. A one-time convict for heroin possession, Earle is a vociferous opponent of the death penalty. He likewise opposes America’s current wars. He speaks out against the politics-as-usual reality that keeps the powerful in power and the rest out.But if there is a cause that ties all of Earle’s activism together, it is this: He abhors any restraints on the freedom of speech, his or anyone else’s. Earle’s heroes are the people, like Farina, who won’t shut up. On this subject, the frequently combative Earle himself won’t shut up.”It’s never, ever unpatriotic or un-American to question any fucking thing in a democracy, no matter what anybody else says what an insult it is,” Earle told an audience in a scene from “Just an American Boy,” written and directed by Amos Poe and released by Artemis Records, Earle’s record label. In another onstage scene from the film, Earle says, “I just wasn’t raised as an artist to believe that you censor yourself because of being afraid of offending someone.”Earle has put his words to the test. On his 2002 album “Jerusalem,” his first post-9/11 recording, Earle raised hackles all around with “John Walker’s Blues,” a song about the American-turned-Taliban John Walker Lindh that dared not to flat-out condemn the young man. Instead, Earle offered an empathetic portrait of someone who didn’t fit in with his surroundings, someone for whom the first thing “that made sense was the word of Mohammed.”The song put Earle briefly in headlines and on the news channels. One commentator compared Earle’s song to “writing a paean to Hitler”; another called it the worst song he’d ever heard. Earle hardly blinked at such criticism; in “Just an American Boy,” Earle is shown singing “John Walker’s Blues” on a San Francisco radio show.Such actions have earned Earle accusations of being anti-American. It is a charge he obviously disagrees with; witness the title of the documentary and the accompanying two-CD set of the same name. Earle will match his patriotic bona fides against anyone’s. His love of country, he insists, is grounded in the most fundamental place of all.”My patriotism is centered around the Constitution. That is the best part of us,” said Earle in the film. “When they start sifting through our ashes, we’ll be remembered for maybe rock n roll, maybe jazz, and our Constitution.”Another thread that runs through Earle’s activism is his opposition to the human thirst for retribution. It is seen in “John Walker’s Blues,” in which he stands up for a person who has outraged an entire country. It is expressed even more directly in his militant stance against the death penalty, a cause to which he frequently lends his voice. Earle even crossed over into playwriting with “Karla,” about Karla Faye Tucker, Texas’ first female death-row inmate since the Civil War era.”Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song),” from Earle’s 2000 album “Transcendental Blues,” echoes “John Walker’s Blues” in its sympathetic, first-person portrayal of someone who has done wrong. “The sun’ll rise up in the East/Shinin’ down on all of them that hate me/I hope my goin’ brings ’em peace,” concludes the song’s condemned man.In “Just an American Boy,” the camera follows Earle into San Francisco’s famed City Lights Bookstore, a hotbed of the Beat movement. There, Earle picks up a copy of Truman Copote’s “In Cold Blood,” the true-life story of a murderous rampage in America’s heartland. Earle notes that the execution scene from the film version of the book was the beginning of his anti-death penalty activism: “I had bad dreams about that for years,” he says. But Earle’s opposition to state-sponsored killing is based on more than his early emotional reaction to “In Cold Blood.” “My government is supposed to be me, and I object to me killing people,” he says in the film. Earle also objects to the unfairness in the actual use of the death penalty, and the uncertainty of the whole endeavor. In “Billy Austin,” Earle sings of those on death row, “We’re mostly black or brown, we’re all poor/Most of us are guilty but who are you to say for sure?”A native of Schertz, Texas, near San Antonio, Earle was initially drawn to such rockers as the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. But his father wouldn’t allow him to have an electric guitar, so Earle focused on the acoustic guitar so he could emulate the singer-songwriters who abounded in his home state. When Earle met the late Texas musician Townes Van Zandt, he had found his mentor.Earle first made his name as a Townes-style country poet. “Guitar Town,” his 1986 classic, features such hard-as-dirt tunes as “Good Ol’ Boy (Gettin’ Tough)” and “Fearless Heart” and not a trace of the activist spirit that now defines him. A four-month jail stint in the early 90s and his subsequent involvement in the anti-death penalty movement awakened the activist in Earle. He made “Christmas in Washington,” his complaint about the lack of heroes in politics, the opening song on 1997’s “El Corazn.” The attacks of September 11 and the Bush administration’s reaction have fortified Earle as a political singer. “Jerusalem,” from 2002, begins with four pointed commentaries, including the Biblical “Ashes to Ashes” and “Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do),” a rant about everything from the ailing health-care system to rising xenophobia. On his Web site (www.steveearle.com), Earle says, “Jerusalem” “is a political record because there seems no other proper response to the place we’re at now.”Though Earle has staked out his territory as a commentator for the moment, there is more to him than gloom-and-doom politics. “Just an American Boy” illuminates Earle’s various sides: the film opens with Earle playing a chilly, electric version of “Ashes to Ashes” in a dark theater. Soon after, however, Earle is at a bluegrass festival in sunny Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, chatting with fellow pickers, joking about his childhood and performing Bill Monroe’s amiable “The Hometown Blues” with his bluegrass combo. Among Earle’s recent recordings is “The Mountain,” a reasonably lighthearted collaboration with the Del McCoury Band.At bottom, Earle seems more optimistic than some of his songs and statements indicate. “Jerusalem,” his heaviest album, closes with the title track, with its shockingly upbeat chorus, “I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham/Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem.”And the “Just an American Boy” CD set goes even further. The album concludes with a straight-faced version of Nick Lowe’s “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love & Understanding.” It’s enough to make one believe that Steve Earle has faith that things will work out in this twisted, vengeful world.
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