Country singer writes 'scandalous' ballad on John Walker Lindh

Smith, Gerard gsmith at clark.edu
Mon Jul 22 14:23:30 MDT 2002


Rather than being "knee-jerk" in response, calling Earle supportive of the
Taliban, the New York Post should have at least practiced a bit of formalist
criticism.


"John Walker's Blues," by Steve Earle
I'm just an American boy raised on MTV.
And I've seen all the kids on the soda pop bands,
But none of them look like me,

Nothing here is supportive of Walker or Taliban methods or beliefs, rather
the lyrics comment on the vacuous nature of popular American culture ala
MTV: sex, drugs and rock & roll. While there's nothing wrong with sex, drugs
and rock & roll per se, those who have access to the "fame" and "succes"
depicted in the music videos (in contrast to the speaker) are perfectly
sculpted models or gold bedegged hipsters: the speaker feels alientated by
this depiction of happiness in America.

So I started looking round and I heard the word of God.

The speaker, here, simply follows the evangelical teachings of most
Christian conservatives in response to "sex, drugs and rock & roll."  Lost
in the vacuousness of American culture, the teenage American flounders
without moral or ethical direction. MTV provides precious little moral
lessons according to such moral heavywieghts as Tipper Gore. So far the
speaker in this poem is following the moral majority's advice: turn away
from your satanic rock & roll life style and find the word of God.

And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word of
Allah, Peace be upon him....

The speaker in the poem is still on the righteous path as defined by
religious evangelicals. Since Allah means God, the speaker, so far, is very
similar to any born again Christian, Jew or Muslim.  Moreover, who can argue
with a God who preaches Peace?

We came to fight the jihad, our hearts were pure and strong,
We filled the air with our prayers and we prayed for our martyrdom.

The controversy in interpretation begins with this heoric couplet with its
"off rhyme."  However, nothing new is being expressed here: holy wars have
been fought for thousands of years. Even in America, Mormans were persecuted
by other Christians, Christians burned people at the stake for heresy,
Native Americans were denied their religious freedom. Jews, Christians and
Muslims have been fighting over the "Holy Lands" for centuries. Nothing new
is being expressed by the speaker: becoming a martyr for one's religion is a
direct result of religious persecution and/or religious conflict over
territory.

Allah has some other plans, a secret not revealed
Now they're dragging me back with my head in the sack to the land of the
infidel
If I should die, I'll rise up to the sky like Jesus.

The speaker, having been captured by his enemy, still has faith in his god.
The use of the term "infidel" in this context is a bit cliche'. Calling the
religious enemy an "infidel," a "heathen,"  "a Great Satan" or even the
"Axis of Evil" has become a "dead metaphor."  However, the meaning for the
speaker is clear: he has a strong belief in the dead metaphor; he has even
expressed hopes that he will die at the hands of the infidel, thus escaping
death: "rise up to the sky like Jesus."  His reward for faith in God will be
the promise made in Revelations: The Rapture.

"John Walker's Blues" is a classic example of the blue's personae poem: the
poet takes on the personae of a historical character in order to explore the
character's motives.  Often the poet does not support the character's
motives, but wishes to explore the social/cultural/personal complexities of
the speaker. Other examples include the following titles: "Tom Dooley," "The
Ballad of Lizzy Bourdon," "The Ballad of Jesse James" and "Helter Skelter."


Yours in criticism,

Gerard



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