Joe Bob's America: Steve Earle's Blues

By JOE BOB BRIGGS  |  Aug. 1, 2002 at 1:53 PM
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NEW YORK, Aug. 1 (UPI) -- Have you ever noticed that the people who loudly and self-righteously declare that they will NEVER buy a certain product, that hell will freeze over before they put a nickel into the pocket of this guy, that all great Americans should boycott and make their opinions known ... are always people who never would have bought the product in the first place?

If you didn't buy one of Steve Earle's last six albums, it's unlikely you would consider buying "Jerusalem" (which will be released on Sept. 24) and then suddenly decide, "Oh, is that the one with that 'John Walker's Blues' song on it? FORGET IT, STEVE!"

And yet, these people who trudge up to the Dull-Witted Citizen's Microphone on CNN all say the same thing: "He may have the right to sing that song under the First Amendment" -- note the "may have," as if they're not so sure about that -- "but we also have the right to REFUSE TO BUY IT!"

Do they have an "applause" sign at CNN, or does blather like that really get spontaneous applause? Could they at least put up a crawl line that runs across the bottom of the screen?

"Dexter Williams, Dull-Witted Cliche-Ridden Guest Being Treated As Though He Has Something To Contribute."

First of all, Steve Earle is a proud redneck Texas honky-tonk hippie, in the tradition of Willie Nelson, with a four-year washout in the early 1990s when he became a junkie (these guys do tend to self-destruct) and a weak spot for convicts long before John Walker Lindh came along.

Is it all THAT surprising that Steve Earle would see John Walker Lindh as an underdog? It's not like Garth Brooks wrote an anthem called "Taliban Forever."

This is the same Steve Earle who wrote that song that was used in "Dead Man Walking," about Jesus being unable to save the lethal injectees on the Texas death row. (CNN alert: He's not a prison guard in real life!) And what other artist has released an album in the NINETIES that has the word "Transcendental" in the title? He records covers of BOB DYLAN songs, for God's sake. He just might have a different take on things than, say, George Strait.

At any rate, this is the sorriest-looking musical lynch mob since the one that lined up for Ice-T when he released "Cop Killer." It reminds me a little bit of the howling dogs who feasted on the corpse of Andrew "Dice" Clay -- another man who was brought down by people who would never go to one of his shows.

And in both cases the issue was the same:

"He can't say that."

"He shouldn't say that."

"Anybody who says that is an America-hater."

Lemme explain something here. Just because a song is written in the first person doesn't mean THE ARTIST IS THAT PERSON. In fact, 99 percent of the time he's likely to NOT be that person. If it were any other way, we'd have to exhume the body of Robert Browning and test his DNA for Multiple Personality Disorder.

Randy Newman doesn't REALLY wanna kill short people.

I hope Johnny Cash didn't shoot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.

Clint Eastwood didn't really kill anybody the year he won the Oscar for "Unforgiven" -- a movie about a cop killer, released the same year "Cop Killer" came out.

And Steve Earle didn't run off to Vancouver to escape the draft when he wrote "My Uncle." Steve Earle was never even drafted. It's called artistic license. If you're sitting in the CNN studio audience, it's called, "He was just PURTENDIN' to be that guy!"

I suppose I need to quote the lyrics to "John Walker's Blues," just to be upfront about this, but lyrics without music always sound bland, if not downright trite, and Steve Earle's lyrics are especially simple until you put that whiskey-voiced growl with 'em. Anyway, here's what the song says:


Just an American boy

Raised on MTV,

And I've all them kids

In the soda pop ads--

None of 'em look like me.

So I started lookin' round

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.


Ash hadu alla

Ilaaha illallah,

There is no God but God.


If my daddy could see me now,

Chains around my feet,

He don't understand

Sometimes a man

Has got to fight for what he believes.

And I believe God is great,

All praise to him,

And if I should die

I'll rise up to the sky

Just like Jesus, peace be upon him.


Ash hadu alla

Ilaaha illallah,

There is no God but God


We came to fight the Jihad,

We all offered up prayers,

Prepared for our martyrdom--

But Allah has 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.


Ash hadu alla

Ilaaha illallah,

There is no God but God.

OK, four points here. One, has anyone ever considered that John Walker Lindh just happens to be a GREAT STORY? I mean, why else would we care about it so much? From Marin County to Mazar-i-Sharif inside of a year -- that's dramatic material. So the main thing we've got here is a story song, just like half of Steve Earle's earlier work.

Next, it's probably no coincidence that Earle has a son the exact same age as John Walker Lindh. And at the two turning points in the song, the fictional "John Walker" expresses some confusion about just what it is he believes. He can't help invoking Jesus at the moment of his death, and he is disappointed to be cheated of martyrdom but figures he just misunderstood the plan.

Third, the constant refrain of Sura 47, Verse 19, of the Koran --"There is no God but God" -- is a universal belief shared by all three of the monotheistic religions. How could it be controversial?

Finally, there's this little thing called irony. They use it. In songs.

OK, back to your Atlanta studios.

(Joe Bob Briggs writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at or through his Web site at Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas 75221.)

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