“So come back Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow
If you run into Jesus
Maybe he can help us out
Come back Woody Guthrie to us now
So come back, Emma Goldman
Rise up, old Joe Hill
The barracades are goin' up
They cannot break our will
Come back to us, Malcolm X
And Martin Luther King
We're marching into Selma
As the bells of freedom ring”
Steve Earle, Christmas in Washington.
In a world where music could be easily classified into a small number of genres Steve Earle would be labeled a “country” artist. But in our musical landscape, country means Nashville, and Nashville means knee-jerk patriotism, nominal Christian religiosity, and utter vapidity.
Alt-country star Steve wrote the above song in 1996, on the night he held his nose and voted for Bill Clinton (Earle claims his politics are “slightly to the left of Mao”). I suspect that Earle, like many of us, now think of Clinton as “the good ‘ole days”.
But the point of this post is to argue that Steve’s prayer has been answered. A few months back, I was fortunate enough to see this guy in concert.
Ryan Bingham is most famous for his Academy award winning song “The Weary Kind”, which was the feature song in the film “Crazy Heart”. In fact, “The Weary Kind” is a major part of the story in Crazy Heart --- it’s the song Nashville wash-up Bad Blake comes up with as the ultimate, career reviving country song. Suffice it to say, Bingham will be joining Steve Earle and the Dixie Chicks on the official Nashville shit-list for committing the crime of actually having something to say.
When I saw Ryan play, it was after the 2010 mid-terms, but before “Scott Walker” became a household name – before the average American included “the war on the middle class” in their lexicon. But I knew the our country was going down-hill, and fast.
I didn’t know much about Ryan when I saw him. Just that he had a lot of buzz, and academy award winning song. I was blown away by this young guy --- young enough to be my son, biologically speaking anyway --- and his absolutely subversive lyrics. Here – in an audience full of white guys in flannel shirts – was the most radical music I’d heard in years. And not only was the music political in the abstract sense, but it spoke to issues that hit close to home for many of us.
The acoustics were shitty, but a few lines made it through to my ears.
“I’ve been workin’ in the goddam sun for a goddam dollar a day” (A song about modern-day bootlegging, growing “a marijuana money tree”)
”Man came to shake my hand, and rob me of my farm. I shot him dead and I hung my head, and drove off in his car” (At least he didn’t shoot a man in Reno, just to see him die).
There’s no time for propaganda, or media filled with hate, no time for scripted messages that slither around like snakes…Yesterday is gone, so that a new day can begin, and it seem there’s been a change in direction of the wind”. (This one is particularly relevant – he sang it at the WI rally – watch it here http://bit.ly/...).
Unlike Steve Earle, Bingham keeps his speechifying to a minimum. A few lines here and there to explain the context of the song, but no sermons. Great hymns doesn’t need a sermons.
Now, if you haven’t been through the whole video of Ryan in Wisconsin, make sure you watch 1:04 to the end. Bingham is singing that ultimate American subversive song. The one that was subversive enough to be subject to Mcarthyite censorship, yet patriotic enough – in the best sense – to be sung by church choirs and school children. Bingham adds the long-awaited 8th verse – the most subversive of all. The one that speaks to all of us who work for a living. The one about our time:
"I just wont stand for greed and evil
takin our unions from our people
Take our dimes Take our dollars
Try and take our unions
Their gonna hear us holler"
Greed and evil --- Bingham tells it like it is. . Like Curtis Mayfield, Johnny Cash, and Bruce Springsteen, he has the potential to get even the most callous TeaPartier singing along. At least until they figure out what this guy is actually saying. Maybe he’ll change a few minds along the way, but if not, he’s at least contributed to the soundtrack for the next great progressive movement.