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Just an American Boy”. The Political Songwriting of Steve Earle

“Just an American Boy” : la chanson politique de Steve Earle
Richard Jobes
p. 62-72


Un an après les attentats du 11 septembre, Steve Earle, dans son album Jerusalem, a été le premier à faire entendre dans le monde du rock une voix discordante sur l’Amérique contemporaine. Honni par la droite, qui s’est inscrite en faux contre une prise de position qu’elle considère antipatriotique, mais salué par la gauche américaine, Jerusalem s’est retrouvé au centre du débat politique actuel. L’objet de cet article sera de montrer comment s’inscrit ce disque dans le contexte des États-Unis d’aujourd’hui ainsi que sa place dans l’œuvre engagée de Steve Earle.

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20th century / XXe siècle
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Criticizing a sick culture, even if the criticism accomplishes nothing, has always felt like useful work…” (Jonathan Frazen, The Corrections, 51).

  • 1 Most clearly seen in President Bush’s controversial “Axis Of Evil” speech.

1Popular music has often served as a rallying point in America during times of crisis, and the events of September 11th 2001 proved to be no exception. In the immediate aftermath, what was allowed on American airwaves, along with what had been banned, seemed to be an issue of extreme importance (Pareles). It perhaps came as no surprise that it was to be country music that would produce musical offerings most eager to plunge the depths of cheap sentimentality and belligerence. Toby Keith’s jingoistic “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” proved to be one the most popular flag-wavers, enjoying a lengthy period at the top of the American charts (Harris). Shortly after the first anniversary of the events came the release of the two most sustained responses by the white rock establishment to 9/11, in the shape of Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising and Steve Earle’s Jerusalem. While Springsteen offered consolation to the victims of these events, Earle voiced popular music’s first words of dissent concerning the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Three months prior to its release, news that the Earle album contained a possible tribute to the controversial figure of John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” caused a minor furore in the American press during July 2002 (CNN, “’John Walker’s Blues’…”). It should have come as no surprise that such a song would cause such strong feelings, especially as the main controversy raged during the conclusion of Lindh’s trial. Lindh, a twenty-one year old Californian, was caught by American troops in November 2001 fighting for the Taliban during the military action in Afghanistan (CNN, “The Case of the Taliban American”). While the American media had done much to differentiate between the forces of “good” and “evil” following 9/11 1 such simple divisions were hard to make when a typical American youth was found on the wrong side of such a divide. Earle’s song, even before many had heard it, was labelled as “un- American” and “unpatriotic,” with Nashville radio presenter Steve Gill stating, “it celebrates and glorifies a traitor to this country” (CNN, “’John Walker’s Blues’…”). The outcome of Lindh’s trial saw him sentenced to twenty years in jail, a result that drew opposing responses within the American press. While the conservative right celebrated the sentence, as for example in The Washington Times editorial of July 16 (Roberts), the left, unsurprisingly, viewed the outcome of the trial as a great injustice. Commentator Paul Craig Roberts wrote:

Punishment of Lindh is a very petty thing, an act unworthy of a great country. Lindh no doubt learned in his American schooling that his country was a racist, sexist, homophobic, hegemonic power that oppresses the rest of the world. He was given nothing to believe in about America except its unquestionable guilt.

2This is an unusual argument to adopt having only a sentence previously described this monolith as “a great country.” It appears indicative of the patriotism adopted by most radicals following 9/11, mirrored in Steve Earle’s statement in response to the outrage that surrounded “John Walker’s Blues”. He placed his music at the heart of the controversy when he commented: “In a big way this is the most pro-American record I’ve ever made. I feel urgently American” (CNN, “’John Walker’s Blues’…”). While this could be seen as a contrived desire to both criticise the nation while also stand at its heart, it could be viewed as Slavoj Zizek sees it. According to him, this renewed patriotism is a good thing:

The reborn patriots are right: today we really need new courage, and it is the lack of this courage (which is ultimately always also the courage to question one’s own position) which is most conspicuous in the reaction of American (and European) intellectuals to September 11 and its aftermath. (75)

3Many of the ideas central to Jerusalem are largely based upon those that circulated within the liberal press following 9/11. The album’s opener, “Ashes To Ashes,” is one of the most successful offerings on an album that ultimately proves to be an uneven creation. “Ashes To Ashes” does much to set the tone of the remaining ten songs. Steve Earle’s ragged country rock has always been imbued with a certain aggression, but it is usually arranged within the rich warmth of layered electric and acoustic instrumentation. Yet, “Ashes To Ashes” is stripped of all warmth, possessing a lean, metallic sound. Earle’s greatly decreased vocal range, the result of his highly publicised bouts of drink and drug addiction (St. John 142), does much to enforce the song’s harsh tone. While the abrasiveness of the delivery does not work in the favour of the whole album, it certainly serves as an expressive force for the rage of its first song. The central theme of “Ashes To Ashes” is one that appears across a number of popular responses to 9/11: the notion of America as an empire.

4Chalmers Johnson in Blowback, a book first published in 1999 that gained considerable cultural significance following 9/11, explores the parallels between America and previous empires. Johnson writes:

Empire is the problem. Even though the United States has a strong sense of invulnerability and substantial military and economic tools to make such a feeling credible, the fact of its imperial pretensions means that a crisis is inevitable. (232)

5He ultimately believes (226), “one must ask when, not whether, our accidental empire will start to unravel.”

6The restrictions of the five-minute popular song can never lend themselves fully to engaging with political and historical discussions, simply because any message must be housed within a tightly written lyric and made to fit a melody. But, at its best, the popular song is capable of taking such ideas and distilling them, something “Ashes To Ashes” achieves with great economy. The song’s intentional vagueness serves to assist its strengths, and an overly literal telling of events would only diminish the song’s impact (though lines such as “every tower ever built tumbles/No matter how strong, no matter how tall” are far from evasive). At its most basic, “Ashes To Ashes” is a narrative song, and manages to achieve a great deal in its three stanzas. Over the song’s duration we witness the extinction of one race, the emergence of a new, self-glorifying power, before concluding with a warning. The appealing component of the song’s structure is the fusion of the colloquial with the more stately and symbolic, such as in the song’s central verse:

Then the sea gave birth and it crawled up on the dirt
And stood up and took a look around
Said, ‘I’m the next big thing and the gift that I bring
Comes directly from God, so there ain’t no holdin’ me down’ So he crowned himself king
Now no one remembers his name
But the seed that he sowed took the show on the road
There was blood on the hands and a plague on the land.

7These words are ingrained with grime and dirt, befitting the song’s angular, gritty sound, which becomes a central part of the song’s character. The combination of such an image as loaded with significance as “the seed that that he sowed” with the ignoble “took the show on the road” is an interesting juxtaposition. This remains an integral part of “Ashes To Ashes,” and phrases such as “there ain’t no holdin’ me down” and the outrageously swaggering

8“I’m the next big thing” bring much to its over-all impact. In fact, they are indicative of the country roots from which Earle draws much of his inspiration. The song is built around familiar adages and phrases. Not only does following the ordinary “Even man’s best laid plans” with the surprisingly desolate “Will lie twisted and covered in rust” bring an obvious relevance, it also adds a creative renewal to over-familiar clichés.

9What perhaps remains a significant part of “Ashes To Ashes” is its refusal to preach, a failing common amongst political songs. Instead, the song draws to a close with the a cautionary word concerning the repercussions of a missed opportunity:

When we done all that we can but it slipped through our hands
And it’s ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

10Earle returns to this theme in the liner-notes that accompany the album, a statement that must be considered as an equally important part of what Jerusalem attempts to convey. “We are perpetually balanced on a tightrope stretched between our history and our potential, one faltering step away from headlong tumble from the most dizzying of heights, ” writes Earle. “Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)” follows “Ashes To Ashes,” neatly developing the previous song’s concluding lines of “We’ve done all that we can.” Indeed, it illustrates the fine line between the desire to do “all that we can” and the lazy indifference of “the best we can do.” The manner in which the opening songs relate to each other is of considerable importance, with the first five songs— from “Ashes To Ashes” to “The Kind’”—functioning as an opening suite. “Amerika v. 6.0” contains a number of appealing touches, such as:

I remember when we were both out on the boulevard
talkin’ revolution and singin’ the blues
Nowadays letters to the editor and cheatin’ on our
taxes is the best that we can do.

11It is one of the few occasions during Jerusalem when a character fully comes to life. Much of what remains of the song is perhaps a little too contrived—the images of “doctors down on Wall Street” and “accountants playin’ God and countin’ out the pills”—indicating a songwriter wallowing too deeply in his own cleverness. Yet, the aged revolutionary in “Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)” is somehow human. The folk boom of the Sixties, from where Earle presumably plucked his character, created many self-styled radicals, the vast majority of whom were drawn from white middle-class America. As Richard Crawford writes,

In the political climate of the early 1960s, protest songs fostered categorised thinking. As folk singer Dave Van Ronk once put it, the danger of a protest song was that it ultimately served to ‘dissociate you and your audience from all the evils of the world’— a naïve position in his view. (790)

12While it is an argument that could easily be brought against Jerusalem, it is this moment during the album that brings many of its contradictions to light. Our lapsed radical is a caricature, and an all too easy one to bring to mind; one of those that swallowed much of the rhetoric of the counterculture movement without a second thought and took their Woody Guthrie records a little too seriously. The song not only acknowledges the loss of radical values as an individual drifts into a sedated and conformist lifestyle, it also questions the validity and sincerity of the views such a person held in the first place, when his lifestyle was perhaps equally conformist. Indeed, the song seems to function within the void left by the slow erosion of folk and rock music’s formerly radical inclinations.

13This floundering on the part of the counterculture has served as a central concern within Earle’s political writing. His feelings towards an increasingly depoliticised cultural landscape are best expressed in “Christmas In Washington” (1997). The song is driven by the narrator’s own feelings of inferiority that appear to cripple his radical aspirations. The singer is an utterly powerless figure, capable of doing nothing more than watch the election results on television:

It was Christmas time in Washington
The Democrats rehearsed gettin’ into gear for four more years of things not gettin’ worse
… I sat home in Tennessee starin’ at the screen
With an uneasy feeling in my chest and wonderin’ what it means

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 you out

…I followed in your footsteps once back in my travelin’ days
Somewhere I failed to find your trail
Now I’m stumblin’ through the haze.

14It is a song that finds Earle at his folk-ish best, set against his lightly picked acoustic guitar. The song contains many well-judged moments, such as the internal rhyming of “I failed to find your trail” which serves to trip the narrator:

To listen to the radio you’d think all was well
But you and me and Cisco know it’s going straight to hell
So come back Emma Goldman
Rise up old Joe Hill
The barricades 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.

15The sly humour and the resilient spirit of the song, much aided by the determined timbre of Earle’s vocal chords, come together to give an almost perfect example of the potential of the political song. While the list of popular historical figures could be seen as token, they are presented in a slyly humorous manner, such as the idea of Woody Guthrie running into Jesus. It is made clear that such distinguished names function here through their iconic value, not because of their true historic worth. Certainly the identification with the listener in “you and me and Cisco” lends the song a unifying charm. It is of no small significance that Earle returns to many of these figures during the notes that accompany Jerusalem:

In times like these it is also important to the names of John Reed, Emma Goldman, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King… those who defended those same principles by insisting on asking the hardest questions in our darkest hours.

16Yet, the use of these names here is somehow hollow, containing no more validity than putting them on a T-shirt. Earle’s thinly veiled smugness at the belief that the responsibility to ask the “hardest questions in our darkest hours” has now fallen to him is a little hard to accept, and it is a smugness that leads to him declaring in the press, “I’m genuinely radical, and I insist that it’s okay for me to be a radical in a democracy” (Corgan & Dwyer). It certainly leaves Earle open to the accusations levelled at him by radio DJ Steve Gill that he is “pushing the edge of the envelope to attract attention.” Todd Gitlin wrote of such political stances following 9/11:

In the United States, adherents of this kind of reflexive anti-Americanism are a minority, but they are vocal and quick to action. Observing flags flying everywhere, they feel embattled and draw on their embattlement for moral credit, thus roping themselves into a tight little circle of the pure and the saved. (25)

17This could be seen as a significant claim concerning a number of the oppositional stances adopted following 9/11. The weaker elements of Jerusalem are possibly guilty of such posturing, and this is most clearly seen during the album’s most notorious moment: “John Walker’s Blues.”

18While it is not always revealing to compare compositions to illuminate weaknesses in a text, it appears that “John Walker’s Blues” may be best discussed in association with another of Earle’s earlier songs of a political nature, “Jonathan’s Song (Over Yonder)” (2000). “Jonathan’s Song” was Earle’s third major statement concerning the death penalty in America, following on from “Billy Austin” and “Ellis Unit One.” It focuses upon Jonathan Nobles, an individual with whom Earle himself was in contact during his time at Ellis Unit One, the centre of capital punishment in Texas. Lauren St John writes,

Nobles never pretended to be innocent. A met amphetamine addict, he had been awake for seven days when he stabbed and killed two college students he had gone to rape… He never understood why he had done what he had done, but… he did feel he could have done some good if he had been allowed to live. (142)

19Earle corresponded with Nobles himself over a period of twelve years, and was present at his execution. While the characters and possible crimes of John Walker Lindh and Jonathan Nobles are impossible to equate, the manner in which Earle handles them for the subject of his songs is. Most significantly, in both cases Earle adopts a first-person narrative from the viewpoint of the respective central characters. Each song also finds these individuals at a moment of great vulnerability, with Nobles moments before his execution and Lindh incarcerated and being transported back to America. It is surprising that “Jonathan’s Song” should work so well, as the story of the condemned man has been extensively covered by popular music, most obviously within the matrix of country music. Yet, the song achieves a great sense of limpidity by simply focusing on a very limited time frame. The song mixes a sense of resignation with possible clarity, with an acknowledgement of past wrongs:

I suppose I got it comin’
I can’t ever pay enough
All my rippin’ and a runnin’
I hurt everyone I loved.

20“John Walker’s Blues” possesses a more quarrelsome tone. The song finds Lindh at the point where the American media and public became aware of him: his capture. The song even acknowledges such media influence, in the lines “If my Daddy could see me now—chains around my feet.” Indeed, it is one of the most oft repeated elements of the Lindh case that “Frank Lindh [John’s father] said he did not know that his son was in Afghanistan until he saw him on CNN” (CNN, “The Case of the Taliban American”). The assumed irony of the Earle lyric is that his “Daddy” can see him all too clearly. The media played such a significant role in the coverage of 9/11 and its aftermath that any contribution from the Arts could be rendered over-familiar and redundant. Does the Earle lyric acknowledge and somehow subvert the media’s all-encompassing influence? Ultimately, it fails to achieve such a goal, simply due to the song’s inability to convey any of the complexities of its central character:

We came to fight the Jihad and our hearts were pure and strong
And death filled the air, we all offered up prayers
And prepared for our martyrdom.

21There is nothing remarkable about these lines; they are faceless, bereft of character and emotions. Lindh’s disenchantment with American culture, which ultimately led to his conversion to Islam, is handled swiftly in the three opening lines:

I’m just an American boy raised on MTV
And I’ve seen all those kids in the soda pop ads
But none of ‘em looked like me.

22What Earle fails to achieve is a connection between the song’s central character and his surroundings. The inclusion of an Arabic prayer and a mullah reading from the Quaran over the song’s coda fails to engage with the narrative, appearing utterly separate from Lindh, rather than an integral part of his beliefs and motivations. The accompaniment does not assist in fixing the song’s character, with its plodding dirge-like arrangement serving more to distance the listeners than draw them in. The tone of the song is too righteous to really elicit sympathy for Lindh, and a reference to MTV and “soda pop ads” will never make for a convincing argument against the American culture that drove Lindh away. There is no attempt to engage Lindh’s personal background, with no acknowledgment of his West Coast upbringing by liberal parents, including details such as his father’s homosexuality. Those who have attempted to understand the reasons for Lindh’s defection seize upon these details, while Earle makes no use of them. What differentiates the achievements of “Jonathan’s Song” and “John Walker’s Blues” is their scope. “Jonathan’s Song” is very precise in the moment it attempts to capture, while “John Walker’s Blues” attempts to cover more than it can fully convey. Earle’s handling of Lindh is too aware of his cultural significance through the media, something that proves to over-burden the song.

23 “John Walker’s Blues” is followed by “The Kind,” which proves to be an unusual juxtaposition. While “The Kind” is most certainly slight, lasting just over two-minutes, it takes a significant place on the album. It is soaked in a nostalgic yearning largely absent from the rest of the record. Set against a pleasant, melodic country arrangement, Earle sings of some quintessentially American hopes and dreams:

Sing me a song about a cowboy with an achin’ heart
Ridin’ along the lonesome prairie ‘bout to fall apart
Every time those doggies moan
He doesn’t feel so alone
That’s the kind of song I like—the kind that breaks your heart.

24Although this remains an immensely appealing song, it is interesting as to why it is placed directly after “John Walker’s Blues”. Why Do People Hate America?, a book that gained great popularity within the debates that followed 9/11, objects strongly to the mythologies and implications of the cowboy myth, along with—it has to be noted—nearly every other facet of American culture. Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies write:

What to Americans reads as an ironic vision of simple virtues made safe by a knight- errant of the wilderness, is for the rest of the world full of ambiguity at the heart of America: violence. (171)

25While this tone is certainly indicative of the book as a whole, it is interesting as to why Earle has adopted such a piece of traditional Americana for an album of this nature. Yet, it is impossible to believe that “The Kind” is intended to contain any such ambiguities, most definitely not those seen by Sardar and Davies in the image of the cowboy. What the song most certainly does bring to the album is a warmth that the vast majority of the album lacks. Most of what follows “The Kind” appears slight, certainly after what has gone before. The album only rediscovers its direction in the final track “Jerusalem,” which offers the possibility of a positive outcome to current political problems. It is also interesting to note that the album once again returns to the theme of the intrusive media in the title track:

I woke up this mornin’ and none of the news was good
And death machines were rumblin’ ‘cross the ground where Jesus stood,
And the man on my TV told me it had always been that way
And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say
And I almost listened to him
Yeah, I almost lost my mind
Then I regained my sense again.

26This stance returns us to the media-addled radical in “Christmas In Washington” and the media’s powerful force on the story of John Walker Lindh. This is a genuinely defiant and liberating moment on an album that sometimes lacks this spirit.

27Chalmers Johnson, looking back to the Vietnam-era anti-War protesters, writes in the introduction to the post-9/11 edition of Blowback:

I was also in those years irritated by campus antiwar protesters, who seemed to me self- indulgent as well as sanctimonious and who had clearly not done their homework… They were defining the Vietnamese Communists largely out of their own romantic desire to oppose Washington’s policies. (xxiii)

28Yet, what is most interesting is the conclusion he has reached during the intervening years:

They grasped something essential about the nature of America’s imperial role in the world that I had failed to perceive. In retrospect, I wish I had stood with the antiwar protest movement. For all its naïveté and unruliness, it was right and American policy wrong. (xxiii - xxiv )

29Does Jerusalem, like those war protestors, perform a valid task by offering an opposing point of view, despite the album’s many failings? In 9-11, Noam Chomsky, one of America’s most vocal and prolific critics of the right, has written, “The cultural scene is illuminated with particular clarity by the thinking of the liberal doves, who set the limits of respectable dissent” (54). While it couldn’t be claimed that Jerusalem brings any clarity to the situation, it perhaps plays an important role in bringing possible debates into the popular sphere. What is most disappointing is that Earle seems unable to bring the clarity that characterised his earlier protest work to Jerusalem. Maybe this is hardly surprising considering the overbearing significance of the events Earle is attempting to deal with, which would cripple any such creative endeavour while historically still so close to those events. It is certain that Earle enjoys the minor controversy he is capable of creating, while equally aware that such steps will hardly have significant repercussions upon his career. He is well aware that an offering such as Jerusalem will be adopted and accepted by the left, whatever its true merits. It is simply refreshing to see that, no matter how bull-headed, there is still a place for political debate in a popular culture seemingly bereft of any such radical spirit.

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CRAWFORD, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.

CHOMSKY, Noam. 9-11. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002. CHOMSKY, Noam. Media Control. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002.

CNN. “ ’John Walker’s Blues’ meets with boos.” CNN Interactive, 23 July 2002 <> Last checked January 2, 2004.

CNN. “The Case of the Taliban American.” CNN Interactive. <> Last checked January 2, 2004.

CORGAN, Jackie and DWYER, Meghan. “’John Walker’s Blues’ not so sad.” Bloomington: Indiana Daily Student online, 30 September 2002. <> Last checked January 2, 2004. EARLE, Steve. Jerusalem. Artemis Records, 2002.

EARLE, Steve. “Christmas In Washington.” El Corazón. Epic Records, 1997.

EARLE, Steve. “Jonathan’s Song (Over Yonder).” Transcendental Blues. Artemis Records, 2000.

FRAZEN, Jonathan. The Corrections. London: Fourth Estate, 2002.


<> Last checked January 2, 2004.

GITLIN, Todd. “Blaming America First.” San Francisco: Mother Jones, January/February 2002.

HARRIS, John. “My country is sleepwalking.” London: The Guardian, 23 September 2002.

HERTSGAARD, Mark. The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates TheWorld. London: Bloomsbury, 2002.

JOHNSON, Chalmers. Blowback. (1999) London: Time Warner, 2000.

PARELES, Jon. “Star-Spangled or Reflective, Pop Captures the Mood.” New York Times, 20 December 2001.

ROBERTS, Paul Craig. “A Petty Prosecution.” Burlingame, CA: Centre for Libertarian Studies online, July 18, 2002 <> Last checked January 2, 2004.

SARDER, Ziauddin and DAVIES, Merryl Wyn. Why Do People Hate America? London: Icon Books, 2002.

SPRINGSTEEN, Bruce. The Rising. Columbia Records, 2002.

ST. JOHN, Lauren. Walking After Midnight. London: Picador, 2000.

TYRANGIEL, Josh. “The Taliban Next Door”. New York: TIME online edition, 9 December 2001. <,8599,187564,00.html> Last checked January 2, 2004.

ZIZEK, Slavoj. Welcome To The Desert of The Real. New York: Verso, 2002.

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1 Most clearly seen in President Bush’s controversial “Axis Of Evil” speech.

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Richard Jobes, « “Just an American Boy”. The Political Songwriting of Steve Earle »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°2 | 2004, 62-72.

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Richard Jobes, « “Just an American Boy”. The Political Songwriting of Steve Earle »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°2 | 2004, mis en ligne le 17 novembre 2009, consulté le 03 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Richard Jobes

(University of Nottingham, United Kingdom)Richard Jobes completed his studies at the University of Nottingham (UK). In October 2002, he published “Po’ Boy Dress In Black, Bob Dylan’s ‘Love And Theft’ and the Art of Blackface Minstrelsy” in Judas! His writing also regularly appears within the popular music magazine Mojo.

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