Archive for Sunday, July 28, 2002

American Taliban ballad stirs debate

July 28, 2002


— A new tune about John Walker Lindh by Nashville singer-songwriter Steve Earle has kicked up a fight between critics who feel he's unpatriotic and defenders who consider him provocative.

The song, "John Walker's Blues," is due for release in September. It describes Lindh as "an American boy raised on MTV" who sought out another culture because he felt alienated from his native country.

"If my daddy could see me now chains around my feet/He don't understand that sometimes a man/Has to fight for what he believes," Earle sings.

Lindh, a 21-year-old Californian captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, pleaded guilty this month to fighting alongside the Taliban militia. In return, prosecutors dropped the most serious charges against him, saving him from a possible death sentence. He is expected to be sentenced to 20 years in prison in October.

In a story Sunday, the New York Post charged that the song glorifies Lindh. Nashville radio personality Steve Gill said on CNN Tuesday that Earle was trying "to be outrageous to attract attention."

"We're within a one-year period of the attacks on America, and I think it's too early for a song like this," Gill said. "He is free to put this song out there, and the American people are free to say 'No thank you' when it comes to buying it."

"John Walker's Blues" represents a change in how the popular music world responds to the war on terrorism. Until now, most offerings have been stirring calls to arms "Freedom" by Paul McCartney, "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)" by Toby Keith with Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" a doleful, reflective alternative.

Bruce Springsteen's upcoming album, "The Rising," is suffused with stories about the aftermath of Sept. 11. Yet it also contains a song, "Paradise," written in part from a suicide bomber's perspective.

"What Earle is doing is what good songwriters and in fact, good poets have been doing for a hundred years, which is trying to get inside and understand the motivations of people who may not be particularly popular right now," said Charles Wolfe, a popular-music scholar at Middle Tennessee State University.

He compared it to Bob Dylan's song about the boxer convicted of murder, Hurricane Carter, and Woody Guthrie's songs about the gangster Pretty Boy Floyd. Country singer Johnny Cash, most recently with the chilling song "Delia's Gone," has written songs from a murderer's perspective.

"There's nothing all that unique about Earle's song, except that emotions about the Taliban are very strong right now," Wolfe said.

Earle, 47, was vacationing in Ireland and could not be reached for comment.

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