Music

Steve Earle's Hammer

A talented songwriter puts his message before his music.

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“One of these days, I’m gonna lay this hammer down,” the singer-songwriter Steve Earle declares on his newest CD, Washington Square Serenade. “Leave my burden restin’ on the ground/When the air don’t choke ya and the ocean’s clean/And kids don’t die for gasoline/One of these days I’m gonna lay this hammer down.”

The song is called “Steve’s Hammer (For Pete),” and it’s not hard to figure out who Pete is: The folk singer Pete Seeger was slinging the same bludgeon when he wrote “If I Had a Hammer” in 1949. The left-libertarian critic Dwight Macdonald once said that Seeger favored “all the right Causes from getting out of Vietnam to getting into ecology. But they’re folkery-fakery for all that.” Earle, 53, is a gifted songwriter, and he made some of the finest country and rock records of the ’80s and ’90s. But he’s come down with Seeger’s folkery-fakery disease.

The problem is not, as some disillusioned fans claim, that his music became “political” after 9/11. Earle has been singing about politics since his first albums appeared in the ’80s. What changed is that the music became earnest. Once Earle gave us story-songs filled with wry asides and telling details; they dealt with war, class, the death penalty, and other weighty issues, but they hardly ever hectored the listener. Then he picked up that hammer, and Lord how he hammers every single point home. Steve Earle used to write stories. Now he writes op-eds.

To sample the old Earle, listen to the title track of his 1988 album Copperhead Road. The narrator, a Vietnam vet from a long line of moonshiners, comes home from the war and decides to get into the marijuana business. The song moves through three generations in three verses, telling the story with economy but without neglecting the details that give the tale authenticity (“Now Daddy ran the whiskey in a big block Dodge/Bought it at an auction at the Mason’s Lodge”). The song ends with a vivid scene: “Well the DEA’s got a chopper in the air/I wake up screaming like I’m back over there/I learned a thing or two from ol’ Charlie, don’t you know/You better stay away from Copperhead Road.”

That’s a far cry from the songs on Jerusalem (2002) and The Revolution Starts Now (2004), which sacrifice color and texture to make their points. Many of the songs don’t tell stories at all, preferring to tell us directly that, say, “There’s doctors down on Wall Street/Sharpenin’ their scalpels and tryin’ to cut a deal/Meanwhile, back at the hospital/We got accountants playin’ God and countin’ out the pills.” Others create characters who exist only to illustrate an argument. In theory, “Rich Man’s War” is the story of Jimmy, a soldier who enlisted because he couldn’t get a job anywhere else. In practice, the song is an opportunity for Earle to preachâ€"he even throws in the line “When will we ever learn?”â€"and Jimmy is just a poorly realized stereotype. Earle fills in his background with stock details (“Left behind a pretty young wife and a baby girl/A stack of overdue bills and went off to save the world”) and, just in case we miss the point, he ends each verse with a reminder that Jimmy is “just another poor boy off to fight a rich man’s war.”

There’s a twist, sort of. The last verse turns to Ali, a Palestinian suicide bomber, and tells us that he too is a poor boy fighting a rich man’s war. It’s a nod to nuance, I suppose, but it pales before the quiet power of “I learned a thing or two from ol’ Charlie, don’t you know.” For that matter, when the narrator of “Copperhead Road” casually explains why he volunteered to go to ’Namâ€"“they draft the white trash first ’round here anyway”â€"he manages to get across half the message of “Rich Man’s War” in just nine words.

And now we have Washington Square Serenade, named for the Greenwich Village park at the heart of the ’50s and ’60s folk revival. Musically speaking, it’s Earle’s strongest effort in seven years, mixing several schools of country music with rock and even hip-hop. Lyrically, it’s being touted as a return to “personal” songwriting, but there are several topical efforts here too. The best of them, “Oxycontin Blues,” is a throwback to the story-songs that used to dominate Earle’s output.

But the singer hasn’t flushed the folkery-fakery from his system. The big message-song here is “City of Immigrants,” which reminds us, repeatedly, that “all of us are immigrants.” If you’re hoping to hear about any particular immigrant and his specific trials and joys, you’re out of luck. That’s the sort of thing the old Earle would have written, before he traded his pick and his pen for a sledgehammer.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason.

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  1. Like one of our greatest directors, Woody Allen, said: “the personal is always more important than the political” especially when it comes to art, and life.

    I’m always bored to tears by any artist who gets politically polemical, whether it be Rand or Sinclair…Art for arts sake has this advantage: it is often the best art. If I want political information I’ll read Galbraith or Hayek or watch the friggin’ news…

  2. The only time I ever saw Steve Earle was in London in ’00. I was there with a more native Texan than I (a Southerner transplanted to Texas), and we got some perverse pleasure out of giving a little whoop when he mentioned Reagan.

    I respect Earle for at least trying to understand somebody like Walker-Lind (although ultimately I think he was just a spoiled white kid from California who got so into rejecting Western dogma that he embraced the worst of reactionary thuggery) and so forth, but I agree. Nothing he’s recorded since 9/11 is any fun any more.

  3. One of the worst problems with most politically polemical stuff is that it is so very time-bound. Good art is timeless, and to be so it’s kinda silly to write a story or song about the imprudence of waging the Crimean War or what not…

  4. Good musician, socialist puke.

  5. I think protest music works best when it’s unintelligible. The stuff we thought had “meaning” when we were teenagers was, in retrospect, embarrassing tripe. I never “got” Dylan as a kid. Now I do. Not that I know what the hell he’s singing about.

  6. folkery-fakery
    Now that’s a danged useful term. Wonder why I hadn’t come cross it fore?

  7. Isn’t this a bit like complaining about complaining. Your energies would be better spent listening to a Scott Miller And The Commonwealth record and wondering that Steve Earle used to be as good.

  8. Ummm, I am not an immigrant. Ask my neighbors.

  9. I hate singers shoving their politics down my throat, even if I agree with the politics. Neil Young grates my spine, despite excellent musicianship. But Mellencamp is okay despite wacko-ignorant politics, because he sings about people.

  10. I hate singers shoving their politics down my throat

    Getty Lee?

  11. Johnny Cougar sings about people? I thought he just sang about trucks these days.

  12. There’s nothing more boring than an angry liberal.

  13. Good art is timeless, and to be so it’s kinda silly to write a story or song about the imprudence of waging the Crimean War or what not…

    Well, there’s the one about the “Defense of Fort McHenry.” Though it may only be popular because everyone has to sing it before U.S. sports events.

    I think protest music works best when it’s unintelligible.

    Or cute, like the one about poor Charlie on the MTA.

    Did he ever return, No he never returned And his fate is still unlearn’d. He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston. He’s the man who never returned.

    Good musician, socialist puke.

    That does seem to be the trend. Where are the libertarian songwriters?

  14. While we’re on the topic, I’ll present some lyrics that accosted me while scanning the FM airwaves last night:

    American girls and American guys, will always stand up and salute.
    We’ll always recognize, when we see ol’ glory flying,
    There’s a lot of men dead,
    So we can sleep in peace at night when we lay down our heads.
    My daddy served in the army where he lost his right eye,
    But he flew a flag out in our yard ’til the day that he died.
    He wanted my mother, my brother, my sister and me.
    To grow up and live happy in the land of the free.

    Now this nation that I love is fallin’ under attack.
    A mighty sucker-punch came flying in from somewhere in the back.
    Soon as we could see clearly through our big black eye,
    Man, we lit up your world like the fourth of July.

    If you hadn’t guessed (I was previously unaware of its existence), that’s Toby Keith catering to all the fist-pumping Neanderthals out there. I’m not claiming Toby Keith was EVER good, a la the fall from grace Walker is outlining. It’s just painful to see music recruited for such banal motives. Oh, and I hate Clear Channel for ruining my evening.

  15. Good art is timeless, and to be so it’s kinda silly to write a story or song about the imprudence of waging the Crimean War or what not…

    Tell that to Iron Maiden.

  16. Great article Jesse. I actually really liked Transcendental Blues, but everything since then has been pretty grating. Not to mention the fact that he recorded what is clearly the worst version of “Way Down in the Hole” for The Wire.

  17. Where are the libertarian songwriters?

    I think Mojo Nixon is still playing.

  18. I always viewed listening to Earle’s ten minute lectures on politics as part of the price of admission to hear him in concert.

    But he has gone over the deep end lately. The title track of The Revolution Starts Now is probably the worst song he has recorded and he put in on the album twice in case we didn’t get the point the first time.

    On the other hand, any overweight middle aged bald recovered drug addict ex-con who can get Allison Moorer to marry him is my hero.

  19. Where are the libertarian songwriters?

    Heh. “The Ballad of Friedrich A. Hayek” would be just as boring as any lefty rant, I think.

  20. I agree with ed. Protest songs, when done well, are absolutely timeless. “Blowin’ in the Wind” is a prime example.

    Of course, any song done well can be timeless. Songs with a political tint to them are going to be more grating to people since they tend to hit the gut harder than songs about touchy-feely stuff. I’d say the proportion of really great songs about love to worthless tripe about love is the same for great protest songs versus shitty ones. The personal is more important than the political in art, but when you make the political personal, great art can happen too.

  21. I sat through a few minutes of Steve Earle’s solo acoustic set at Bonnaroo in 2006. Blecch!

    My wife is a big fan of his, and even she was turned off by his Pete Seeger wannabe shtick.

    I hate singers shoving their politics down my throat…

    I hate singers generally, which is probably why I’m a jazz musician. 😛

  22. Blowin in the Wind is cool cause it’s a good song. It’s probably harder to write “good songs” about politics but it can and has been done. As I see it, the problem is not so much the topic as the songs themselves. If you start off with a message to preach and then cram in into the confines of a song, there’s a good chance it will suck.

    Good music, a good story, and a few clever twists and word play are the formula. There are plenty of songs about love, life and other non-preachy subjects that suck too.

  23. At least Earle got that thing worked out with New Line so he can do The Hobbit.

    Wait …

  24. I hate singers shoving their politics down my throat

    Getty Lee?

    Geddy Lee doesn’t shove his politics down your throat. Geddy Lee shoves Neil Peart’s politics down your throat.

  25. Johnny Cougar sings about people? I thought he just sang about trucks these days.

    You’re thinking of that awful jackass Bob Seeger.

  26. The only time I saw Earl perform he was being pelted with water bottles at a Lolapalooza in Ferris, Texas. I think it had less to do with his politics and everything to do with the fact that the rest of the bill was Rancid, The Ramones, Soundgarden and Metallica. That crowd heard two bars of something that sounded like country music and the debris started flying. How he got booked in that line up is beyond me.

  27. Alice’s Restaurant isn’t timeless?

  28. Someone else already said it – but Season 5 of The Wire is already marred by Earle’s awful melodyless version of “Way Down in the Hole.” I think he and Simon are buddies, but that’s no excuse.

    The Clash were political but it worked, maybe because they’re British so we Americans don’t have to take them quite as seriously. For the same reason, I can take Billy Bragg’s preaching, even though it drives my British friends up a wall.

  29. I never understood the notion of a “left leaning” libertarian. Any more than a stalinesque jeffersonian.

  30. I haven’t gotten around to listening to Earle, but I enjoyed the article. A lot of protest/political music is heavy handed to the point of nausea. Some of it is not, even when I disagree with it. I’m a libertarian who adores punk music, and pictures of Joe Strumer, the dear socialist, cover my wall. It’s a weird conflict, that I joke about, but actually vaguely troubles me sometimes.

  31. As for the dearth of libertarian songwriters: think of it this way, every time a song expresses an honest emotion of love or defiance that does not involve the initiation of force or fraud, it is implicitly individualistic which goes to the philosophical core of what libertarianism is about. So “Pretty Woman” is the legitimization of the pleasure and longing one might feel when watching a pretty woman walking down the street. As the song passively, though longingly, observes the woman, we presume her liberty to keep moving unimpeded.

  32. I never understood the notion of a “left leaning” libertarian

    Perhaps they are former Democrats who came to the realization that government can’t solve all problems no matter how much we tax the rich.

  33. Alice’s Restaurant isn’t timeless?

    If by “timeless” you mean a song that goes on and on and after a while you’re afraid it will never end, then yes, it certainly is that.

  34. Best protest song ever is “Vietnam” by Jimmy Cliff.

    I think I heard, somewhere, that Dylan agreed with my sentiment.

    Steve should definitely stick to the more personal storytelling. I can remember driving all night to a Nascar race with a pony-keg in the back of my car, listening to “Guitar Town” over and over. Still one of my favorite songs.

  35. I second the recommendation for Scott Miller and the Commonwealth. And the author makes a good point…it all comes down to “show, don’t tell,” yeah?

  36. it all comes down to “show, don’t tell,” yeah?

    Yep, that’s it. Compare this song to this song and you’ll see the whole story in a nutshell.

  37. “There’s doctors down on Wall Street/Sharpenin’ their scalpels and tryin’ to cut a deal/Meanwhile, back at the hospital/We got accountants playin’ God and countin’ out the pills.”

    Sounds a lot more like Woody Guthrie than Pete Seeger.

  38. Timeless…

    Darkness at the break of noon
    Shadows even the silver spoon
    The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
    Eclipses both the sun and moon
    To understand you know too soon
    There is no sense in trying.

    Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
    Suicide remarks are torn
    From the fool’s gold mouthpiece
    The hollow horn plays wasted words
    Proves to warn
    That he not busy being born
    Is busy dying.

    Temptation’s page flies out the door
    You follow, find yourself at war
    Watch waterfalls of pity roar
    You feel to moan but unlike before
    You discover
    That you’d just be
    One more person crying.

    So don’t fear if you hear
    A foreign sound to your ear
    It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing.

    As some warn victory, some downfall
    Private reasons great or small
    Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
    To make all that should be killed to crawl
    While others say don’t hate nothing at all
    Except hatred.

    Disillusioned words like bullets bark
    As human gods aim for their mark
    Made everything from toy guns that spark
    To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
    It’s easy to see without looking too far
    That not much
    Is really sacred.

    While preachers preach of evil fates
    Teachers teach that knowledge waits
    Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
    Goodness hides behind its gates
    But even the president of the United States
    Sometimes must have
    To stand naked.

    An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
    It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
    And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it.

    Advertising signs that con you
    Into thinking you’re the one
    That can do what’s never been done
    That can win what’s never been won
    Meantime life outside goes on
    All around you.

    You lose yourself, you reappear
    You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
    Alone you stand with nobody near
    When a trembling distant voice, unclear
    Startles your sleeping ears to hear
    That somebody thinks
    They really found you.

    A question in your nerves is lit
    Yet you know there is no answer fit to satisfy
    Insure you not to quit
    To keep it in your mind and not fergit
    That it is not he or she or them or it
    That you belong to.

    Although the masters make the rules
    For the wise men and the fools
    I got nothing, Ma, to live up to.

    For them that must obey authority
    That they do not respect in any degree
    Who despise their jobs, their destinies
    Speak jealously of them that are free
    Cultivate their flowers to be
    Nothing more than something
    They invest in.

    While some on principles baptized
    To strict party platform ties
    Social clubs in drag disguise
    Outsiders they can freely criticize
    Tell nothing except who to idolize
    And then say God bless him.

    While one who sings with his tongue on fire
    Gargles in the rat race choir
    Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
    Cares not to come up any higher
    But rather get you down in the hole
    That he’s in.

    But I mean no harm nor put fault
    On anyone that lives in a vault
    But it’s alright, Ma, if I can’t please him.

    Old lady judges watch people in pairs
    Limited in sex, they dare
    To push fake morals, insult and stare
    While money doesn’t talk, it swears
    Obscenity, who really cares
    Propaganda, all is phony.

    While them that defend what they cannot see
    With a killer’s pride, security
    It blows the minds most bitterly
    For them that think death’s honesty
    Won’t fall upon them naturally
    Life sometimes
    Must get lonely.

    My eyes collide head-on with stuffed graveyards
    False gods, I scuff
    At pettiness which plays so rough
    Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
    Kick my legs to crash it off
    Say okay, I have had enough
    What else can you show me?

    And if my thought-dreams could be seen
    They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
    But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.

  39. Russ 2000 | January 11, 2008, 2:20pm | #
    Where are the libertarian songwriters?

    I think Mojo Nixon is still playing.

    “If you don’t have Mojo Nixon, then your store could use some fixin’!”

  40. Good article. I haven’t listened to Earlie in a while.
    I feel the same way about Springsteen when he moves away from the stories and gets more directly “political,” although he’s never as hectoring as Earle can get.
    Like when he did that Ghost Of Tom Joad album in ’96. It was OK, but it seemed like he was trying to do another Nebraska, which, as so many rock critics love to point out, came out during the recession of the early 80s and was a kind of a reaction to Reaganism and whatnot. But I don’t think there’s one line in it that really expresses a political view. It’s just a bunch of stories about people in desperate situations. And it’s quite affecting. “Born In The USA” as well, which also has such an anthemic quality to it, a lot of casual listeners probably thought it was a song more along the lines of something by Toby Keith (apparently President Reagan — or one of his speech writers — took it that way).
    But Tom Joad seems a lot more contrived and “polemical” or whatever, with lines about The New World Order and, of course, the Steinbeck reference. It doesn’t hold up.
    I must say I’m pretty impressed with The Rising from 2002. I had never listened to it until about two months ago, and it’s obviously a “September 11th” record, but, again, he focuses on people and their stories, rather than making any kind of grand statements.

  41. I like Crossley Bendix. He is political without seeming overtly political.

  42. Leave my burden restin’ on the ground/When the air don’t choke ya and the ocean’s clean/And kids don’t die for gasoline/One of these days I’m gonna lay this hammer down.”

    Well at least it’s good to see that this guy is not peddling left-wing cliches and paying homage to a man who worsipped Joseph Stalin. Oh, wait…

  43. “If you hadn’t guessed (I was previously unaware of its existence), that’s Toby Keith catering to all the fist-pumping Neanderthals out there”

    Yes, because as we know, anyone not expressing disdain for the United States and its leadership must be a Neanderthal.

  44. Live version of “whats so funny” is the hardest rocking song I have ever heard.

  45. What is even worse than the lyrics of the songs by dipshits like Earle is how him and his ilk are constantly patting themselves on the back for having the “courage” to criticize the government and the president. These fuckers seem to actually believe that just maybe their lameass “preaching-to-the choir” sermoninzing-set-to-music, full of self-righteous moral preening and devoid of any real intellectual substance will land them in some sort of gulag somewhere. If I hear one more entertainment asshole telling us ignorant folks in the heartland about the “chill wind” that is blowing, I’m gonna fucking puke. For christ sake, bashing any non-leftwing politician is practically a prerequisite to critical success in the American entertainment industry (evidently some of the fuckers on this site feel the same way. How else to explain assholes who call fans of Toby Keith neanderthals).
    Ignorant jackasses in Hollywood or in the music business who spend their time railing against Bush as they take jaunts to Cuba and Venezuala for fawning photo-ops with murderous dictators are a dime a fucking dozen. Steve Earle is nothing special, rather he is just another fat, pathetic loser claiming to be a voice for the people, all the while championing a philosophy that underpinned the most brutal tyrannies in human history. It is a shame you wasted any ink at all on a piece of shit like him.

  46. Alice’s Restaurant isn’t timeless

    It may be timeless, but it’s by Arlo Guthrie, not Steve Earle.

  47. Both in his lyrics and his melodies, Earle has gone from a kind of introspective honesty to hectoring, obvious and trite.

  48. I would have thought “F the CC” would have been a big hit with libertarians.

  49. On a related note, I saw Roger Waters in concert last summer. His stuff from The Wall was (and is) excellent commentary on fascism and collectivism.

    In the recent song he played, he sings something like, “Oh George, that Texas education must have fucked you up!” And it just doesn’t work, even for someone who really hates George Bush.

    Earnest political music sucks.

  50. lamont – I LOVE “F the CC”. But like David, I happen to think pretty much every song is libertarian. Because so many songs boil down to being all about pursuing happiness and how hurting people is wrong.

  51. TNG,

    Like one of our greatest directors, Woody Allen,

    I recently had a tiny bit of respect for you. That time has passed.

  52. Not to mention the fact that he recorded what is clearly the worst version of “Way Down in the Hole” for The Wire.

    True. The version from Season 1 is still the best as far as I’m concerned. Earle’s turn as Bubbles’ sponsor seems a bit over-acted as well.

  53. “If you don’t have Mojo Nixon, then your store could use some fixin’!”

    Daddy?! Why did you leave me and mommy?

  54. My nomination for the quintessentially libertarian folk rock award:

    Gee but its great to be back home
    Home is where I want to be
    I’ve been on the road so long my friend
    that if you came along I know you couldn’t disagree
    it’s the same old story, everywhere I go
    I get slandered, Libeled,
    I hear words I never heard in the bible
    and I’m one step ahead of the shoeshine
    Two steps away from the county line
    Just trying to keep my customers satisfied, satisfied

    Nobody is quite sure if it’s about a pot dealer or a bootlegger or a smuggler or whatever other kind of politically incorrect merchant, but the message is clear.

    Occifer, just trying to keep the customer satisfied, occifer.

  55. I never understood the notion of a “left leaning” libertarian. Any more than a stalinesque jeffersonian.

    It’s easy enough. All you have to do to be a “left-leaning libertarian” is be pretty extreme on free speech, sexual freedoms and so on, and generally opposed to most government economic restrictions, just not completely. For instance:

    Person X completely agrees that absolutely any sexual relations between consenting adults should be legal and subject to no interference from government on any level.

    Person X completely believes in the absolute right of all people to print or say whatever they want about any issue, in particular complaints about the government.

    Person X, in fact, completely sides with libertarians, and generally in a fairly extreme version, on all issues in which they agree with “liberals”.

    However, though Person X believes in free trade, and wants it to be freer than it is now, he or she does still support some restrictions, perhaps where overseas working conditions are too awful.

    Person X has similar views on the income tax. They want the rates to be lowered (maybe significantly) but do not support an abolition of all income taxes.

    Person X also has similar views on the domestic free market. Though the would like to see less regulation, they still support some minimal regulation (possibly this type of person might still support some anti-trust laws).

    Person X, in fact, mostly agrees with libertarians on all issues in which they agree with “conservatives” as well, but in a slightly more moderated version.

    I think the person I’m describing would definitely be a small-l libertarian (no anarcho-capitalist or anything) but leans left more than right.

  56. Really interesting post, Thanks a lot for sharing this here.

  57. If you are too stupid to be journalist, you become an opinion writer. If you are too stupid to become an opinion writer, you become a sports writer. If you are too stupid to be a sports writer, you become an editorial cartoonist.

  58. Oh, I get it now, the gun represents institutionalized violence due to exploitative corporate greed!

  59. The best of them, “Oxycontin Blues,” is a throwback to the story-songs that used to dominate Earle’s output” i think so.

  60. And I completely borked the geography up. Jacksonville is the hammer. AS IT SHOULD BE.

  61. True. The version from Season 1 is still the best as far as I’m concerned. Earle’s turn as Bubbles’ sponsor seems a bit over-acted as well.

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