Ah, another 9/11-themed country anthem: gravelly vocals, a two-step beat, and…a rousing call to jihad? Suggesting that the ”alt” in alt-country may actually stand for ”altercation,” singer-songwriter Steve Earle has stirred up an Eminem-worthy fuss with ”John Walker’s Blues,” a track from ”Jerusalem,” his forthcoming follow-up to 2000’s ”Transcendental Blues.” In lyrics that include the line ”We came to fight the jihad/And our hearts were pure and strong,” Earle assumes the perspective of John Walker Lindh, the 21-year-old Californian who was just sentenced to 20 years in prison for fighting alongside the Taliban.
The song has proved unpopular with many, including The Wall Street Journal, which, in a July 24 editorial, called it a ”schlocky echo of pop protest past designed to get Earle back on the charts.” The New York Post ran an article headlined ”Twisted Ballad Honors Tali-Rat,” and Steve Gill, a Nashville talk-radio host and former Republican Congressional candidate, has urged record buyers to avoid ”Jerusalem.” ”Steve Earle runs the risk of becoming the Jane Fonda of the war on terrorism by embracing John Walker and his Tali-buddies,” says Gill. He predicts a wider campaign against Earle as the CD’s Sept. 24 release date approaches.
Earle was on vacation in Europe at press time and was unavailable for comment. But in materials accompanying advanced copies of ”Jerusalem,” he says, simply: ”I don’t condone what [Lindh] did…. Fundamentalism, as practiced by the Taliban, is the enemy of real thought, and religion, too.” The song begins with Lindh calling himself ”just an American boy” and ends with U.S. soldiers ”dragging me back/With my head in a sack/To the land of the infidel.” It also hints at his motivation: ”I’ve seen all those kids in the soda pop ads/But none of them looked like me/So I started looking around.”
”Steve doesn’t think of this as being anti-American,” says Earle’s manager, Dan Gillis. ”He’s just trying to write a song about a kid who might have been screwed up in this country.” Earle pal Jackson Browne, meanwhile, is the first of his peers to jump to the songwriter’s defense. ”I think it’s a beautiful song,” Browne says, calling Earle’s decision to write in Lindh’s voice a ”very soulful thing to do…. It goes toward humanizing people who are continually cast as our enemies…. Walker’s story is amazing human drama.”
That may be so, says Gill, but the radio host questions Earle’s decision to release his song while the wounds of 9/11 are still fresh. ”We are still at war,” he says. ”It’s the wrong song at the wrong time…. I guarantee that it will be embraced by those that hate America.”
Browne sees a different set of values at work: ”I think people should be hearing this song…. It’s not un-American to dissent.”