I couldn’t sleep last night. Not an unusual situation for a chronic night owl/insomniac and, in light of the events of the past week and a bit, perhaps even more understandable given my propensity to think and think and think until my brain circles upon itself so much there is no possibility of quieting it down enough for slumber. I opted for my standard solution when sleeplessness rears its frustrating head but responsibilities the following day mean that I can’t just throw on a pot of coffee and try to get some work done. I turned on the TV, hoping to find something that would lull me into sleep as quickly as possible so I could face the fast-approaching day. Good plan, in theory, and one that usually works. But I made the mistake of turning on the CBC and the time-shifting replay of the day’s ep. of Strombo just as he was introducing Steve Earle.
I have always loved Steve’s music, and followed his rise and fall and rise again, with interest and admiration. He is a storyteller, fashioned in the mold of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, and his politics and opinions resonate strongly with my own. In the interview he discussed how his latest tour across the States has brought him more understanding of the realities that informed Guthrie’s compositions. He commented that the current state of the country reflects the same bleak reality that Woody witnessed and recorded for posterity in the 30’s Depression and Dustbowl, a bleakness to which those who came after him were not exposed. Until now anyway.
I have my own experiences of the ‘economic downturn’, including watching friends, who have been without work or terribly underemployed for extended periods of time, struggle as they knock on doors without response or acknowledgement of any kind. One such friend describes her experience in the same manner she described her divorce; employed friends backing off from communication and support as if the ‘condition’ of un/underemployment is contagious. Another has told me quite definitively that if he hears ‘well, you’re lucky to have any job at all’ one more time (either out loud or implicitly), he cannot guarantee that his response will remain in the realm of socially acceptable behaviour or language.
While neither of these friends is riding the rails and doing chores for food and lodging in a convivial family’s barn, the depth of frustration and despair about the inability to support oneself and/or family is being felt on a larger scale than at any time since the Depression. Steve Earle has written and spoken about the 99% movement, for example, in the same way that Woody Guthrie’s songs are concerned with the conditions of the working class people searching for work during the Depression. Guthrie’s fight against complacency- as promoted by the government after the years of Depression- prompted him to write ‘This Land is Your Land’, and continue in his support of migrant workers and the production of a body of work that was as much about social commentary and change as it was about music for its own sake.
Both Steve Earle and Woody Guthrie use mythological language and themes in their songs, since poverty, wars of ideology and struggles with what is right are timeless. And, sadly, recurrent, as those who don’t know their respective histories continue causing them to repeat. Guthrie’s ‘Mean Things Happenin’ in this World’, about World War II, could have been written today. The song is about soldiers being sent overseas without any knowledge or understanding of what it is they’re fighting for, while people are killed ‘for a greenback dollar bill.’ His ‘Jesus Christ’, completely in keeping with the biblical and extracanonical mythology, depicts Jesus standing in opposition to the wealthy and power-seeking and suggests that he would have been crucified for the same reasons today.
Likewise, Steve Earle employs themes of justice and story to respond to contemporary social issues. I’ve always loved ‘Justice in Ontario’ with its juxtaposition of historical and contemporary stories of injustice here at home. His album ‘Jerusalem’ employs biblical mythology throughout, discussing the tensions in the region as he hopes that ‘one fine day all the children of Abraham will lay down their swords forever.’ (From the song ‘Jerusalem’). In ‘Ashes to Ashes’ Earle plays with the themes of the ‘giants in the earth’ (a personal favourite mytheme) and the science of evolution before reaching the conclusion that, with or without a god, humanity seems determined to persist in seeking power, and ultimately self-destruction, at the expense of others.
I spent most of the remainder of the night thinking about all these things and listening to songs that call our attention to matters of great and consistent importance. Despite the caffeine headache and complete lack of concentration that I’m dealing with as a result, I don’t regret the lost sleep. Great conversations, even those that are witnessed through the medium of television, should encourage thought and reflection as they prompt further dialogue that might lead us to solutions to the eternal issues that we address through the constant writing, reworking and revisiting of our collective myths. Like great stories, such conversations demonstrate one of the best uses of the varieties of communication outlets and availability of information that we are privileged to have at our fingertips in the 21st century. Thank you, George. I hope the Americans appreciate your conversations (as we loan you out to CNN this summer) as much as we do here at home.