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The Revolution Starts Now: Steve Earle on the Republican Convention, the Death Penalty and the GOP Hijacking of Johnny Cash

StoryAugust 27, 2004
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Singer and songwriter Steve Earle–who is in New York to perform for those protesting the Republican convention–joins us in our studio to talk about the Republican convention, his latest album “The Revolution Starts…Now,” John Walker Lindh and much more. [includes rush transcript]

The Republican Party has announced the soundtrack for its convention. Most of the musical performances at the RNC will be country western musicians. But one Texas musician who was not invited is Steve Earle.

But he is here in New York–where he will be in the streets and performing at various events. Last night he performed at an event honoring unsung heroes. He recently began hosting a radio show on Air America on Sunday nights. Steve Earle’s new album is called “The Revolution Starts…Now.”

  • Steve Earle, singer and songwriter.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Earle has begun hosting a radio show on Air America Sunday nights. His new album is called The Revolution Starts …Now. He does join us in our studio. Welcome, Steve.

STEVE EARLE: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to see you. What about this, the R.N.C. Soundtrack. Where do you fit in?

STEVE EARLE: Well I don’t. Even if I did fit in, I probably wouldn’t show up. People’s politics — there’s a little — you’re going to see more artists that, you know, that think more like I do, and by artists, I mean, artists with a capital “A”, and then recording industry definition of artist is you know, is — there’s — is a singer. A national one, I have lived there for 30 years. For the most part, you’re dealing with people that — the vast majority of them are not singer-songwriters. And it’s — there are some that are, but I think there’s a whole lot more people out on the road, think I, on the other side in the run-up to this election than there are, you know, out playing for the republicans.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you grew up in Texas and developed your — how did you develop your — in terms of your own political awareness and political consciousness?

STEVE EARLE: I came from just sort of a — it’s when I grew up in Texas. I came from a long line of old fashioned yellow dog democrats, but I was 14 years old, and already starting to play just a little precocious when it came to what I ended up doing for a living. I was too young to play places that served liquor. That meant coffee houses. The Vietnam War was going on. San Antonio is a military town. Four air force bases and ft. Houston when I was growing up. It polarized the community. Wars do that. Where I was hanging out was a politically active atmosphere. I came by it honestly. It never occurred to me to separate issues and music. I just didn’t learn to do it any other way.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your role in the play, The Exonerated, about people on death row, performed by people who have been exonerated?

STEVE EARLE: Yeah, I kind of watched that show being developed. You know, Eric Jensen was there last night presenting an award at the awards show. We have gotten to be friends over the course of that. One of the people that is portrayed in The Exonerated, is Sonny Jacobs. A dear friend of mine. I met her doing work against the death penalty. She was convicted of a murder that she did not commit in Florida, and along with her husband, and her husband was executed for that murder. They were convicted on the testimony of a person who was riding in a car that actually did commit the murders, and he testified against them and said they pulled the trigger, and she did 17 years. She did five of that in solitary confinement, and her husband was executed, and Jesse Tafaro was the guy that they had to pull the switch on three times and set him on fire in the process. It was a really, really brutal execution of someone that was not guilty. The Exonerated is — The Exonerated started out as a set of monologues that actors would deliver. The words was based on interviews and court transcripts. It’s a pretty amazing show. I hosted — I attended the very first reading of it at the United Nations several years ago. I hosted a reading of it in central park about a year after that. Then I actually before it closed here in New York, I performed Gary Gonger, the part of Gary Gonger in New York and I played Kerry Cook, who was actually from my dad’s hometown in Texas, and in a production of it national.

AMY GOODMAN: You served time in jail?

STEVE EARLE: I did about four-and-a-half months of a year sentence for stupidity. I’m a recovering heroin addict. I’m the only person this ever got time for simple possession, first offense, because I didn’t show up for my sentencing hearing which judges frown on in Tennessee or anywhere else.

AMY GOODMAN: You have written a song about the death penalty. You perform it a lot. Could you perform it here?

STEVE EARLE: I have written a bunch of them, over the years — which is how I got involved in the movement, and then I wrote a song years ago called “Billie Austin.” and people started calling me. And then I got out of jail and Tim Robins called me and asked me to write a song. He sent me a rough cut of a movie called Dead Man Walking and asked me to watch it and see if it inspired anything–which turned out to be the understatement of that year and my life. (singing) I was fresh out of the service it was back in ’82/ I raised some cane when I come back to town/ I went into be all I could be, and come about without a clue/ I had to settle down/ So I just hired on at the prison guess I always knew I would/ Just like my dad and both my uncles done/ I worked on every cell block now, and things were going good/ Til they transferred me to L.S. Unit 1.

Swing low, swing low, swing low and carry me home/ now, my daddy used to tell me about them long nights at the walls/ and how they used to strap 'em in the chair/ kids down from the college and they'd bring the beer and all/ when the lights went out, a cheer rose in the air/ I guess folk just got too civilized, no spark is gathering dust/ 'cause no one wants to touch a smoking gun/ they got that injection now and they don't mind as much, I guess/ they put 'em down on the shooting wand/ swing low, swing low, swing low and carry me home/ now, I seen ’em fight like lions, boys I seen ’em go like lambs/ I have helped to drag them when they could not stand/ and I heard their mamas crying when they heard the big doors slam/ and I seen the victims' family holding hands/ last night I dreamed that I woke up with straps across my chest/ something cold and black pumped through my lungs/ even Jesus couldn’t save me, though I know he did his best/ for he don’t live on L.S. Unit 1/ swing low, swing low, swing low and carry me home/ swing low, don’t let go — swing low, and carry me home.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Earle, here on Democracy Now! In our studio I can’t help but think about Johnny Cash a little bit, and our listeners and viewers know we play The Mercy Seed a lot. I don’t know if you have heard about the Republican Convention, but on Tuesday, the G.O.P. And the Mesh Gas Association, a network of 154 utility multinationals will be hosting an exclusive celebration for Cash for the Republican delegation of Tennessee inside the elite corridors of Sotheby’s auction house. Cash a Republican?

STEVE EARLE: John is rolling over in his grave. I promise you. Describing Johnny Cash as a Republican or Democrat is like almost not appropriate, but I mean, he was one of the people that supported me more than anyone. One of the very first people to call with a call of support after Juryslem came out about that. When I was locked up, he was one of the three people that wrote me letters. John was- was — he was somebody asked me about me once’ he said, well, Steve is kind of like me. He’s an Indian in the white man’s camp. He was always an outsider in national. And I — I find that offensive on that — I find that really, really offensive.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about John Walker Lindh blues. The controversy about it and also could you play some.

STEVE EARLE: Yeah. I mean, the — what happened — I’m–I don’t condone what John Walker Lindh did because I have a problem with anybody taking up arms against anybody for anything, but what I saw, when I saw him on TV was an underfed 20-year-old kid. I have a kid exactly the same age. He’s — my son’s two months younger than John Walker Lindh. And so, the first thing I thought was, my god, he’s got parents, and they have to be sick. They didn’t — they hadn’t heard from him in over two years, and the next time they see him, he’s duct taped naked to a board on CNN.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve, we only have two minutes. What we’re going to do is I’m going to thank the people who made the show and we’re going to go out with the song. Democracy now! is produced by… We’re going out with Steve Earle. I’m Amy Goodman here with Juan Gonzalez. Steve Earle wraps our show.

STEVE EARLE: (Singing) I’m just an American boy raised on MTV/ I seen all them kids in soda pop ads/ none of them look like me so I start looking around — from the light out of the dim/ first thing I heard that made sense was the word on Mohammad, “peace be upon him”/ there’s no god but god, if my daddy could see me now/ these chains around my feet you don’t understand, sometimes a man’s got to fight for what he believes/ and I believe god is great all praise due to Him/ and if I should die, I rise up to the sky like Jesus, “peace be upon him.”/ we come to fight the Jihad/ Our hearts were pure and strong when death is in the air, we all offered a prayer, and prepared for our martyrdom.

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