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Pt. 2 of Interview with Steve Earle: “Democracy is Something that is Contagious”

Web ExclusiveMay 13, 2011
Media Options

Singer-songwriter, actor and author Steve Earle joins us for an extended interview on the popular uprisings in the Middle East, and the connection he sees between his antiwar and anti-death penalty activism. The Grammy Award winner also performs “John Walker’s Blues,” a ballad he wrote from the perspective of the captured American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh, who is now serving a 20-year prison sentence.

Click here to watch the first part of his interview, in which he discussed his new album and novel of the same name, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re here with Steve Earle. Steve, continue with what you were saying about your dad.

STEVE EARLE: I’m writing songs for Joan [Baez], that Joan’s requested that I write. And I wrote “God is God” for that record, and I also wrote “I am a Wanderer.” And then, when I started putting songs together for this record, simply because I thought they were — the songs were — I was really proud of them, I called Joan and asked if it would be OK with her if I recorded them myself. And she said, “Of course.”

And then I was finishing the novel and didn’t know what the record was going to be called. The book was always going to be called I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. It’s about — it’s about a defrocked doctor living in San Antonio, Texas, in 1963, who’s a heroin addict, and he supports his habit largely by performing abortions. And 10 years earlier, he was traveling Hank Williams when he died, and Hank’s ghost has followed him to San Antonio and haunts him there. What else would you call a book like that? So it was sort of — I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive is the title of a Hank Williams song, the last record that he released. And the record — you know, I kept writing songs, and then when I sequenced it, I realized that the songs were about the same things that the book ended up being about, because most of the book was written since my dad died, too.

And, you know, when you’re — I’m old enough now, I’ve started to lose some friends. And then, when the generation before you passes on, you start realizing that you’re next, and you start thinking about — you know, I’ve had — it’s a lot about examining how we deal with death in this culture. You know, I think maybe that we have it — there might be other cultures that do a little better job of it than we do, that treat it a little more like part of life than we do. Sometimes I think our process of dying is more about people that don’t really have to die, and the person that’s left to do that, to make that big step, has to do it pretty much by themselves. And, you know, they say death and taxes are the only things that are inevitable. You know, you could not pay your taxes. I’ve done it. There are consequences, but, you know, you can elect not to pay your taxes. And death is the one thing we don’t get out of. And I just — I found myself thinking about it and writing about it. I don’t think in a morbid fashion. I’m hoping that my sort of left-of-center orientation to everything — pop, political, spiritual, everything else — that I’ll be — that I’ll be at least not completely and totally unprepared when it becomes my turn.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I wanted to ask you —- earlier in the show, we were dealing with what was going on in the Muslim world, in Yemen and in Syria and Iran. When you see, over the last few months, these enormous uprisings -—


JUAN GONZALEZ: — that have been occurring across the world, and yet here in this country still relative dormancy in terms of the American population, your sense for the future of art in this country, as well the future for the country?

STEVE EARLE: Well, I mean, I think it’s obvious that democracy is something that is contagious, and it always has been. And, you know, assuming that — I think, in our society, we tend to be — you know, we live in what’s been the most powerful country in the world for a long time, and I think we overestimate our ability to control all of that and affect all of that. And the fact of the matter is, democracy does just fine, and probably better, without our interference. And I think that’s been proven over and over again. And I think everyone — I mean, you know, I’m not someone that grew up believing that we necessarily practice the purest form of democracy in the world here or anything closest to it. And I think every society has to arrive at that. You know, it’s not that we can’t comment on it. It’s not that we can’t have an effect on it, I think. You know, but you have to take culture into consideration. And I think these things — you know, we’ve spent all this money, all this time, all this power and all these lives trying to affect what’s going on in other countries, in the name of democracy. And then, you know, I think when the Soviet Union vanished off of the map, I think it surprised us more than it did anybody else.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Steve, from the Mideast to the Midwest, you were in Madison. You were in that uprising. You performed.

STEVE EARLE: Well, I didn’t actually go. I started —- Tom Morello went. I was on call to go, and I never quite got there for a lot of reasons. But it -—

AMY GOODMAN: Ah, I thought you went. But you are well known for also singing labor songs.

STEVE EARLE: Yeah, that — no, that’s the most important thing that’s going on in the life of our democracy right now. Every place else in the world but here, trade unionism is a fundamental component of democracy — every place that even claims to be democratic in the world. Here, we separated our trade unions from the rest of the world a long time ago, and we did it on purpose. And, you know, it’s catching up with us now. And this defines us in the future, I think. Figuring out whether we are going to allow people to collectively bargain is — determines the quality of our democracy, from this point forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you want to sing a labor song for us right now?

STEVE EARLE: Oh, I have labor songs. Let’s see. I have all kinds of labor songs.

I can blame this on TSA. Let’s do — this is about labor and democracy and heroes.

[singing “Christmas in Washington”] It’s Christmastime in Washington
The Democrats rehearsed
Gettin’ into gear for four more years
The things not gettin’ worse
The Republicans drink whiskey neat
And thank their lucky stars
They said, “He cannot seek another term
There’ll be no more FDRs”
And I sit home in Tennessee
Staring at the screen
An uneasy feeling in my chest
And I’m wonderin’ what it means

So come back, Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow
If you run into Jesus
Maybe he can help you out
Come back Woody Guthrie to us now

Woody, [there’s foxes in the hen house]
Cows out in the corn
Our unions have been busted
Their proud red banners torn
But if you listen to the radio
They’ll tell you all is well
But you, me and Cisco know
It’s going straight to hell

So come back, Emma Goldman
Rise up, old Joe Hill
The barricades are goin’ up
They cannot break our will
Come back to us, Malcolm X
And Martin Luther King
We’re marching into Selma
While the bells of freedom ring

And come back, Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow.

AMY GOODMAN: Nice, nice, nice. Steve Earle. Steve, you’ve taken on the death penalty in a big way.

STEVE EARLE: It’s been — you know, you have to pick the fights you’re going to concentrate on, and I think it’s been my primary area of activism for — I mean, I got into a lot of antiwar stuff the last 10 years, because we’ve found ourselves in, you know, two-and-a-half wars. And it’s like, I think the issues are directly related, though. I think a country that didn’t have the death penalty would have never attacked a country that hadn’t attacked it simply because someone had to pay.

And that whole — I was glad I wasn’t in New York City the other night — I was in Chicago the night that Osama bin Laden was killed — simply because I — it makes me extremely uncomfortable to see kids jumping up and down chanting, “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.,” when anyone dies, because my belief is that diminishes us all. That’s my problem with the death — I’m not trying to save anybody on death row. I just really believe that it hurts — it’s toxic, and that it hurts all of us, when we teach retribution as a natural, legal remedy for violence. And I just wasn’t, you know, culturally raised that way when I grew up, and the people that sort of helped raised me as an activist and an artist.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And yet, we remain one of the few countries in the world that still has the death penalty, and the American people, many of them, still are not concerned about that.

STEVE EARLE: Well, you know, in defense of us, we are getting better about it. I mean, the death penalty is dying of natural causes, just like it did in the '60s, right now. It's just been abolished in Illinois. I think it’s because — for economic reasons. And you know what? It’s one of the reasons to — not the fundamental reason I do, but it’s a perfectly valid reason to be opposed to the death penalty. It’s just really, really incredibly expensive, and the money could be spent on things that are a whole lot better for us than trying to figure out how to kill our own citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Earle, could you wrap up with — well, you mentioned him at the beginning of the interview, and I think a lot of people have forgotten John Walker Lindh.

STEVE EARLE: Yeah, and it’s — I think it’s really important that we not forget John Walker Lindh. John Walker Lindh is — I know he’s 29 because my son’s 29. And a lot of the reasons the song exists is because I have a son exactly the same age. He’s in prison. He’s in a prison far away from home, which it was sort of promised that he wouldn’t be, that he wouldn’t be moved out of California, but he was. He’s in prison for — he’s serving 20 years, which he’s served less than half of, for something that no one’s proven that he did. He hasn’t been — we’ll never know what the agreement was. But, you know, he wasn’t even charged with treason, or anything else that carries this long a prison sentence. And, you know, he was there because he became a poster child, and he became something that people that were in power at the time felt like they could do to assuage a huge amount of anger and a huge amount of — it’s just this — it’s the cycle that we were talking about when we talked about the death penalty. It’s the idea of retribution and revenge. And he’s there paying for all of — he’s there for everybody that we couldn’t catch and everybody that we couldn’t kill at the time, which brings us to: what do we say to his parents now that Osama bin Laden is dead? What do we say to the parents of all of these kids that died in Iraq and Afghanistan, now that Osama bin Laden is dead? How do we justify this — you know, all of these guys and gals that we’ve got out there? It’s just — it didn’t make sense then, but with Osama bin Laden’s head on the proverbial platter, it makes even less sense now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, could you end by singing the John Walker Lindh song? John Walker Lindh, who was caught at the Sheberghan Prison in Afghanistan and remains in prison in this country. This is Steve Earle.

STEVE EARLE: And I like blame all these tuning issues I’m having on the TSA. They’re the people who last opened this guitar case.

[singing “John Walker’s Blues”] I’m just an American boy
Raised on MTV
I’ve seen all them kids in the soda pop ads
None of ’em looked like me
So I started lookin’ around
For a light out of the dim
The first thing I heard that made sense was the word
Of Muhammad, peace be upon him

A shadu la ilaha illa Allah
There is no god but God

If my daddy could see me now
These chains around my feet
He don’t understand that sometimes a man
Got to fight for what he believes
I believe God is great
All praise due to him
And if I should die
I’ll rise up to the sky
Like Jesus, peace be upon Him

A shadu la ilaha illa Allah
There is no god but God

We came to fight the jihad
And our hearts were pure and strong
When death filled the air
We all offered up prayers
And prepared for our martyrdom
But Allah had some other plan
Some secret not revealed
Now they’re draggin’ me back
With my head in a sack
To the land of the infidel

A shadu la ilaha illa Allah
A shadu la ilaha illa Allah.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Earle, thank you so much.

STEVE EARLE: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: And congratulations on your new CD, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, which comes with a DVD of the making of this film.


AMY GOODMAN: And pictures of your baby.

STEVE EARLE: Yeah. That’s John Henry.

AMY GOODMAN: John Henry. Doesn’t have a hammer in his hand at the moment, but does clearly have the faders of the —

STEVE EARLE: He was scaring T Bone to death there, yeah. He was like that up on the console, no doubt about it.

AMY GOODMAN: And also author of the new book by the same title, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, and just about to get an honorary degree, which is where he’s wearing his suit today, so congratulations on that, as well.

STEVE EARLE: Thank you, appreciate it.

AMY GOODMAN: CUNY Law School. Steve Earle.

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