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Is this land still your land?

As a child, all of the adults who surrounded you, towered over you, said the same thing: Never lie. Lying is wrong.

In elementary school, you joined your classmates in singing:

This land is your land, this land is my land

From California to the New York Island

From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me.

If you attended Sunday school, perhaps you heard that one of Jesus’ teachings was the riches of earth are temporary, that we should be seeking spiritual treasures rather than a private jet with your name emblazoned on the side.

And in your junior high history or social studies classes, you likely heard about the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

So what’s happened to all of that? We have a mentally unstable president who each day issues a torrent of demonstrably disprovable lies, while he lives a life of privilege built on corruption. We live in a land that was not made for you and me, but was made for the rich. And when people who yearn to breathe free come to our borders, we chase them away.

In our adult world, we do not live up to the standards that were set for us when we were young. Perhaps the United States never lived up to those standards, and we’re simply paying lip service to a vision of society that makes us feel better, but doesn’t actually exist.

It’s either over for Trump, or it’s over for us. Everywhere we turn, virtually every day now, we find smoking guns. Big ones. To quote Dirty Harry Callahan, his week’s revelations have been the equivalent of “this being a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well do ya, punk?”

We’re out of luck. Since the first speculation that Russia may have interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, I wondered: How would the Russians even know where to concentrate their efforts to affect the outcome? Wednesday we learned that Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, turned over campaign polling information to Russian citizens connected to the Russian government. What other possible reason is there for Manafort to do that, other than the Trump campaign was asking the Russians for help in defeating Hillary Clinton?

It’s called collusion. Treason, even.

You may call me naive, and insist that the world is a dangerous place full of terrorists, and the end justifies all means. I will call you delusional. All of these lies and all of this corruption and contempt for science and facts isn’t making us any safer. In fact, the new landscape of chaos and crisis is tearing apart our elections, our democracy, our trust in our leadership, and our trust in each other.   

Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” actually had alternate versions over the years. It was re-written by Guthrie many times, verses were added, then eliminated. He wanted the song to project the right balance of warning against unchecked authority, yet faith in the common people.

And so it is, in this – yet another version – of an amusingly prescient verse written by Guthrie, a version I found yesterday on the internet:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;

Sign was painted, it said private property;

But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;

This land was made for you and me.

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Steve Earle, and protecting the American Dream

Steve Earle at Anthology.

There was a moment, at the turn of the century, when the music community was looking past the face paint and suggesting that Kiss was some kind of genius thing. But at the 2000 South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, I saw Steve Earle put an end to that. Earle was the keynote speaker that year, and opened his address for the gathering of music-industry types and journalists by announcing, “Kiss never was great, Kiss is not great and Kiss never will be great.”

That sealed the deal for me: Steve Earle is an unapologetic original.

I’ve been thinking about Earle, and playing his music for a week now, following his show at a packed Anthology, the downtown Rochester club. Steve Earle & the Dukes, a hard-rocking band with a beautiful mix of acoustic instrumentation: fiddle, accordion, harmonica, mandolin, upright bass, vocal harmonies. A show celebrating the 30th anniversary of the release of Earle’s Copperhead Road album, played in its entirety, from start to finish. Followed by 15 more songs from Earle’s career, including a few well-chosen covers.

Most of us seemed to be there not only for the music, but for the attitude. And Earle, sporting some kind of samurai-warrior headband, is not shy about delivering.

Earle has famously been married seven times to six different women. His drinking and drug use – heroin, cocaine, LSD – nearly killed him. He’s single now, joking at the show that his therapist has told him that he enters into doomed relationships because in actuality he likes to be alone. He’s also been sober, and drug free, for nearly a quarter century. And it’s been a while since he’s been in jail.

Out of this, we’ve seen a relentlessly productive creativity. Besides the music, Earle’s acted, and acted out. Social issues are a big part of his life. Intensely anti-death penalty, he’s stood vigil outside of prisons where executions were underway. The title character of his 2005 play, Karla, is Karla Faye Tucker, a convicted murderer who was the first woman to be executed in Texas since the Civil War. The protagonist in his 2011 novel, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, is a doctor who performs illegal abortions, and is haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams. In 2002 Earle wrote a song, “John Walker’s Blues,” that sympathized with a young American named John Walker Lindh, a Muslim convert who joined the Taliban and was captured by U.S. forces during the early stages of the war in Afghanistan; Lindh is still serving a 20-year-sentence without parole because of his actions, and Earle received death threats because of his words.

Earle also has an autistic son, so now that has become a cause as well.

Music. The world’s ills. Healing. Earle is a multi-tasker.

It had been nearly two years since the last time I saw Earle perform. Trump had just been elected president. Earle opened his set with “City of Immigrants.” The song where he reminds us, “All of us are immigrants, all of us are immigrants.” And he closed the show with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Words we all learn in elementary school, except some schools leave out the lines Earle likes, the more-provocative lines:

As I went walking, I saw a sign there

And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”

But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,

That side was made for you and me.

Earle’s Anthology show, and the Copperhead Road revival, had that provocative side.

The ’80s was an era of cassette tapes, Earle noted, because that’s how you listened to music in your car. But as Earle explained it, the album itself was from that distant era of music on vinyl records, Side A and Side B. Producer Phil Spector once called the first and last songs on each side “the four corners” of an album. And although Earle conceded that he sold a lot of Copperhead Road cassettes, the album was built for vinyl. Side A of Copperhead Road is the political side. The politics was a nation coming to terms with Vietnam. The title track is about a Vietnam vet who forsakes the family moonshine business to grow pot.

And Side B is, as Earle explained, the “chick” songs. All of the great songwriters are multi-taskers. Bob Dylan wrote great social songs, as should a world-aware man of the 1960s. And married twice – maybe more, he’s been very secretive – Dylan writes great love songs as well.

Earle also does both. He writes his social conscious. And he writes about love. With the experience of a man who’s been married seven times. I guess that makes him 3½ times the love-song writer that Dylan is.

Look around. Where do you find this country’s social consciousness? Certainly not in the Trump administration, where the legitimacy of truth has been destroyed.

When truth makes an appearance, it is often in dramatic fashion, as in the marches we’ve seen over the last two years in this country. At his Anthology show, Earle recalled how he was on his tour bus watching a day of protest by young people – I think he was referring to 2018’s March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C., after 17 students and staff were killed, and another 17 wounded, at the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. And Earle remarked on how that gathering of young people – and there were also about 880 related marches around the country that weekend – was larger than Trump’s inauguration crowd.

So we have moments like that, and the Women’s March the day following Trump’s inauguration. Again, a larger crowd than the Trump inauguration gathering.

But the crowds dissipate, everyone goes home, back to work. Much of the country lives paycheck to paycheck these days, there’s no time to take to the streets every time a new outrage is thrown in our faces.

We cannot allow authority figures to make decisions unchecked. We must be the balance. Last month, the Texas State Board of Education finally decided to concede that the Civil War was fought over slavery, and not the whitewashing – pardon the pun – “states rights” issue many of us were taught in school. Never turn your back on these people: They were also discussing removing Helen Keller and Hillary Clinton from classroom guidelines. Even while preserving a claim that Moses, who historians aren’t sure even existed, influenced the writing of the U.S. Constitution.

But, thankfully, Earle exists. And thousands of other songwriters who have written music of consciousness for our era. Guthrie, Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Ani DiFranco, Pete Seeger, Earle. This year, Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” Have you heard it? Even more startling, have you seen the video? A stunning vision of our country caught in a desensitized thrall of casual violence.

Whether you agree or disagree, our songwriters and artists should never apologize for speaking truth to power. We needed it when Woody Guthrie was challenging the corporate special interests that were ruining the American Dream. And we need it today, when… well, when the corporate special interests are ruining the American Dream.

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Just write about music? Impossible.

Not too long ago, an editor I used to work with told me, “I wish you would just write about music.”

I looked at him and said, “But you’re a Bob Dylan fan.”

The point being, there is no way to separate the arts and social commentary. Important music, literature and art is not wallpaper. They reflect back on us what is happening. Writers and artists engage us in a constant dialogue on our society.

This often gets lost in a dense forest in which we now find ourselves wandering. As women turn over rotting logs to shed light on sexual harassment and sexual assault, the #MeToo movement has the feel of being an epic moment in this country’s social evolution. Black Lives Matter remains relevant with each news report of an unarmed black man being shot by police.

How do we keep the notoriously Attention Deficit Disorder American public focused on these issues, which are not going away?

Theater is a particularly receptive canvas for social commentary. The performances are not static, the original intent of the piece’s creator can be manipulated through costume, prop and stage set. As happened last year with Rochester’s Blackfriars Theatre’s staging of a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with an all-women cast. Which I guarantee was not what Shakespeare had in mind.

In perusing the recently announced new season at Geva Theatre Center, it’s clear that the group is once again on board with both the struggle of women and minorities in America. With the 2018-’19 season, women have written or will direct more than half of the 11 productions. The authors of five of the plays, and the directors of four of the plays, will be people of color. A diverse and inclusive lineup, just as it was last season. As Artistic Director Mark Cuddy told me then, “I have my personal motivations. Each artist has his own motivations.

“We’re in a different era,” Cuddy said. “Not everyone understands that.”

What era? The arts is responding to the Donald Trump era. With leading spokespeople such as Steve Earle. When I last saw an Earle concert a year ago, just one month into the Trump presidency, he opened with “City of Immigrants.” And Earle closed his show with a rousing sing-along of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Bookends rejecting devisiveness, celebrating a diverse America, one that belongs to its many people.

In Rochester, same thing. Retired newspaper reporter Jack Jones, now a folk singer, wrote a song borrowing from Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The Dady Brothers heard it, re-wrote it a bit, and recorded it. Fred Armstrong’s Animatus studio created an animated video. The new song: “Mr. Tangerine Man.”

Jack Jones, The Dady Brothers and Fred Armstrong aren’t irresponsible outliers. They are longstanding, respected contributors to our community. They are artists speaking out. You see and hear such voices everywhere now. Trump was merely president-elect when Meryl Streep, speaking at the 2017 Golden Globe Awards, evoked the words of the late Carrie Fisher. “As my friend, the dear departed Princess Leia, said to me once, take your broken heart, make it into art.”

Many people will still insist that arts should just shut up and look pretty. Unless you’re a contractor buying landscapes for motel-room walls, that’s never happened. America is at its best when it questions. Questions that linger long after the people who were elected to represent us are forgotten. Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and a man of no honorable principles or accomplishments, is leaving Congress in January. By February, his face will already be fading from memory.

Yet I’ll still be listening to Steve Earle. And Woody Guthrie.

I think of “No Surrender,” a Bruce Springsteen song. “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school,” that’s the line. And that’s the way it was for a lot of us.

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