When Jamey Johnson Sings “This Land Is Your Land”

Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” is an amazing song. NPR tells the story, which you may already know:

He was irritated by Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” sung by Kate Smith, which seemed to be endlessly playing on the radio in the late 1930s. So irritated, in fact, that he wrote this song as a retort, at first sarcastically calling it “God Blessed America for Me” before renaming it “This Land Is Your Land.” Guthrie’s original words to the song included this verse:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’
But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.

Guthrie’s recorded version was more or less lost until [1997]… Still, it was sung at rallies, around campfires and in progressive schools. It was these populist lyrics that had appealed to the political Left in America. Guthrie’s folk-singing son, Arlo Guthrie, and Pete Seeger have both made a point of singing the more radical verses to “This Land Is Your Land,” also reviving another verse that Guthrie wrote but never officially recorded…

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
by the relief office I saw my people.
As they stood hungry,
I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.

That’s not an easy verse. This song is not a nationalistic rah-rah ditty full of blind jingoism. It’s not even an actual patriotic heralding of America’s greatness. It is a lament for her people, left to suffer in hard times while the rich wall off their land and hoard the country’s growth – but it makes me love America all the more, for it sings of her true strength, its people. The words are, as Stephen Foster wrote in this blog’s namesake song, “a song that will linger forever in our ears… a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave, Oh! hard times come again no more.”

I have heard two singers cover This Land Is Your Land as a dirge, truly highlighting it as an ode to the poor: David Crowder and Jamey Johnson (who, side note, shares Guthrie’s birthday). They do it slowly, poigniantly, beautifully. I am moved every time I listen to either of them cover Guthrie.

So what the hell is wrong with Johnson’s audiences when he sings this song?

I saw him live last month in New Haven, CT. The music was great, but the audience was mostly terrible – far too many frat bros getting drunk on daddy’s money. They spent Johnson’s songs yelling insults at each other and spent the time in between the songs angrily screaming out requests for his biggest hits. “Seen it in Color!!! COME ON!!!!” Dude, have you not been to a show before? It’s his biggest hit. He’s going to play it, he’ll probably do it at the end, just shut up! Johnson himself, and his band, were great, especially with his George Jones medley and old Hank Cochran tunes, but I don’t blame him for not giving that unappreciative Friday night party crowd an encore.

But what cheesed me off the most was that when he sang his slow, beautiful cover of the “This Land Is Your Land,” INCLUDING the verse against private property, the crowd just chanted “USA! USA! USA!” like we were at the Olympics. No respect for the song’s true nature at all. Now, I can understand why everyone saw the song that way, given the way elementary schools sing the tune as one more patriotic ditty alongside God Bless America and America the Beautiful. It’s easy to not know the true backstory. But the way Johnson sings it – slow, solemn, minor chords – should be a clue that something special and different is happening. NOPE.

And it’s not just the Yale frat bros. I went looking for the song on YouTube, and found video of another show in Illinois where the crowd whooped and hollered, or just plain chatted, the whole way through. Those paying attention kept starting the verses faster than Johnson with no regard for pauses, the way they were taught in elementary school, ignoring his slower pace. It could just be the recording of course, with a different feel in the room, but the recording’s all we’ve got. What the hell is wrong with these people?

Anyway, rant over. All credit to Johnson himself; his approach to the song is perfect, even if the crowd isn’t paying enough attention to hear it. But I love the recording from Farm Aid 2015 – taken about a month before I saw him, and in Illinois like the other show – which I posted at the top. The video unfortunately includes audience members waving hands and beer cans, but the microphones are pretty much only on stage so it doesn’t interfere with the sound. I’m also including David Crowder’s similarly slow version, one of my favorite recordings of any song ever – even more than the Johnson, honestly, though I’ve not seen it live. Crowder’s was part of a series of protest songs released by Bono’s ONE poverty campaign:

(I wonder if they’re singing the same arrangement, or if they’re just being similarly slow? Either way, both are beautiful.)

 

The First Haikus I’ve Written Since High School, or, A Thank You Note to Country California

I’d like to offer a salute to Country California. Chris M. Wilcox’s one-man operation Country California was one of the best, and perhaps most important, independent and alternative country websites out there. I don’t blog nearly often enough, but when I do, it’s often inspired by something Chris included in a roundup of recent music quotes or country news. I also often appreciated his wit and humor, particularly in his country haikus. We’ve tweeted at each other a little, more recently.

After seven years, Chris is moving on from Country California. He’s certainly earned the right. You can keep reading his stuff, just not strictly about country music and without the news clipping service, at chrismwilcox.com – some new song lyrics on important topics like mass incarceration, and musings on topics like how we use social media for good and for ill. In his honor, I’d like to try my hand at some of them fancy haiku doohickeys.

What, California?
Country is Texas, Nashville!
Also, California.

Country is family
And it’s emotions and life
It is in your soul.

And apparently,
It is California.
Who saw that comin’?

This leaves a void that hopefully someone (not me) will be able to fill soon. That was a fact that Trigger lamented in a recent post on his important and impressive site Saving Country Music, “The Death of the Great American Music Blog.” There have been a number to go by the wayside in 2015 as writers find that adblockers are removing their revenue and folks just aren’t willing to pay for content. As a result, that content disappears. Everybody’s got to make rent, especially full-time writers, so off they go to the mainstream websites and the publicists. The downside to this, Trigger writes, is that

Blogs don’t appear to be getting replaced by anything, except maybe direct interactions between labels, publicists, artists, and the consumer, with no 3rd party to check the validity of the information being delivered, or to offer any perspective or opinion… And all of this could hurt independent, and small-time artists looking to get noticed more than it will larger, major label artists. Losing music blogs and websites for more economically-viable or technologically savvy replacements is one thing. Replacing them with nothing, and having the music industry itself fill in the void through bias, paid content could result in much bigger issues than no good place to read about your favorite bands.

Hard Times No More will likely never occupy the kind of space Saving Country Music does and Country California did. Music is my passion, but justice and faith are my calling. I would love to find a way to do this full time, but I’d also love to be the play-by-play man for ESPN’s Wednesday Night Baseball, and I think it might be fun to ride unicorns with Teddy Roosevelt across New Zealand. These things ain’t gonna happen. Maybe one day I’ll have both the time and energy to post three substantive articles a week. That would be nice. But I tip my hat to the folks who make this space run and who give it their all for even a few years. I hope that someone else will ride up to be their calvary – those of us with medical or students deferrments need you to win this for us.

The country landscape
It has become full of hope
Now, a little less

Still, we keep singing
Music is universal
Roads goes on forever

Good luck to you Chris
Thanks for all you’ve done for us
But really, try Texas

Everyone is Included when We Sing “This Land Is Your Land”

This blog was named after the Stephen Foster 1854 American folk song, “Hard Times Come Again No More“:

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.
‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.

The song doesn’t pray for no more hard times just for Christians, or just for Americans. It is a universal lament that every one of God’s children has felt during one dark time or another. Can’t we hear these words coming from the mouths of today’s victims of terrorism? From those Syrians who are persecuted, Muslim and Christian alike, by Daesh/ISIS and are now fleeing to our shores as refugees, crying out for a land of religious freedom like the English pilgrims before them?

Via @PastorDan

Via @PastorDan

I try to be a man of deep faith, and have certainly led a very political life, but I generally try to keep those things off of this blog. If justice is my calling and my career, then music is my passion and my hobby. I like to keep those two worlds separate so that the music can reach as wide an audience as possible for its own sake.

I can’t do that today. This is too important. Part of “Americana” music is “America” – and all the values that that word claims to stand for. Values like love, justice, compassion, and hospitality. America should not and can not stand for hatred, bigotry, nationalism, or rejection. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” These are the values we have always sung about, and what we must keep singing. What do we want America to be is a question that all of us answer every minute of every day, and need to talk about in every space, even music blogs. So I write today as an American, as a Christian, and also, later in this post, as a music fan, so if you only came for the music, please press on (or scroll down).

Donald Trump said this week that Muslims in the U.S. “absolutely” have to register in a database, and that we need more than just databases to manage them. He did not argue with comparisons to Third Reich Germany requiring its Jewish citizens to wear identifying symbols and tattoos. His bigoted broadside against religious freedom comes on the heels of Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz’s comments that America should allow Christian refugees, but not Muslim refugees – never mind that Daesh/ISIS’s primary victims are its fellow Muslims.

Jesus calls me to love everyone. Everyone means everyone, but especially Muslims, my brothers and sisters in the God of Abraham. These brothers and sisters face far too much violence – abroad from ISIS, at home from bigotry – leaving them bleeding at the side of the road. Jesus says I need to love my neighbor, to think of everyone as my neighbor, and to help the person bleeding by the side of the road. He used a Samaritan as the example, because Jews in 30 AD looked at Samaritans the same way Trump, Cruz, and Bush look at Muslims today. But, Jesus said, that’s not what matters.

I love what the Rev. Daniel “@PastorDan” Schultz wrote on Twitter this week about the refugees:

“You want to witness to the gifts of Christ? This is how you do it. You care for the poor, the powerless, the strangers. Yes, even though there’s some risk. *Because* there is some risk. Because to be a Christian is to open ourselves to vulnerability, in imitation of Christ who made himself vulnerable to us.”

Syrian Girl Osman Sagirli

The photographer, Osman Sagirli, said the little Syrian girl thought his camera was a gun, so she put her hands up as her mother had taught her.

Trump has led the presidential primary polls for months. Cruz has shown he has the influence to shut down the federal government, and Bush is the son and brother of two past U.S. presidents. These men matter, a great deal. Don’t think that the history books won’t record their hatred and ignorance, or that the rest of the world isn’t taking notice now – and don’t think that those historians and global neighbors won’t also attribute that hatred and ignorance to us if we are not seen speaking out, loudly and vehemently. American Muslim citizens are also noticing, and we need to let them know that we stand by them. They need to feel that they are not alone or endangered during this dark time. If we don’t light a candle in the darkness, who will?

It is especially important for us country and Americana fans to speak out. The country music world is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) white and Christian. Americana may not be quite as heavily Christian, but it is also a very white genre. We are the ones who are most likely to support politicians like Trump, Cruz, and Bush. We are the ones being defined by their words. We are also the ones with the most ability to become good neighbors to all of our brothers and sisters. But just as our actions can be powerful, so is our inaction – we are the ones who can leave our Muslim friends feeling abandoned, ignored, and threatened. We need to choose action over inaction, and stand with them in love.

Let’s also remember that there is a long, rich musical tradition of singing out our values of compassion, love, and justice, especially in Americana, country, and folk. It wasn’t just Foster. Woody Guthrie wrote the dust bowl ballads about struggling farmers and migrant workers. Pete Seeger sang about unions and fair wages. So much of roots music was shaped by slave spirituals, praising God and yearning for that most precious human right, freedom. After 9/11, many country stars emphasized the importance of standing together. And folk music was home to hundreds of civil rights and Vietnam War protest songs. (Many ask where today’s protest songs are. They still exist, but they’re not folk anymore – they are hip hop. But in a way, if folk music is the lyrical voice of a people, isn’t hip hop the folk music of certain urban landscapes? I digress.)

Returning to the issue at hand, America is “one nation, under God” and “e pluribus unum” – out of many, one. We do not treat Muslims differently than Christians. We are one people. And it’s not just a slogan – it’s the law. As our First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” And earlier, in Article VI, paragraph 3, we read, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Rejecting people of a faith different than our own could not be more un-American. If we do not stand for religious freedom for all, we do not stand for religious freedom at all, and we do not sing our country songs of praise with pure or honest hearts.

I cried for 15 minutes when I saw this picture of little Aylan Kurdi in September, just three years old. Photographer Nilufer Demir of the Dogan News Agency said her "blood froze."

I cried for 15 minutes when I saw this picture of little Aylan Kurdi in September, just three years old. Photographer Nilufer Demir of the Dogan News Agency said her “blood froze.”

We have made these mistakes before. At the same time that Hitler was requiring the Jews to register, we were turning them away, refusing to let in refugees because we were afraid that German spies would hide among their ranks. One of the would-be refugees denied entry was Anne Frank herself. We have made these mistakes before. We cannot make them again.

And it’s easy to love Muslims. Like George W. Bush told us, Islam is a religion of peace. Yes, it has its violent Scriptures, but so does Christianity. Terrorists are to Islam what the KKK, Westboro Baptists, or Irish wars are to Christianity. But even if this were not true, we are also called to love our enemies.

I don’t have to choose values-based arguments – there is definitely a practical side to this issue. I could argue, and have elsewhere, that turning away refugees is exactly what ISIS wants us to do (and they’ve said so in their propaganda to one another). I could argue in favor of the rigorous 18-month vetting process that refugees face. I could point to the overwhelmingly positive statistics that show refugees simply don’t commit terrorism here. I could talk about how it doesn’t make sense for a terrorist to come as a refugee – there are faster, easier ways to strike.

But values are what matter most. We show who we are when times are hard, not when they’re easy. This is when it’s most important to stand by the values we proclaim, and not shrink like cowards in the face of fear. I think Joe Biden put it wonderfully yesterday in an off-the-cuff answer to a reporter’s question:

“One way to make sure that the terrorists win is for us to begin to change our value system. That’s number one. Number two, we have a real vetting system for refugees coming into the country. We can assure Americans that they will be safe. For us to turn our back now, for us to turn our back now on refugees is turning our back on who we are. The only way terror wins is if they cause you to change your value system. ISIS is no existential threat to the United States of America – simply stated, they are not. And we are going to be working as hard as we can to open our arms to refugees.”

Shame on every member of the U.S. House of Representatives, both Republican and Democrat, who voted against American values of compassion, hospitality, and justice yesterday – and shame on every one of us who stands idly by without saying a word. Please, look up how your member voted here, then call Congress and ask for your representative at (202) 224-3121 to either thank or chastise them. And because this conversation needs to be loud and public, please share posts like this one, and also this one from the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the one from above by Pastor Dan, this one, and this one on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or whatever else you use. It won’t be easy – you might have friends or family who fight you for it. But that’s why it matters. That’s where love needs to be planted most.

“For the Lord your God is god… who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:18–19

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Matthew 25:35

Jason Aldean’s Racist Halloween Costume

Jason-Aldean-Halloween

H/T Saving Country Music

Saving Country Music is reporting that pop country star Jason Aldean dressed in blackface for Halloween.

Make no mistake about it: Dressing in blackface as a white person is, whether intentionally or not, an incredibly racist thing to do. And it was barely a month ago that Aldean was also slamming the women of country music.

How do we know what’s racist? By listening to those who are minorities when they tell us what they find hurtful. I am only an expert in my own story. You are only an expert in yours. We must all listen to one another, and trust and respect what we hear.

One of the reasons I post so less often than I would like here at Hard Times is that, as of this past August, I am blessed to be a seminarian at Yale Divinity School. Yale’s been in the news a bit lately over some racist incidents of our own. As you may have heard, the school’s Intercultural Affairs Committee emailed all undergraduates and asked them to choose against wearing “culturally unaware and insensitive” Halloween costumes, specifically mentioning blackface, turbans, and Indian headdresses. A residential dean flipped out, charging that asking students to make such a choice is censorship and that minorities should just look away. This dean is white, but had no trust in minority students with experiences different than her own when they spoke out about their pain and politely asked others to stop causing that pain. She has not handled the incident well since then, either, only deepening the pain. Worst of all, this comes on the heels of a frat turning away black women from a party, letting in only white women. As a result of these compounding incidents, many minority students do not feel welcome here.

How do we know what’s racist? Again, not by looking at the motives behind the action, but by listening to people when they tell us what hurts them. Not everything I do is about me, so I must be careful not to confuse my intent with my impact. Once I’ve learned that I’m having a negative impact, then no matter what my original intention, I need to stop. Yet despite decades of black Americans and American Indians telling us that wearing blackface and headdresses hurts them, many – like Jason Aldean – continue to do so anyway, and when confronted, show thin skin and make someone else’s pain about themselves by screaming against “political correctness.” (Aldean hasn’t had a chance to respond to this breaking story yet; that is a generalization of similar incidents.)

Aldean may well be a good man with a pure heart and maybe he didn’t have racist intentions. I don’t know, and it’s really not the point – his actions were racist nonetheless, and he needs to apologize. Unfortunately, with this costume coming on the heels of his sexist comments in September, that won’t be enough. The country music industry, and its fans, needs to set a better image and hold up better role models. Jason Aldean appears to be self-absorbed with little regard for the pain or realities of women or Black Americans, and he perpetuates Southern stereotypes. I hope he finds redemption, but he should have absolutely no place on country’s center stage anymore.

The blues album Travis Tritt wishes he made: A review of Chris Stapleton’s “Traveller”

Wednesday night, country rocker Chris Stapleton took the Country Music Association Awards by storm with a clean sweep for the independent and underground country movement with his album “Traveller.”

I’ve been meaning to review Traveller for months. I’ve never blogged as much as I’d like to and grad school makes it even tougher, but here it is, the long-overdue Hard Times No More review of Traveller:

3.75 whiskey bottles out of 5.

You’re asking, WTF? Empsall, did you drink the other 1.25 bottles?

Well, it is the best album I will ever give less than a 4. I give it 3.75 only because of this blog’s lens. If current country radio is the standard, then Traveller definitely gets a 6 out of 5 – let the whiskey overflow across the floor. If good music in general is the standard, 4.5 out of 5. It’s great stuff, but I’m looking for solid country and Americana music that stands up within the genre. On that particular front, this album is track by track. There’s nothing bad, but not really anything that really knocks me out, either. This is a good album, I like Chris Stapleton as a musician, but for this genre, while it’s really good, it’s also overhyped. I also think there’s a certain storytelling element lacking here that’s usually found on the best country albums. There’s a musical theme, but not quite the lyrical one I want.

Don’t get me wrong. I am thrilled Stapleton swept the CMAs. A talented songwriter for pop-country artists who’s also immersed in the bluegrass and traditional country worlds yet is not a pure traditionalist is probably the only workable bridge between the underground and the mainstream, and as I wrote yesterday, Stapleton’s wins give country fans more hope than we’ve had in a decade.

TravellerBut as for the album itself – for me, it’s a mix. Stapleton’s voice is a bit like Travis Tritt with a twist of Sam Cooke or maybe even Leon Bridges. But while those folks are great and I wish I could stretch a high note like that, it’s not what you expect. If you don’t mind that, if all you want is great music regardless of type, very cool, definitely put the album in your heavy rotation. I certainly enjoy it. I like this album – I’m just reviewing it as a country album. And Stapleton himself, who’s been in Southern rock and bluegrass bands, both genres that I love, has said he doesn’t want to stay in one box.

Producer Dave Cobb can do no wrong, and the album is well produced with a good vision. It’s a little slicker than Cobb’s work with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Nikki Lane, Shooter Jennings, etc., but a good vision nonetheless.

My two favorite songs are “Fire Away”, co-written with Danny Green which shows off Stapleton’s wide range and solid tenor voice while staying in a country style, and “Whiskey and You,” co-written with Lee Thomas Miller, and recorded previously by Tim McGraw and Jason Eady. Eady’s cover is one of my favorite songs. Great guitar on both.

“Parachute,” co-written with Jim Beavers, feels like a Bob Seger tune covered by Chris LeDoux. Southern rock, not country, but I dig it.

I really want to like “More of You.” It’s so close to being my favorite, but ultimately misses the top tier. I love the songwriting, the slow melody, the beautiful vocal duet with his wife Morgane, and the Willie Nelson style harmonica. What I don’t love, oddly enough, is the mandolin. Just lightly strumming away on the same couple chords the whole time, it gives the song a high pitch that makes it feel too light. It also feels bluegrass, and while I love bluegrass, that doesn’t seem what this song wants. It should’ve been an octave lower on an acoustic guitar, I think. But I will say this, it grows on me every time I hear it.

The only song I straight up don’t like is “Tennessee Whiskey,” a cover of the Dean Dillon/Linda Hargrove song. I LOVE the song. I heard Jamey Johnson sing it live last month, and it was amazing. I sing it to my girlfriend. Hat’s off to George Jones. But this is a bizarre bluesy cover. Why cover a country classic like a blues song… on a country album? It’s talented, but it feels very out of place. And Stapleton can certainly sing smoothly enough to nail a “smooth as Tennessee whiskey” version.

“Traveller” is a good album. You should buy it. It’s the CD Travis Tritt wishes he had  released in the 1990s – he could have done that great cover of “Was It 26”. In a broader sense, it’s certainly another Americana triumph for Dave Cobb. I think it’s immensely overhyped, but it is good, I will listen to it again, I would love to see Stapleton live, and I am so grateful for all that it has accomplished for true fans of true country music. Trigger said it best: “It certainly is something to be taken as a very good sign, even if you’re just ho hum on Stapleton.” Yup, that’s me, but I’ll echo this as loudly as I can: “It’s a win for music of more substance, regardless of who made it, and what style it is.”