Steve Earle is flat out one of America’s great singer-songwriters. In fact, I’d say he’s in my top ten in that category. The list of great songs he’s written is abundantly long. Among them are Christmas in Washington (hear it here) and Ellis unit One (hear it here).
Christmas in Washington, from El Corazon, evokes the ironic juxtaposition of the hopeful Christmas spirit and hsitoric advocates of political change (Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Jesus, Emma Goldman, Joe Hill, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King) with the dismal expectations that we as Americans have of our elected officials:
It’s Christmastime in Washington
The democrats rehearsed
Gettin’ into gear for four more years of
Things not gettin’ worse.
The Republicans drink whiskey neat
And thanked their lucky stars
They said, ‘he cannot seek another term
They’ll be no more FDRs
I find that Earle’s politics, while quite left of center (and I clearly have no problem with that), are clear, direct and eminently well-reasoned. Not only that, he manages to embody his values in songs that contain deep drama and human feeling. This is the gift of the greatest of our songwriters.
Ellis Unit One appears on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. What is so unusual and riveting about this song, and what sets it apart from all the other worthy songs on this record is that Earle has chosen to dramatize not the perspective of the executionee (as most songwriters might choose to do) but the executioner. This causes the listener to take extra notice because Earle shows throught the mind and words of the Death Row trustee the corrosive impact that an execution has on all involved. This further strengthens the power of the anti-capital punishment position that Earle espouses in the song.
I also recommend Earle’s Goodbye from Train ‘a Comin‘, as a song which may recount his relationship with his wife during his heroin addiction. Presented after the fact, the narrator looks back on his addiction and the toll it’s taken on those who loved him and whom he disappointed and betrayed. It’s a heartbreaking and deeply moving song. I heard Earle perform at the Woodland Park Zoo here in Seattle a few weeks ago. Inexplicably, he betrayed the very essence of the song by introducing it as “the ultimate chick song.” I can’t fathom a man who writes an immensely powerful song and then in a phrase dismisses it’s real power. I guess it tells you the type of pain he felt in writing it and how difficult it must be to face it night after night when you perform it. Emmylou Harris also does an affecting cover verison on her mesmerizing Wrecking Ball.
WARNING: This mp3 blog exists to spread the wonder and genius that is traditional music. It does NOT exist to enhance your private mp3 collection. So by all means come, listen, enjoy, then follow the links to buy the music. If you come, listen, download, then leave—you’re violating the spirit behind this blog and doing nothing to support the artists featured here. And if you link to my mp3 file at your own site, then you’re stealing my bandwidth and being pretty uncool. So please don’t do it.