It feels appropriate for a post on Townes Van Zandt to be followed by one on Steve Earle given his recent TVZ covers album and general hero-worship. Also, as I write the news is on in the background and I'm being told that President Obama is currently in Saudi Arabia trying 'to reach out to the Muslim World'. Obama would do well to listen to Earle's 'John Walker Blues' (Jerusalem, 2002) as a starting point in American relations with Islam. (Actually, if my take on this song is right - he probably has!).
The song is about John Walker, an American convert to Islam, who fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan before being captured in 2001. He's currently serving a 20 year sentence in the US. Lyrics can be found here. Now I can imagine that this subject is a pretty emotive issue for lots of people - Walker is considered a traitor and his story came as a shock to many.
However, I don't think for a moment that Earle is condoning violence or fundamentalism in this song. What I think he does instead is to transfer the emotion to a different place by writing the song from Walker's point of view - a regular guy looking for meaning in life and who follows his convictions (however misguided) once he finds something that makes sense to him. I personally find the song very challenging because it cuts through so much of the hysteria surrounding Islam - it is an individual that is being sung about, not the breathtakingly overstated 'clash of civilizations' agenda. The 'blues' is not just a take on Walker's own story of being hauled back to the US as a prisoner but in America's failure to offer Walker something in the first place that touched his soul. Of course we could offer many excuses for why that may be - no doubt his family, his upbringing would be cited - but then again we in the Western world could perhaps take a hard look at ourselves and wonder why we're surprised at all.