Art Imitating Activism

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

-- Steve Earle, "Christmas in Washington"

Steve Earle, country-rock maverick and death penalty abolitionist, bemoaned the lack of political activism in popular music in Christmas in Washington, a 1997 recording. But Earle doesn't just sing about the issues close to his heart. He lends his time, money, and creative energy to a number of causes, most notably stopping capital punishment. While many rock stars sing from a soapbox, very few have the goods to back it up. Earle's commitment to his convictions has exposed the complicated and emotional death penalty debate to an audience that may not otherwise take a position. By infusing his art and public statements with activism, Earle may have single-handedly brought the "protest singer-as-instrument-of-social-change" back from the dead. Woody Guthrie may finally get to smile from his grave.

"Welfare rights, opposing the death penalty -- Earle doesn't fit the Nashville stereotype," wrote David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation. "Hell, he's done more on-the-ground activism than most legislators. Not bad for a guy who five years ago was imbibing $800 worth of coke and heroin a day. (He's been clean for four years.) [Six years now --Ed] Earle deserves as much notice, if not more, as your average congressman."

Though Earle may deserve the notice, he doesn't necessarily want it. The singer-songwriter -- who has half-jokingly described himself as "to the left of Mao Zedong" -- uses his audience, his bully pulpit, to express his views on capital punishment and raise awareness. After piquing their interest, it is incumbent upon the listener to take a side, and hopefully, pick up a placard. Earle thinks that his anti-death penalty concerts -- in cooperation with Journey of Hope, Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing (TCASK), and other anti-capital punishment organizations -- will connect with his audience.

"The whole thing with these shows is to stop it before it starts," Earle told The Commercial Appeal last year. "I know from personal experience -- from seeing it -- that once this gets started, once the first killing happens, there develops this really dark, hard-to-overcome momentum. It's much easier to stop this now, before the first killing. Once it gets going, the state has blood on its hands, which means we have blood on our hands -- there is no 'they.' Once that happens, we have to start rationalizing it. And it'll be much harder to put an end to it."

The "personal experience" of which Earle speaks is the execution (by lethal injection) of Jonathan Nobles, which the singer witnessed in 1998. Nobles was convicted of brutally killing two Texas women. The experience obviously changed Earle and increased his already strong commitment to the abolition of capital punishment.

"Jon was guilty of an incredibly heinous crime," Earle told The Toronto Sun recently. "He spent the last 11 years of his life trying to understand why he did what he did. He changed. It was a huge waste, 'cause when the system manages to foster in any way, even by accident, a change like that, we need to keep those people around to find out what the fuck we did right.

"I can name you a hundred intellectual reasons why I oppose the death penalty. But really I object to the damage it does to my spirit, because if my government takes a life in what's ostensibly a democracy, then I'm taking a life. I'm not okay with that."

The most tangible evidence of Earle's friendship with Nobles is Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song), from his latest CD, Transcendental Blues. The song takes no side on the death penalty, but instead tries to humanize Nobles. Earle, whose narrative lyric writing gets stronger with each new album, places himself in Nobles' shoes. It joins a strong canon of Earle songs that are political in nature, but Over Yonder represents a personal, rather than intellectual or political, perspective on capital punishment.

"The thing about Jon is, he changed so much while he was in jail. They killed a different person than they convicted," Earle told Jam Showbiz. "It was a hard thing. Jon had this prankster thing going on. Two months after he died, I suddenly got this letter from John. He gave it to his sister and I got this letter literally after he died. He wrote it knowing he would be dead when I received it. It was pretty spooky."

"We got to know each other pretty good before it was all over with. We corresponded for years, and then we had to get to know each other real well in the six days before he was executed. I am writing an article for this magazine, Cocoon, which is about that. It is the first time I have set an eyewitness account down. I am in the middle of that right now. I am having to re-live it."

"He wasn't cocky," Earle told The Associated Press of Nobles' last minutes. "He cried, but he wasn't whining. It wasn't about him. He apologized to one survivor of the attack, and he apologized to the mother of one of his victims. It was a heartfelt apology, and then he read a Bible verse."

"He said he wanted one person who didn't hate him who could tell the world how he died," Earle said to Men's Journal's Mark Jacobson, shortly after journeying to Huntsville, Texas. "Lethal injection is what made the death penalty all right again in this country... it's supposed to be painless. They had me in a little Plexiglas booth. In another booth were members of the victims' families. Jonathan sat out there in a little rotunda. The booths have microphones in them so you can hear what goes on, if you can believe that. Jonathan asked his family what his final words should be. They told him not to say anything, that he should sing, because he always had a nice singing voice. So he sat there singing Silent Night, when suddenly, in the middle of the line 'mother and child', the air exploded out of his lungs as if an invisible anvil had been dropped on his chest. I'll never forget how loud that sound was. It wasn't merely air being forced out of a man's lungs as his diaphragm collapsed in a drug-induced spasm. It was like the sound of a life -- a soul, if you will -- being ripped violently from the body of a living human being.

"It was murder. Afterward, when I left the prison, I could barely walk... The idea of life and death being that close... it overtook me."

Rather than drown himself in anger, though, Earle has turned the horror he witnessed into a vehicle for social change.

"I am one of a really small number of people who has actually seen the state kill somebody so I'm coming at this from a little different place," Earle told The Chicago Sun-Times late last year. "Sister Helen [Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking], who has seen it a lot more than I have, says that it will either paralyze you or it'll galvanize you. Well, I'm galvanized."

Though Earle is galvanized now, his commitment to stopping the death penalty dates back to Billy Austin, a track from the 1990 album The Hard Way that pre-dates Earle's fall from grace and subsequent rebirth. Starting in 1991, Earle practically ditched music to hang out on Nashville's south side, smoking crack and shooting speedballs. After an arrest, and a three-month stay in the pokey, for misdemeanor possession in 1994, Earle cleaned up and began recording a series of albums that melded his personal heartbreak (six marriages, two to the same person) and political activism.

In 1995, director Tim Robbins asked the reformed Earle to write a song for the soundtrack of Dead Man Walking, Robbins' adaptation of the book. Earle contributed Ellis Unit One, one of the most powerful songs of his illustrious career. A far cry from Guitar Town, the hillbilly-rock hit that signaled Earle's Nashville arrival in 1986, Ellis Unit One was sung from the perspective of a death row guard. Sung in a hushed, raspy whisper, accompanied only by acoustic guitar and harmonium, Ellis Unit One officially marked Earle's reemergence as a songwriting force to be reckoned with. Evoking the populist narrative of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, the song is a crucial road marker in Earle's long career.

...Well, I've seen 'em fight like lions, boys I've seen 'em go like lambs And I've helped to drag 'em when they could not stand And I've heard their mamas cryin' when they heard that big door slam And I've seen the victims families holding hands...

"What happened was I grew up in a home that was opposed to the death penalty, and I've always been fundamentally opposed to the death penalty. And I wrote Billy Austin in 1990 and the movement, people from the movement, started calling me," Earle told Buffalo Beat contributor Alan Sculley. "For a long time, I just sort of showed up at rallies and sang. Then I got out of jail and a lot of things in my life had changed. I started doing things differently and one of the first things I did was Dead Man Walking... At that point it went into another level. I felt like I had to do more than I was doing."

One activist who has witnessed Earle's dedication to the movement is Susan McBride of the Nashville-based Restorative Justice Ministries.

"One thing I really appreciate about Steve is that he just knows that the death penalty is bad because it doesn't allow for healing," McBride said. "Seeing him with the inmate's family brought home the part of the pain few people see. The family of the person being put to death is often treated as bad or worse than the inmate accused of the crime. Steve was sensitive to their hurt and sat in the living room of the house where they stayed during one of the stays of execution.

"An occasion occurred after a vigil held at a local church. It ended up being a time of celebration which we took on over to the place the family of Robert Glen Coe [who was executed earlier this year in Tennessee] was staying. Steve played for them and it warmed these folks."

While Earle's opposition to the death penalty is a moral one, he does offer political, spiritual and economic solutions.

"It's hard to be opposed to the death penalty without getting involved in poor people's issues, because the death penalty preys on poor people," he told The Commercial Appeal. "And there's a reason for that. We don't want to think about them; we don't want to deal with them. We're at a weird place in this country. Yesterday I picked up the Atlanta Sunday paper and it said 'Jimmy Carter at 75 on the Stingiest Nation in the World.' It's not just us. It's worldwide. We're not the only country that doesn't take care of our poor and less fortunate. But we definitely do a worse job than most places."

Americans, Earle continued, are a selfish lot "because we've convinced an entire generation of kids they're destitute if they make less than $80,000 a year. And we constantly advocate that people who are not entrepreneurial deserve to starve to death. We're throwing people off the welfare rolls and then wondering why things are getting desperate and mean out on the street."

"Look," he continued, "I'm a recovering heroin addict. When I was on the road and I needed to find heroin, I knew where to go. Find the projects, find the poorest, most desperate people I could find. It's not because those people were born bad. It's because they haven't got shit. From the beginning of time, the most desperate people in a society have turned to drugs."

Earle is also not immune to the voices of victims' families, who are often ignored by death penalty abolitionists.

"People who have had a loved one taken away from them are supposed to be angry," he explained in a recent Nashville Scene article. "They're supposed to want the [perpetrator] dead, but they're not allowed to kill them. That's the way the death penalty is being sold to the American people. It's being sold to people as justice. But it's a lie. The death penalty is about vengeance."

"I was at a lot of vigils before I witnessed an execution," Earle said. "I've seen murder victims' families go into the prison. I've seen them come out. And they always look the way I did when I came out. They look damaged."

"I have long appreciated that he does not deny the victim's family the right to their pain," said McBride. "Some people in the anti-dp movement make them 'the other side'. There is a heightened sense of concern for all people involved in violent crimes here and Steve is partly responsible as he keeps on giving us reminders."

Earle fan Thomas McLaughlin described how Earle's passion for the abolitionist movement sometimes clashes with his fan's views. McLaughlin witnessed an incident at a recent Philadelphia concert.

"Towards the end the set Steve started to talk about a few of the songs he wrote about capital punishment. He mentioned that he is a citizen of the U.S. and a government that murders its own people is not representative of his views. Then a guy in front of me shouted out, 'WHAT ABOUT THE VICTIMS!!?' Steve rebutted this by calling him a 'fucking redneck' and also that for the last two years he spent with victim's families who choose not to support the death penalty as means of revenge. It got a little tense. The guy kept interrupting Steve. Shouting about the victims. I felt like Steve was going to come down in the crowd and punch this guy out. He did say 'I'll refund your money if you'll just leave.'"

Earle is also hopeful that public opinion is turning on the death penalty.

"I think [George W. Bush] has had a lot to do with it," Earle recently told Pop Culture Press. "I think running for president, he's scared the living fuck out everybody in the country. I think you're a little concerned about somebody who's pushed the button so many times, and is so proud of it. The image of him mocking Karla Faye Tucker in that interview, have you ever seen that? I don't think anyone in this country, no matter... I mean the death penalty is something they've been fed. Sister Helen Prejean says 'the support for the death penalty in this country is a mile wide, but it's only an inch deep.' And what she means by that is most people support the death penalty, but they support it without knowing very much about what it is."

Whether or not Earle's journey of hope -- the transcendence he describes on his new album -- will mark a return to the days of musical activism is still unclear. For Earle, though, change is earned one person at a time.

"When you bought your ticket tonight," Earle told the audience at a recent Journey of Hope concert. "You became activists against the death penalty in Tennessee."

"The warden said he'd mail my letter
The chaplain's waitin' by the door
Tonight we'll cross the yard together
Then they can't hurt me anymore
I am going over yonder
Where no ghost can follow me
There's another place beyond here
Where I'll be free I believe
Give my radio to Johnson
Thibodeaux can have my fan
Send my Bible home to Mama
Call her every now and then
I suppose I got it comin'
I can't ever pay enough
All my rippin' and a runnin'
I hurt everyone I loved
The world'll turn around without me
The sun'll come up in the east
Shinin' down on all of them that hate me
I hope my goin' brings 'em peace"

-- Steve Earle, "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)"
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