Singer stirs debate with song that empathizes with Lindh

Monday, July 29, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A new tune about John Walker Lindh by Nashville singer-songwriter Steve Earle has kicked up a fight between critics who feel he's unpatriotic and defenders who consider him provocative.

The song, "John Walker's Blues," is not due for release until September. It describes Lindh as "an American boy raised on MTV" who sought out another culture because he felt alienated from his native country.

"If my daddy could see me now -- chains around my feet/He don't understand that sometimes a man/Has to fight for what he believes," Earle sings.

Lindh, a 21-year-old Californian captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, pleaded guilty this month to fighting alongside the Taliban militia. In return, prosecutors dropped the most serious charges against him, saving him from a possible death sentence.

Nashville radio personality Steve Gill said on CNN that Earle was trying "to be outrageous to attract attention."

"We're within a one-year period of the attacks on America, and I think it's too early for a song like this," Gill said. "He is free to put this song out there, and the American people are free to say 'No thank you' when it comes to buying it."

"John Walker's Blues" represents a change in the popular music world in how it responds to the war on terrorism. Until now, most offerings have been stirring calls to arms -- "Freedom" by Paul McCartney and "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)" by Toby Keith.

"What Earle is doing is what good songwriters -- and in fact, good poets -- have been doing for a hundred years, which is trying to get inside and understand the motivations of people who may not be particularly popular right now," said Charles Wolfe, a pop-music scholar at Middle Tennessee State University.

Earle, 47, has had a checkered career since achieving fame in the 1980s with hits like "Guitar Town." Critically lauded as a songwriter and performer, his commercial career has been stalled by drug addiction and political outspokenness.

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