"You never ask questions / When God's on your side." -- Bob Dylan
Good and evil, forgiveness and retribution, freedom and security. Wrestling with these seemingly contradictory concepts has no doubt contributed, over the past year, to countless sleepless nights, as well as innumerable prayers. When those towers collapsed, when those planes plunged to earth, a nation instinctively looked heavenward, through an unfathomably empty sky, for comfort and for explanation.
If musical responses to the crisis offer any indication, what many of us found initially was an assurance of our complete lack of collective responsibility for the conditions of the world we inhabit and a green light for vengeance. More recent recordings, however -- particularly those by Dolly Parton, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle and Chuck D -- show artists gazing in the mirror from new points of view, greeting the world with open arms rather than provincial fists and questioning even the assumptions of their faith.
The shocking specifics of last September's terrorist attacks might be unprecedented, but Bob Dylan's 1964 recording "With God on Our Side" makes clear that our often self-congratulating -- and very human -- reactions to such vicious and unexpected provocation aren't new at all. As Bill Friskics-Warren, music editor at the Nashville Scene, observed recently in an essay about musical responses to 9/11, Dylan's song "was indicative of the Cold War sensibility of the song's Midwestern protagonist, but it was also an indictment of the arrogance inherent in the way the U.S. perennially invokes the divine to justify its aggression."
So it was probably predictable that one early musical response to the tragedy would be another resurrection of "God Bless the U.S.A." Ironic, too, because Lee Greenwood's country hit was a Ronald Reagan campaign theme around the same time Osama bin Laden was working with, and apparently being trained by, the C.I.A.-backed Afghan "freedom fighters." Even setting aside that complicating context, the song remains problematic because it proceeds from the questionable, perhaps even blasphemous, premise that God roots for the people of this land and mourns its dead more than he does for other citizens of the world.
Alan Jackson's recent smash "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" offers a more compelling response to the horrors of September 11. It movingly captures the variety and depth of emotion felt by millions in the wake of the attacks. "Did you shout out in anger, in fear for your neighbor, or did you just sit down and cry?" Jackson sings, and he sounds on intimate terms with both reactions.
Yet the heartfelt "Where Were You" underscores dangers of its own. "I'm just a singer of simple songs / I'm not a real political man," Jackson tells us in the same "Little Man" persona that has long accounted for much of his appeal. "I watch CNN, but I'm not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran / But I know Jesus, and I talk to God." Jackson presents his lack of knowledge as a just-folks, out-of-my-hands virtue, then contrasts it with a religious reference that, in this charged context, only reinforces the presumed differences between "us" and "them" -- flattering the former, calling out the latter. Could it be that these common attitudes point to parts of the problem rather than the solution?
Still, Jackson's song highlights a potentially radical impulse: "Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us / And the greatest is love." Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue," on the other hand, mentions neither Jesus nor love. Rather, Keith announces to enemies, "We'll put a boot in your ass / It's the American way." (Apparently, Christ's appeal in the Sermon on the Mount -- "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them who hate you" and so on -- doesn't make for sound foreign policy.) Granted, compared with Neil Young's uninspired and uninspiring "Let's Roll," Keith's hit at least has some fire in its belly. But it's no less unquestioningly triumphal than Young's recording and therefore just as unhelpful.
Put another way, Jackson and Keith's recent crossover hits fall too easily into the old habits of geopolitical ignorance and might-makes-right arrogance. These recordings offer powerful testimony that the world has changed, yet each stubbornly resists being changed by the world.
By contrast, Steve Earle's response to the events surrounding 9/11 was, like that of many Americans, to modify his worldview, if only by hitting the library to bone up on Islam. Earle especially wondered how a seemingly ordinary American kid such as John Walker Lindh (who, critic Jim Ridley has noted, is about the same age as one of Earle's sons) could wage jihad against his own country. Already notorious weeks before its release (Earle's Jerusalem doesn't hit stores until September 24), the resulting "John Walker's Blues" is written, controversially, from the kid's point of view. But the song's reputation notwithstanding, Earle neither glamorizes Lindh nor justifies his choices. Earle does, however, complicate things ever so slightly by presenting the so-called American Taliban not as a melodramatic villain but as a human being with human desires -- in this case, to be part of something larger than himself. The result, as with any sincere act of empathy, is that we, too, might be ever so slightly more humanized.
Mirroring the facts of the case, Earle concludes his tale with Lindh brought home in chains "to the land of the infidel," where he remains unrepentant in his faith that God is on his side. "There is no God but God," he says. Ironically, that's a claim Earle's predominantly Christian audience believes just as fervently.
Rapper Chuck D makes a similar point with his rock-band side project the Fine Arts Militia and its song "A Twisted Sense of God" (downloadable at www.slamjamz.com). The track begins with a sample of George W. Bush saying, "May God bless America." A righteous Chuck D responds, "May God bless us all, beyond the flags." Then the band explodes behind him, laying down a vicious rhythm track that sounds, to paraphrase Toby Keith, like the whole world is raining down -- not on our avowed enemies but on the contradictions of our own self-serving beliefs. By D's reckoning, any conception of the divine in which God helps one group harm another is twisted by definition.
On the 9/11-themed The Rising, Bruce Springsteen explores incalculable loss and a desire for revenge. "I want a kiss from your lips," he declares to an "Empty Sky." "I want an eye for an eye." But Springsteen senses that vengeance will lead him nowhere we can endure. And so he asks, in the rousing "Mary's Place," "How do you live brokenhearted?" Like any of us, he must finally make a leap of faith into what might be a void.
But what he seems never to doubt is that any worthwhile answer will necessarily involve other people. Indeed, if The Rising reaches any conclusions, it's that people are just people, even when they appear "Worlds Apart," and that to bridge the gap we must love one another -- not just sharing our individual burdens but also admitting the burdens of others. (As James Baldwin wrote, "That's the only light we have in all this darkness.") So in one harrowing number, Springsteen sings of a child sent off on a suicide mission by an adult who, amazingly, is not a monster but a parent convinced of "Paradise." On "My City of Ruins," Springsteen prays we will all join hands, "rise up" and remake the world.
Some will no doubt label Springsteen, Earle and Chuck D traitorous, unwitting accomplices to the axis of evil. But perhaps they contribute instead to an axis of empathy, one that reminds that despite our significant differences, human beings all want the same things in life: to love and to be loved, to be safe, to be unique and to belong. More to the point, these recordings argue forcefully that God is uninterested in patriotism. He loves all the children in his sight, not their nation-states. "God loves us all," Chuck D says again, "beyond the flags."
No one has broached this issue with more humility than Dolly Parton does on the song "Hello God," from her new album, Halos & Horns. In a prayer that begins like a whisper but quickly builds in intensity, she admits she's recently questioned her faith in "a world [that] has gone to pieces where hate and violence just increases." She needs help, she says; we all do. "Do you love some more than others?" she asks, but she knows the answer.
At the close, Parton raises her voice alongside a gospel choir, a collection of voices at first so much larger than life that it feels over the top but soon sounds necessary, suggesting as it does the people of the world. "Hello, God, please forgive us," Parton cries, "for we know not what we do." Her fragile plea, stacked upon all those other voices, rises to a height it could never reach alone.