Rhythm & Dews: John Mellencamp as Political Seer
(Author’s Note: This is a revised and expanded version of the article which first posted 10/17/09.)
Has Mellencamp An Opinion? You Betcha . . . John Mellencamp isn’t content to simply offer his political viewpoints. He gets involved. With the same tenacity he has brought to his heartland rockers, Mellencamp has worked to make sure his beliefs are backed by solid efforts. How solid? For one, Mellencamp, along with Neil Young and Willie Nelson, is a founding member of Farm Aid. The annual Farm Aid concerts since 1985 have brought in over $37,000,000 to “promote a strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture.” The organization stresses the importance of a family farm system that’s environmentally sound, economically strong and healthful for everyone. Farm Aid is not an organization in which participants, desiring to feel good by doing good, seek to “throw money” at problems. It’s an intensely involved group working across the nation to sustain livelihoods and improve the quality of peoples’ lives, whether spent working the land, or just enjoying its bounty.
In 2007, Mellencamp performed before a group of wounded troops at the Walter Reed Medical Center. His populist views compel him to sympathize with those caught up and damaged by the war-making machinery. One can feel deeply for the wounded warriors while opposing our costly and delusive wars. Those wounded are just kids, young Americans serving their country, many whose first trips more than 500 miles from home took them to battlefields.
This past Friday brought word of Mellencamp’s views on the Republican Party’s 2008 Vice Presidential nominee, Sarah Palin. Coming from an Obama supporter, Mellencamp’s take is unique. His thoughts may not bring ready assent but they shed light on what the Democratic Party faces. Palin “knows exactly what she’s doing” and “she wouldn’t be where she is today if she didn’t,” Mellencamp remarked, his assessment juxtaposed to that held by those long weary of the former Alaska Governor.
Mellencamp believes people underestimate Palin’s intellect “just because she says things and winks.” He goes on to say that “She’s pushing the right buttons and you can’t be stupid and do that.” Obviously Palin has done her share of button-pushing (You betcha). Her skills at such have made her the sweetheart of Red State America. That’s where she’s been embraced and fawned over. Her red state base doesn’t concern itself with how little she knows of basic, long-established U.S. foreign policy. From her fans’ perspective, such concern is just so much elitist piffle. But the revelations that appeared in the recently published Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin should be worrisome to Americans, especially in this tense age. John McCain’s staffers were rightly worried. They were amazed over what she didn’t know as they prepared her for an interview with ABC News’s Charles Gibson. Game Change acknowledges their frustrations.
Before the flight to Anchorage, Schmidt, Wallace, and other members of the traveling party met Palin at the Ritz Carlton near Reagan airport…….. and found that, although she’d made some progress with her memorization and studies, her grasp of rudimentary facts and concepts was minimal. Palin couldn’t explain why North and South Korea were separate nations. She didn’t know what the Fed did. Asked who attacked America on 9/11, she suggested several times that it was Saddam Hussein. Asked to identify the enemy that her son would be fighting in Iraq, she drew a blank. (Palin’s horrified advisers provided her with scripted replies, which she memorized.) Later on the plane, Palin said to her team,”I wish I’d pay more attention to this stuff.”
Paying attention to such “stuff” suddenly seemed important. In a later campaign interview with CBS News’s Katie Couric, she was asked to name a Supreme Court decision she disagreed with except Roe v. Wade. She couldn’t, simply declaring “Of course in the great history of America there have been rulings that there’s never going to be absolute consensus by every American.” Well, sure, we guess.
Sarah Palin came away from the Couric interview irritated with its reception, not her scant knowledge of American history. On the McCain team, eyeballs rolled, but Palin and her followers would put it behind them. Her political ascendency would rely on her peachy-keen, just-folks demeanor. She has spunk and utilizes a crazy-like-a-fox approach, which is likely what John Mellencamp regards as her greatest strength. It doesn’t matter that after 38 years of M*A*S*H on television, she isn’t clear on why those American doctors were in Korea. But she does perceive Americans, especially tea party types, are tired of thoughtful discussions on manifold problems. Her followers want tax cuts and perkiness.
People in our country are beaten down with wars, terror alerts, high unemployment, big government deficits, the possibility of tax increases and serious cuts in their local and state services. One of Mellencamp’s most heartfelt songs, “Hard Time for An Honest Man,” (from his ’87 album, “The Lonesome Jubilee”) reflects on what many people feel today. They’re running low on cash and confidence. And many of the country’s honest men and women have fallen for the prattle of Palin and the tea-partiers. Millions of Americans have grown tired of trusting the lucid and educated. For example, they don’t care if a Palin wanna-be, Christine O’Donnell, running for the U.S. Senate in Delaware, displays ignorance about Supreme Court rulings and the Constitution. She’s allegiant to the hard right and that’s good enough for them.
In his latest Wall Street Journal column, Gerald F. Seib considers the findings in a recent poll indicating 68% of those identifying themselves as tea party supporters would back a political novice, as opposed to the 10% favoring the experienced candidate. The country is in a throw-the-bums-out mood. As Margo Channing said in “All About Eve,” Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
In 1985, the year Mellencamp co-founded Farm Aid, he had a Top 10 hit with “Small Town.” The song imparted the strength and integrity Mellencamp observed in “those small communities.” The people there were rock-solid and sure of what they believed in. They often proved the most steadfast of Americans, but over the last three decades, their faith has been shattered. And on the hard right, there are opportunists looking to exploit them. Again. Now Americans in small towns, as well as the larger ones, are taking the change President Obama spoke of and turning it inside out. Just combine a nod, a wink, a winning smile with very little substance and there you have it: A rough ride in this new age of perkiness.
Atlanta Bounce … For ten years, beginning in 1969, Piano Red was a fixture at Muhlenbrink’s Saloon in Underground Atlanta. In 1970, Red paid tribute to that entertainment district with a song he co-wrote with “hillbilly bopper” Louis Innis. Piano Red’s recording of “Underground Atlanta” is full tilt rhythm and blues. Issued on King Records, the performance is lively and raucous, a notch louder and far more boisterous than most of the songs usually associated with Red. However, when called for, Red could shout it out with the best of them, including his King Records label-mate, James Brown. On this hard-to-find recording, Red makes it clear the old Underground Atlanta was a happening, rocking place.
Piano Red’s ten-year run at Muhlenbrink’s stirs many fond memories for the club’s co-owner Jack Tarver, Jr. Some of Tarver’s other memories take him above ground and a few miles north on Piedmont Road, where in the mid ’70s, he was also co-owner of The Great Southeast Music Hall. Now it’s hard to imagine taking the ten-minute ride from one place to the other, seeing both Piano Red and Lightnin’ Hopkins on the same night, but such nights were once possible, and for awhile seemed routine.
In a way, The Great Southeast Music Hall served as the city’s cultural learning center. Spend a month in town and one could see for little more than $5 nightly such artists as Jimmy Buffett, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Roger McGuinn, Jim Croce, Gary Burton, and The New Riders of The Purple Sage. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were regulars too. They loved the Music Hall. Over five years, they made many appearances, giving two shows nightly for most of a week. The packed crowds would see the group perform their hits “Mr. Bojangles” and “House At Pooh Corner” but more importantly, witness their prowess at a musical genre we now call Americana.
Founding Dirt Band member John McEuen, known as the “string wizard” for his skills on the guitar, banjo and fiddle has always been a favorite of Tarver’s. McEuen is not only one of the country’s finest musicians, he also possesses a great sense of humor. Given that McEuen has known Steve Martin since high school, that shouldn’t be surprising. Tarver remembers that McEuen always wore 2 mismatched socks. Asked about it, McEuen declared he had another pair just like them at home.
Then there was the time The Dirt Band was in town and McEuen needed to see Tarver. Having some time to spare, McEuen went over to Tarver’s house. Jack was not in but his son, Jack #3, made McEuen feel right at home as they played on the floor with the toys in his room. Finally back home, Tarver found McEuen sprawled on the floor having a good time at being a kid again. Toys were scattered all over. McEuen told Tarver, “You know, my mother would never let me keep my room like this.”