Arlo Guthrie, "Presidential Rag" (Rising Son; 1974).
Marianne Faithfull, "Working Class Hero" (Island; 1979).
Nick Cave, "Red Right Hand" (Mute; 1994).
Drive-By Truckers, "Decoration Day (Live)" (New West; 2003).
Suzanne Vega, "Song of Isaac" (A&M; 1995).
Mary Black, "My Youngest Son Came Home Today" (Dara; 1984).
Dagmar Krause, "Ballad of a German Mother" (Island; 1986).
Dixie Chicks, "Travelin' Soldier" (Sony; 2002).
Johnny Cash, "Ballad of Ira Hayes" (Columbia; 1964).
Buddy Miller, "Worry Too Much" (New West; 2004).
James McMurty, "We Can't Make It Here" (Compadre; 2005).
Bruce Springsteen, "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (Columbia; 1995).
Bob Dylan, "Not Dark Yet" (Columbia; 1997).
Leonard Cohen, "The Future" (Columbia; 1992).
Some Americans, such as the ex-governor of Texas and his oil-industry cronies, fall up. This is a story about falling down.
I know folks currently in Iraq who enlisted believing that patriotism required it. I know a lot more whose college tuition or three-digit paychecks or child support just couldn't stretch any further. I know a few who couldn't think of anything better to do—it was "the service" or community college, and though neither provides much for job prospects in the chronically poor rural Midwest, at least the service doesn't cost you to go.
Under those circumstances, a working-class hero really is something to be, especially if your main sense of identity consists, "Decoration Day"–style, in pissed-offedness at whatever's handy, which would make you either redneck or just plain American. (See if this sounds familiar: A father figure, hell-bent on perpetrating a murky family feud, smacks down his kid, who rises converted to the necessity of kicking someone's ass.) Black, Krause, and the Chicks know how that line of thinking tends to pan out; Cash suggests an alternative result, or maybe just an attenuated one.
Less than five years after 9/11, the dearth of war-related songs from either the left or the right suggested that the fondest hopes of the Cheney-Rove crowd have been realized: We've normalized to being at war in perpetuity. Why sing about something that just is? As far as the Fox News–watching folks at home are concerned, we have always been at war with Eastasia. As for me, I heard the Arlo Guthrie track for the first time a few weeks ago and was amazed that Mr. Alice's Restaurant had delivered a 21st- century track calling out the whole current rogue's gallery, the war and the poverty and the I've-got-mine domestic policy and the crapulent consumerism and meanness we've embraced, until I figured out he recorded it during the Nixon administration, when at least our commander in chief had the vestigial shame to disavow the whole Constitution-raping thing. (Though "what else don't you know?" is a more effective way of calling the president a liar when leveled at a leader with two brain cells to rub together.)
As for God, who allegedly got us into this mess even if reports vary as to whose play he's backing? Vega's clear on the perils of prophecy, but Cohen and Griffin are in there with both feet. Nick Cave, meanwhile, files his press release for the other side, laying out Satan's pitch, enunciating the fine print like a guy who prefers you not pay attention to it. And Buddy Miller just gives up entirely, reciting his miseries and hitting the chorus with a self-conscious shrug about maybe being too worked up. After all, it's all a person can do most days to keep from falling further behind.
Angela Gunn writes the Tech_Space blog for USA Today. She lives in Seattle.