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September 11
A Year Later

Music mirrors emotions in time of terror


The entertainment world has responded to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in many ways. Along with an onslaught of war movies from Hollywood have come numerous musical retorts of varying viewpoints from the music world.

Rock performer Neil Young’s single “Let’s Roll” was recorded and rush-released late last year as the first single from his “Are You Passionate?” album. Named after the last words of Todd Beamer, heard by his wife at the end of a cell phone conversation, as Beamer and his fellow passengers prepared to take on the terrorists who had hijacked United Airlines Flight 93, which a few minutes later crashed in a Pennsylvania field. The track opens with ringing sounds.

“Let’s roll for freedom,
Let’s roll for love,
Goin’ after Satan,
On the wings of a dove …

“Let’s roll for justice,
Let’s roll for truth,
Let’s not let our children,
Grow up fearful in their youth.”

New Jersey music legend Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” entered the Billboard “Top 200” album chart in the peak position July 30. Heavily laden with imagery from the World Trade Center attacks, this album comes from the depths of a man who has lived his life just a stone’s throw away from Manhattan, taking on the voices of everyday New Yorkers in a way unique to Springsteen. The song “Into the Fire” is a lament for the civil servants who gave their all to evacuate the victims.

“The sky was falling and streaked with blood
I heard you calling me,
Then you disappeared into dust
Up the stairs, into the fire.”

Though Springsteen tells the story of 9/11 from different perspectives on parts of “The Rising,” he leaves the politics to the politicians, keeping his personal feelings rather ambiguous.

In contrast, country music giant Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” from the album “Unleashed” tells the story of an American who wants revenge for the terrorists attacks at any price. The lyrics reflect a take-no-prisoners nationalist approach toward all supporters of the attack:

“Soon as we could see clearly
Through our big black eye
Man, we lit up your world
Like the 4th of July.

“And you’ll be sorry that you messed with
The U.S. of A.
’Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass --
It’s the American way.”

“Man, it’s gonna be hell
When you hear Mother Freedom
Start ringin’ her bell
And it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you
Brought to you courtesy of the Red White and Blue.”

Keith addressed the recording of this track on CNN’s “Wolf Blitzer Reports:” “The response was so tremendous, I said, ‘Hey, we’re allowed to be angry.’ I know how angry I was when I saw those towers come down, and this is my way of serving my country.”

Peter Jennings supposedly barred Keith from performing the song on ABC’s July 4 special due to the lyrics’ content, according to the artist.

Nashville rebel Steve Earle responded differently. His highly political album, “Jerusalem,” slated for release in late September, takes what some might call an unpatriotic, leftist stance against America in the post 9/11 world. Earle has always been a marginalized figure with the Nashville set. Called the “hillbilly Bruce Springsteen,” Earle is a recovered junkie and ex-convict who fights against the death penalty and land mines.

On his Web site, Earle addresses the issues at hand with “Jerusalem.” “I’m not trying to get myself deported or something. In a big way this is the most pro-American record I’ve ever made. … I understand why none of those congressmen voted against the Patriot Act out of respect for the Trade Center victims’ families. … But this is an incredibly dangerous piece of legislation. Freedoms, American freedoms, things voted into law as American freedoms, everything that came out of the 1960s, are disappearing, and as any patriot can see, that has to be opposed.”

The song making the biggest waves on Earle’s record is “John Walker’s Blues,” a ballad for John Walker Lindh, the American who pleaded guilty to providing services to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“I don’t condone what he did,” Earle said. “Still, he’s a 20 year-old kid. My son Justin is almost exactly Walker’s age. Would I be upset if he suddenly turned up fighting for the Islamic jihad? Sure, absolutely. Fundamentalism, as practiced by the Taliban, is the enemy of real thought, and religion too.”

The lyrics portray Walker Lindh in the first person as a confused young outsider looking for purity and meaning and finding it, for better or for worse, on the front lines of the jihad. The chorus comes from sura 47, verse 19, of the Quran, the Arabic lyric meaning “I am a witness.” The entire verse is recited in Arabic at the end of the song.

“A shadu la ilaha illa Allah
There is no God but God.

“And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word
Of Mohammed, peace be upon him”

“And I believe God is great, all praise due to him
And if I should die I’ll rise up to the sky
Just like Jesus, peace be upon him.”

Earle’s sentiments are the opposite of Keith’s vengeful rantings, whereas Young and Springsteen seek more moderate ground with their messages. These artists are among many who have used or created music to address and deal with the post 9/11 world, much like composers have in the past used music to address tragedy and world strife.

Matt Stoulil is NCR layout assistant, a bass player and an avid observer of the music world. His e-mail address is mstoulil@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 6, 2002