Steve Earle: The Revolution Starts Now
Although the day that commemorates the American Revolution has just passed, the idea of “revolution” is not limited to the U.S.A. The word “revolution” is from the Latin “revolutio,” meaning to turn around, and in politics, of course, it means a change, usually of regime. It also is used to describe the turning of records or CD’s, those somewhat quaint media that we used to use to listen to music. So, melding the two meanings, for the next couple of weeks, we here at SMM will be writing about songs that relate to Revolution, and fittingly, we begin with a song that declares, that the revolution, like our new theme, starts NOW!
Most political revolutions have resulted in one political group overthrowing another (like the Russian or French Revolutions) (and, unfortunately, often becoming as oppressive as their former oppressors), or a colonial group throwing off the rule of colonizers (like the American Revolution) (ditto).
Marxist theory posited a “permanent revolution,” which was championed by Trotsky as a way for the proletariat to obtain power. And in our featured song, Steve Earle argues for a new, grassroots revolution to address the problems that he saw in the American society of 2004. Earle, whose message had become increasingly political, found himself excoriated by the right wing for his leftist politics. As the presidential election approached, Earle wanted to make a statement against the Bush Administration and its policies, and he recorded the album, The Revolution Starts...Now. In the liner notes to the album, Earle explained:
The Constitution of The United States of America is a REVOLUTIONARY document in every sense of the word. It was designed to evolve, to live, and to breathe like the people that it governs. It is, ingeniously, and perhaps conversely, resilient enough to change with the times in order to meet the challenges of its third century and rigid enough to preserve the ideals that inspired its original articles and amendments. As long as we are willing to put in the work required to defend and nurture this remarkable invention of our forefathers, then I believe with all my heart that it will continue to thrive for generations to come. Without our active participation, however, the future is far from certain. For without the lifeblood of the human spirit even the greatest documents produced by humankind are only words on paper or parchment, destined to yellow and crack and eventually crumble to dust.
His call to personal political revolution is made clear by the lyrics of the song:
Yeah the revolution starts now
In your own backyard
In your own hometown
So what you doin’ standin’ around?
Just follow your heart
The revolution starts now
Of course, history shows that Bush defeated Kerry in 2004, and it wasn’t until 2008 when Earle’s (somewhat reluctantly) favored candidate, Barack Obama, was democratically elected (Earle would have preferred a socialist, which, despite what you may hear from the right, President Obama is clearly not).
Whether that qualifies as a “revolution” is open to debate, I’d say. But, interestingly, Obama’s presidency has only increased the call for a revolution from the right, which in many instances has challenged the legitimacy of his election and has obstructed Obama’s agenda. Many of these more radical truth deniers have adopted the “Tea Party” moniker, drawing from the iconography of the American Revolution, although some of us think that they have more in common with another group of revolutionaries with a narrow, theistic point of view, the Taliban. It is interesting that the Tea Party movement is funded by rich capitalists who fear that continued government support of poor Americans might take away some tiny fraction of their billions, but is often championed by people who need the very government support that they eschew, making it more of an "Astroturf" movement than a real "grassroots" one.
And it is also interesting that much of the “progress” made by these right wingers has come from the kind of local action that Earle would probably approve of—taking control of school boards and local government units, and other small scale activities. Unfortunately, the result of this conservative activity ultimately has resulted in the imposition of reactionary policies, either by vote, inaction, or even through endorsement by one of the worst Supreme Courts ever. The exact opposite of what Earle was looking for, which is a shame.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Clearwater Festival, mostly for the great music. But I was happy to see that the Activist Area was fully staffed, with many groups and people dedicated to trying to change the country and the world to make it fairer, cleaner and better for everyone, in the spirit of one of Earle's idols, Pete Seeger and his wife Toshi. So, there is hope.
Oh--it is also a good song.