Sunday, November 23, 2014

Farming: Rain on the Scarecrow

Music is about discovery. Or at least it is to me: one band leads to another leads to a genre you’ve never paid much attention to until the right album comes your way leads to whole sonic landscapes that might be almost forgotten by most, but still have an avid following, a strange tribe that believes religiously in the beat. I once knew a guy who listened to Bruce Springsteen. Only Bruce Springsteen. He literally possessed no other music other than Springsteen. Now, Springsteen’s not a forgotten artist, obscured by time and relegated to the dusty crates of someone’s record collection. But, my fanatical neighbor is a great example of how music, in all its genres and sub genres and styles and sub-styles and factors divisible by style and substance and rhythm and melody and method and region and reason, survives. Not only survives, but often flourishes despite anonymity. Some of your favorite records might not be million sellers, but the place the music occupies in your heart, in your personal story, is beyond value. And there a millions of us there carrying a torch for great music that no one else knows.

For every Springsteen fanatic, there’s also a dedicated archivist keeping the flame lit for Louisiana Swamp Pop, or Cowboy Swing, or almost anything else you can think of, if you type in the right phrase in the old google machine. Which, is why the internet is such an amazing resource—the image of the last man on earth, feeding the flames of knowledge to keep information alive for the unknown future comes to mind—but the internet and the digitalization of music is doing amazing things not only for the hermits sitting on guard in the dark corners, but also for the intrepid explorers, boldly setting forth in search of new music. It’s an endless continent, and there is no horizon when it comes to seeking new sound. Music draws that kind of person to its tribe—the obsessive completist, willing to go to dark places to retrieve the strangest gem from the perils of obscurity. one who might starve in the dark just to be sure... 

And... just realized... this is starting to turn into a post-apocalyptic thriller about saving music from the Morlocks…

Truly, though, the greatest thing about music is the endless nature of it—you’ll never have enough time to get to it all, because according to Robert Earl Keen, “the road goes on forever and the party never ends…” 

So, it is a great pleasure when I type a term into Google-- say “Harvest” and “Music”--and know that I might not be back for a very long time. Which is what I love about this blog. Touching down on fresh shores, discovering artists who I've never heard, is my favorite way of getting lost. And getting lost also means hours upon hours of hearing artists I’ve never bothered with and realizing such profound thoughts like: This is great; why have I never given Buck Owens* a chance? all the way to: I knew about Vaporwave, but…damn, this is cool.  

A blog like this gives the opportunity to not only find new sounds, but reevaluate what you’ve already made judgment about because of…well, almost anything: videos, associations with bands that really are crap, the fact that everyone you hate listens to it. It’s good to reach that point in your maturity where genre doesn’t matter anymore, and you no longer have to worry about what you listen to. The discovery becomes a joy of its own and your world expands—your musical word, that is. I think about being a younger man who, due to some silly punk ethic, never gave the likes of Dwight Yoakam a chance. But now…that’s daily listening.

Which brings us to today’s post topic. “Harvest”, which I interpreted as Farming…which has turned into a nice long walk down a country road.
And on that road, I took time to listen to a lot of music, some of which I never gave a chance, and some of which I never had such an essential part of my listening when I was young and still perfectly impressionable...

Farming and farm life are country music staples, often with the ethos of being ‘country strong’ at the core of what these songs are meant to stand for. The farming motif is a good one, and spans a whole genre from being proud of the place you grew up, to parties in the barns with the farmer’s daughter. From Hank Williams' "A Country Boy Can Survive" all the way to Kenny Chesney’s "She Thinks My Tractor is Sexy," the farm and the country life is almost its own genre. These kinds of songs play to a way of life that is real, even if often idealized for the great Americana motif it carries. And, yeah, there is the undeniably great sing-along aspect to this kind of music. So, good country songs are ready-made to become iconic in our cultural understanding of music. And they are damn fun to sing along with while drinking beers. But, there’s also the more realistic aspect to songs about the country and being ‘country’. One that tries to speak to the people most likely to understand, because they've live dit.

And, I think one of the strongest songs in this genre is John Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow”—a decidedly stark departure from the revel of being born country and remembering your roots. The title track of his 1985 album, this was the song that launched Mellencamp finally and completely from his Johnny Cougar, more-fun-Springsteen-real-American-voice, Heartland rocker, image into a serious voice in music and a chronicler of American life on the fringes, the real America. Mellencamp has always been an amazing writer, serving up life-stories—tragic, romantic and otherwise—through his songs, in a novelistic, first-person-narrative approach. Like Springsteen, who he has always shared an unfair likening to from critics and fans, Mellencamp plies his trade and his talent through melody, but his brilliance lies in the stories he tells.

Scarecrow allows Mellencamp to do what he does best and place himself as the central character in his songs who tells the tale. "Rain on the Scarecrow" is about Mellencamp’s immediate world, the place he grew up in, that despite his money and his success, he’s never really left. He’s made a lot of money from that image of being—remaining, really—the common man, and when he sings from a first person perspective of a farmer watching the bank foreclose on his family’s farm, watching his heritage and his history and his dreams go fallow in the wake of economic ruin, it only serves to bring this plight to stark, unflinchingly real life.

"Rain on the Scarecrow" was written in response to the 1980s ‘farming crisis’ where the need for cheap food, driven by falling wages, lead to government subsidies for big Agro-business, and the rise of factory farming. In Ronald Regan’s America, this led to the sad demise of countless family farms. I remember growing up with bank foreclosures and sad auctions with farmers looking on as their lives and traditions were shuttered, parceled and sold as a ubiquitous image on the news. Mellencamp saw this first hand in his home state of Indiana, where he has always lived, even at the height of popularity, and wrote this song to chronicle the ending of a way of life for so may of his neighbors and our fellow Americans. I’ve always felt that this song did more to bring that plight to life than any news broadcast or politician’s appeal. The ability to reach across traditional boundaries and stir emotions to understanding, if not action, seems to work best when accompanied by guitar and drums. "Rain on the Scarecrow" was a wake up call for many to the realities of ‘the heartland.’ Mellencamp went on to found Farm Aid, which is still raising money to support independent farms, and it all started with this amazing song.

The album itself spawned the mega-hit, “Small Town” which solidified the real American voice motif for which he’s so known. And the album is full of great, Telecater-driven kickin' rhythm rock tracks, and yes, it still manages to be a genre-piece that speaks in the language of the heartland, of family, of small-values that make for big hearts and the goodness of simple lives. But, “Rain on the Scarecrow” stands out for its angry delivery and striking sense of indignation. Mellencamp might talk later on about the difficulties of dealing with a “A Lonely Ol’ Night”, but “Rain on the Scarecrow” hits like a right cross as an opening track and resonates long after it fades, mostly because you know that despite his raised voice, there is no solution.

The song itself is a brilliant piece of atmospherics. It starts with a sharp, loud drum line, which gives way to a lightning strike guitar lick. The rhythm—marital drums, a tolling a strident bell-rung guitar—the song opens like a summons to an execution. That ominous crack of the drums, and the haunting, twisting guitar line, gives way to an angry song, more akin to a funeral march than the opening track to a rock album.

Mellencamp tells the story of a man losing his farm because he can’t keep up with the bills and seeing his tradition and his long history foreclosed upon. The song is rife with religious imagery, from the crucified scarecrow sitting alone in the rain, to the grandmother on the front porch, lamenting over fallow crops, or a lost Eden, with a bible in her hands, ‘…singing Take me to the Promised Land.’ And he works brilliantly in the dark imagery, letting simple phrases stand on the air in dark, eerie precision: "rain on the scarecrow/blood on the plow". The imagery works in perfect contrast to the actual story of a man seeing the place he has known since he was child slipping away from him--something stark and frightening, akin to damnation, to highlight the real story, which doesn't need to rely on image to frighten.

There is no happy ending in the song—it remains an angry lament, a summons to darkness rather than a discovery of greener pastures. Mellencamp offers no solutions, makes no promises of redemption. But rather gives his adopted persona room to speak on his anger. Which is the other brilliance of the song: it gives voice to the voiceless. It’s Steinbeck-like in the way it draws on reality and uses the language of experience to tell the kind of story that needs to be heard, and much like the voices that populate The Grapes of Wrath, “Rain on the Scarecrow” serves it’s purpose of bringing what we’d rather not know about into the stark light of knowing. 

Mellencamp has gone on to prove himself a versatile, expansive artist, a singer and writer with lasting appeal and gracefully aging vision. His latest, Plain Spoken, is a sparse, acoustic affair that reflects on the realities of a man facing aging, facing mortality, and while it doesn’t tear up the landscape like Scarecrow did, there is still that abiding honesty that makes his music so authentic. Mellencamp has kept Farm Aid going, still pledged to its original intention to help those in need and I think the appeal of “Rain on the Scarecrow” is the fact that it doesn’t age—simply put: it’s an angry song, and like many angry songs, the vitality of its intention, the doggedness of its indignation and the driving anger of the guitars and drums make it insistent enough to keep speaking, every time you hear it.

Honorable mentions in the genre of “Farm” tunes:

…but, I oughta quit before I get all sad and weepy for home and my gloriously misspent Carolina days…

*I was just kidding about Buck Owens—he’s one of my favorites and he’s swinging it up in a honky tonk up in Heaven right now, if we’re lucky.

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