Thursday, August 21, 2014

Songwriting 101/Sociology With Steve Earle!

There's so much more to Steve Earle than "Copperhead Road" (click here and here for example), but let's face it:  his biggest hit kicks much ass.  The songwriting is evocative and blunt, and just about everyone I knew at my high school could've been John Lee Pettimore even if I didn't grow up in the Vietnam era.  If a song resonates with me, there's an extremely high chance I'm going to like it.

Another appealing thing about Steve Earle's song wrting - not just on "Copperhead Road" - is that it manages to paint a vivid picture that jibes with the cold, hard objective reality of a given situation.  To me, it's almost like he took a sociology course somewhere, then sought to write songs and put faces to the conclusions he drew from his studies.  In this way, Earle skillfully uses his story telling ability to expose you to his point of view, almost without you knowing.  Look at this example from "Copperhead Road" - this is an excerpt from probably one of my all time favorite verses of any song:

I volunteered for the army on my birthday
they draft the white trash first round here anyway

I did some light Googling and found this statistic from the Veterans of Foreign Wars:

  • 76% of those drafted were from lower/working class backgrounds.
Now, there's some questions about the source and some problematic language in that "fact" - what constitutes lower class?  working class?  why are they combined?  - but while the statement itself is sad, I doubt few readers would find it shocking or untrue.  The poor have always fought wars for the interests of a oligarchy; an oligarchy which seldom represents their interests.

Though those lines jump out at me, the whole song is amazing.  To me, it's a quintessntially American epic for better or worse.  So without further adieu:

Well my name's John Lee Pettimore 
Same as my daddy and his daddy before 
You hardly ever saw Grandaddy down here 
He only came to town about twice a year 
He'd buy a hundred pounds of yeast and some copper line 
Everybody knew that he made moonshine 
Now the revenue man wanted Grandaddy bad 
He headed up the holler with everything he had 
It's before my time but I've been told 
He never came back from Copperhead Road

Now Daddy ran the whiskey in a big block Dodge
Bought it at an auction at the Mason's Lodge
Johnson County Sheriff painted on the side
Just shot a coat of primer then he looked inside
Well him and my uncle tore that engine down
I still remember that rumblin' sound
Well the sheriff came around in the middle of the night
Heard mama cryin', knew something wasn't right
He was headed down to Knoxville with the weekly load
You could smell the whiskey burnin' down Copperhead Road

I volunteered for the Army on my birthday
They draft the white trash first,'round here anyway
I done two tours of duty in Vietnam
And I came home with a brand new plan
I take the seed from Colombia and Mexico
I plant it up the holler down Copperhead Road
Well the D.E.A.'s got a chopper in the air
I wake up screaming like I'm back over there
I learned a thing or two from ol' Charlie don't you know
You better stay away from Copperhead Road
Copperhead Road
Copperhead Road
Copperhead Road

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