John Walker's Blues

Album: Jerusalem (2002)
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Songfacts®:

  • Steve Earle wrote this from the perspective of John Walker Lindh, an American who converted to Islam and ended up fighting for the Taliban. The song created a great deal of controversy before it was even released. Based on the lyrics, some members of the media, including the tabloid TV show Inside Edition, blasted it for sympathizing with Lindh, although that was not Earle's intention. The New York Post ran the headline: "Twisted ballad honors Tali-Rat."

    Responding to the criticism in the November 2002 edition of Harp, Earle said: "They don't want John Walker to be a human. You know why? Because they couldn't catch Osama bin Laden and we need him. We need a bogey man. You know, we're trying desperately to create one. We've been trying desperately to create one ever since the Soviet Union collapsed. It's the stupidest thing that we – and I have to include myself in it – we are ostensibly a democracy and we are a people and we are a society. But the stupidest thing we ever did was starve the Soviet Union to death because that was the bogeyman for a long, long time. We knew exactly why we were doing what we were doing, we had a straight, consistent story to tell everybody about why we were doing what we were doing. But my problem and the reason I think all these questions need to be asked... As soon as Ashcroft started suggesting that people are less than patriotic when they question anything the administration does, my alarm started going off."
  • Earle doesn't condone the actions of Lindh, but feels that it could have happened to just about anyone growing up in America. When this was released, Earle's son was 20-years-old, about the same age as Lindh. He says the point of the song is that this could have happened to anyone's kid, and he was trying to humanize him.
  • The chorus comes from a verse from the Qur'an, "I am a witness, there is no God but God."
  • Earle recalled to Spin magazine in a 2011 interview: "I wrote that song because no one else was f---ing going to. And I did it because my son Justin is exactly the same age as John Walker Lindh. So I saw a skinny, 20-year-old kid very similar-looking to my own, firstborn son, duct-taped to a f---ing board in Afghanistan. My first thought was, 'Oh my God, he has parents somewhere.' And I respond to some things as a man, some things as a boy, some things as an artist, and some things as a parent. And I responded as a parent. I knew there were going to be repercussions. It was funny, when the whole thing came down, somebody on Fox accused me of doing it to sell a lot of records. I was like, 'Dude, there are a lot of things you can do to sell records in this climate and that ain't one of them.'"

Comments: 7

  • Jim from Council, IdLindh is a Marin County freak who converted to Islam and supported Taliban. It's too bad he didn't didn't get buried in Afghanistan with his buddies.
    Hopefully he's learning all about "truth" from his buddies in prison.
  • Charles from Glenside, PaWell, actually Steve Earle was pretty much ignored by country radio stations well before this tune ever came about, so I doubt that he considered releasing it to be any great risk in that regard.
  • Ben from Prince George, CanadaSteve Earle was born in Virginia, but his grandpa sent his dad a can full of dirt from Texas so he could say the first soil his grandson set his feet on was Texas soil.

    This is an amazing song. Its not a taliban support song. It's a song about a young mans search for truth.
  • Rob from Adelaide, AustraliaIf you do listen to Sidetracks, listen first to Johnny Too Bad - the best Steve Earle he never wrote IMHO!
  • Stefanie from Rock Hill, ScI remember hearing about this song on NPR, and it caused quite a controversy.
  • Stefanie Magura from Rock Hill, ScI completely agree with you Mark from England. That was very brave of him to release this song. Steve Earl is apparently a staunch liberal, so that's probably the kind of song he would write. Btw, I don't find anything wrong with that. I don't like Bush, but that's just my opinion. Btw, calling him a country-rocker is enough. Redneck to some people can be considered very dirogatory. He is from the South though. I want to say Texas, but I'm not sure.
  • Mark from Hereford, EnglandAmazingly brave of Steve Earle to release this. I am sure he knew very well how it would be received. For a redneck country-rocker to do this kind of song was certain to see his work taken off every country music station. These days he is probably more welcome in Europe, with a strong following in the UK.
    Steve Earle is, in all seriousness, the greatest songwriter of the last thirty years. Why only two songs here, and those unrepresentative of his work? Go and get 'Side Tracks', for a sample of what he has been doing. And those are the songs not considered good enough to get on the other albums!
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