One of the saddest and most telling images of the last week was the current US President holding the Bible aloft outside an Episcopal Church in Washington. For the millions who saw it, the picture held so many conflicting statements. For him it was his message to his supporters that there had, once more, been a reset. Everything was, once more, as it was. The POTUS was in charge and his people – Bible loving people – were going to demonstrate their power over the mob outside the gates. For those outside the gates who had been violently removed so the photo-op could take place the message was also clear. What they saw was not a Bible, but a white symbol of authority once more proclaiming that his world-view was somehow endorsed by a higher power. God and America; it’s a strange old dance.
As I looked through the newspapers I thought of the good Christian folk I met recently in Rwanda and The DRC who must have been confused by the shot when they saw it pop up on their TV or news feeds. For them it must have felt as if the book they’d been reading all their life had been stolen and many of the important pages ripped out. For many Americans too there would be a sense of shame that the book they hold so dear was being used in such triumphalist fashion….though, heaven knows, that has been a common theme with the good book over the centuries.
Bible mythology and folklore is written into the DNA of so many Americans. That it transcends the racial divide is both consoling and confusing. A visitor to this planet might well be surprised that Pat Robertson and Al Sharpton find their inspiration and instruction coming from the same source. For those of you of no faith and deep love of music I apologise for the religious pre roll…I’m coming to my point.
Popular music and country music are steeped in Bible imagery. The Bible itself has been wedged into country songs appropriately and inappropriately by Keith Urban (even quoting a specific verse… John 3:16), Brooks and Dunn, George Jones and of course Ashley McBryde....you can add your own names here. My lasting impression of Nashville after my first visit there thirteen years ago was of a city with a surplus of ostentatious steeples. The Churches stood on every corner taking up the best real-estate and imposing an image more steeped in privilege than compassion. There was little doubt in my mind that Tennessee was still the buckle on the Bible Belt.
It’s true too that the country audience know the references when they hear them. So when Sarah Jarosz starts her new album, ‘World On The Ground.’ with a reference to a woman called Eve, we understand where the story has come from. Sarah’s new album is centred around the idea of home and a return, in at least her imagination, to a town in Texas where she grew up. The beautiful tale in ‘Maggie’ of driving across the desert in a Ford Escape is not necessarily about any one person but, as you’ll hear in this week’s special conversation, the car has a special place in Sarah’s affections.
I spoke to Sarah last week about the new album while she was locked down in Nashville. It’s a beautiful piece of work all produced by John Leventhal and it’s a great progression from where we last found her. We spoke about John, her side project ‘I’m With Her’ and her hopes for the future in these troubled times.
At the time I spoke to Sarah the news of George Floyd was just breaking over in Minnesota so there was no time to get a reaction from her that day. It’s interesting however to hear so many country artists and commentators being so vocal about how America needs to address its record on race relations. It’s also very telling that what has happened there has caused such an outpouring of anger and self reflection in this country. Our conversation on the US is often filled with a certain degree of schadenfreude. On this occasion we are more inclined to protest but also understand that there, but for the Grace of God, go we.
To that end you need to hear a song my old Chicago radical pal, Johan Mrvos recommended to me this week. Jovan said in his email of Dion and Paul Simon singing ‘Song For Sam Cooke,’ that it….absolutely destroyed me…one of my true boyhood heroes singing about another man who changed my life…I’m still crying and sobbing…this country must change or it will die..The song is also called Here in America and you’ll find out why it’s the song you need to hear right now on this week’s show.
So do listen in to this week’s Another Country for that interview with Sarah, a celebration of significant birthdays for some great artists and new songs to get you through these troubled times. It all starts at 8 p.m. on BBC Radio Scotland this Tuesday evening. Listen in live and/or on BBC Sounds if you can.