Washington Square Serenade

Issue section: 
(319)

Steve Earle

On his new album, Washington Square Serenade, Steve Earle may have swapped crashing guitars for mandolins and banjos, and the harder edge of his work may also be punctuated with beautiful, melodic love songs such as "Sparkle and Shine" and "Days Aren't Long Enough". But the fact remains that anyone who signs off his introductory notes with the epithet "Fuck Lou Dobbs" - the CNN anchorman famous for racist, anti-immigration diatribes - has nailed his political colours firmly to the mast.

Washington Square Serenade was recorded in New York's famous Electric Lady studios and the album is, in itself, a tribute to the city - a city, says Earle, where it gladdens his heart "to see a mixed-race, same-sex couple holding hands in my own neighbourhood".

It is the very cosmopolitan nature of the city that is celebrated in the political centrepiece of the album - "City of Immigrants". Earle says of the song that it is a reinforcement of his belief that New York is proof that "there's an us that's greater than the framers of our Constitution intended there to be".

In the bombastic "Steve's Hammer", dedicated to Pete Seeger, there is plenty of the raw anger and defiance that characterise the old-fashioned protest songs for which Seeger was famous. He'll lay the hammer down, Earle tells us, "when the air don't choke and the ocean's clean/and kids don't die for gasoline". That same anger is manifest in "Oxycontin Blues" and "Red is the Colour"; songs where the voice of the dispossessed and the disadvantaged is reinforced by the jangle of the southern banjo.

Of course, folk and country music isn't everyone's cup of tea, but Washington Square belongs more to the tradition that gives a voice to the poor and disenfranchised than to line-dancing and rhinestones, or chunky sweaters and real ale.

Although careful not to compare himself with Dylan in any way, Earle says of the great man that "he invented my job". Ironically, of course, Earle has journeyed in the opposite direction to his hero, whose move from acoustic to electric guitar so horrified folk purists in the early 1960s. In doing so, he has managed to capture plenty of the anger that characterised the protest of the 1960s and which is still present aplenty. A world in which "there ain't no hunger/and there ain't no pain" is a long way off.