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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Saturday Music Hall: Mellencamp

Rain On the Scarecrow, Blood On the Plow

I've always really liked John Mellencamp (even when he was known, incongruously, as John Cougar). I liked his bands, often featuring the fabulous Kenny Aranoff on drums, and usually including African-American and women musicians. There were diverse people populating his videos. I also think it's got a lot to do with going to college in downstate Illinois, in Champaign-Urbana. I enjoyed the small town atmosphere there so much in that era that I stayed an extra year surrounded by the flat, flat cornfields. I met many guys like Mellencamp in those years, from nearby farming towns like Rantoul, Mattoon, Villa Grove, Decatur (DEE-ca-tur), Danville, Tuscola, Effingham, Flora, Vandalia.

I grew to love the wide open landscape of lonely grain elevators, Illinois-Central railroad tracks, straight-line county roads good for speeding rides on motorcycles, peeling paint wooden houses with generous porches and tiny town centers of chipped red brick. Most of it run down, fading, failing, but hanging on. Back then the interstate ended just south of Chicago so, if we drove down to Champaign, we rolled slowly through many of the tiny family farm towns and stopped to eat breakfast at the little diners where people still rolled their own cigarettes and wore bib overalls. If we rode the IC train down, the Black conductors were ancient, the club cars lively as we passed by the run-down backsides of the towns, listening to the mesmerizing clickety clack below us.

The first round of people in the rural Midwest were losing their family farms right then, owned for generations, and having to go to work in the factories that still punctuated the mostly empty landscapes. Their children exhibited a strong populist (and antiwar) streak because of this, something I could connect with given my own upbringing in second generation, blue collar, union enclaves in the Windy City. They were wise asses too, confronters, in a good way. I could connect with that too. And many of them even looked like Mellencamp, Germanic, short, dark-haired, wiry. Some were going to the U of I's big ag school, others were weekend visitors to the campus, searching out parties, music, adventures. Many were fans of Bob Dye-lin, as they used to call him, which always surprised me somewhat.

Mellencamp's music, videos and politics all remind me of that era, that attitude, that feeling of place at a time when the American working class was getting its first hits from the merging corporate monsters. At first they came for the family farms. Now they've got almost everything. What have the little people got? Little Pink Houses of course. Only this time they're flooded out and rotting while the stock markets rise astronomically, and Bush can't even utter the words "New Orleans." If we don't think it can happen to us next, we just aren't paying attention ...

Mellencamp recently released a new album called "Freedom's Road," with a new video release of the song This Is Our Country. Let's act like it and take it back. At last.

February 10, 2007 at 02:46 PM in Saturday Music Hall | Permalink


We lived in Homewood. I worked in Orland Park and I can't tell you how many times I covered at both the Kankakee and Champaign Barnes & Noble stores. I loved the drive. Long stretches of nuthin' and then suddenly there'd be some little podunk place where people would actually wave at you as you drove through. I also spent some time at the Merrillville and Valpo (Valparaiso) stores. So, I was all over the area.
You descriptions are spot-on and it takes me back to the days of loading the kids in the van and just driving... and driving... corn field after corn field... stopping to take photos of horses in a field... fields of sunflowers all facing in the same direction (in fact, if you get a chance, go back to my blog and go to my partner's photography blog Photography by Solaria, and you'll see many, many photos of these fields, farms, barns, horses, and sunflowers!)
This is our country and I'm really tired of some whacked out fear mongerin' power soaked good ol' boy runnin' it into the ground.
John Mellencamp is great for providing democratic anthems for the workin' man and woman.
I'm with you.
Thanks for a great post that both invoked really nice memories and a sense of motivation.

Posted by: Natalie | Feb 10, 2007 4:27:17 PM