There are not many ideologies that aim to put the poor up front and in the center. An ultimate question of intellectual life and lifestyle is one of vantage point. Through whose eyes do you attempt to see the world? In Matthew 25, Jesus instructs his followers that God will judge them by whether or not they fed him when he was hungry, gave him drink when he was thirsty, gave him shelter when he was a stranger, and visited him in prison. They ask how they will know when he is in need, and Jesus replies, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did to me.” Such an identification of the poor as divine is almost enough to make Karl Marx appear conservative.
John Mellencamp has written many songs about the poor. On The Lonesome Jubilee, the songs “Empty Hands” and “Hard Times for an Honest Man” tell the stories of unemployed and dissatisfied workers struggling for survival and sometimes taking their frustrations out on the ones they love, thereby perpetuating and enlarging the vicious, capitalistic cycle of exploitation and victimhood. “Jackie Brown,” one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking songs of the past forty years, is a folk waltz about a man suffering through rural desolation and obliteration. He is barely able to feed himself and his family. Mellencamp sings, “Freedom hasn’t been very kind to you,” and he indicts an apathetic and cruel culture with the simple line, “We shame ourselves to watch people like this live.”
It is on the political anthem of empowerment “We Are the People,” however, that Mellencamp makes his most profound statement on class and the ditches it digs into the wagon paths of people all over the world. The intense incarnation of what Mellencamp calls “gypsy rock” – a blend of black gospel, Delta blues, and 1960s style rock – is an exercise in musical and sociopolitical solidarity. Mellencamp and band sing lines such as “If you’re feeling shut down, may our thoughts be with you” with conviction. Near the song’s conclusion, Mellencamp sings, “We know only the strong will survive / But the meek will inherit.” In two lines Mellencamp is able to juxtapose the prevailing ethos of his epoch with a faithful belief in ultimate justice that turns the tables and reverses the roles.
“Only the strong survive,” much like “survival of the fittest,” is a rhetorical guide through Darwinism and the inarguable reality of evolution through natural selection and adaptation. Anyone who attempts to break the laws of the universe or to debate with the nature of the world will suffer a quick, painful, and humiliating defeat. The dodo bird is one species, among many, no longer able to condemn or question the cruelty of nature. Human institutions and man-made laws, however, are different. The governance of human affairs operates according to certain observable and empirically demonstrable principles, but largely we have the freedom to dictate how we will organize a society. When Mellencamp sings, “We know only the strong will survive,” he is not referring to the forces of natural selection, he is singing of social Darwinism and the way in which the uncompromising market, along with the unbreakable influence of financial power over political power, impacts the fate of millions in a free society. Capitalism coldly classifies large groups of people into categories of “winners and losers,” just as Mellencamp sings on “Pink Houses,” and that classification sets up expectations and reward mechanisms that American culture honors in politics, pop culture, and sociology. The legal system tilts toward those who can hire expensive lawyers, politics is often at the auctioning block for well-financed lobbyists and high-powered donors, and the media favor fawning stories of stars and tycoons over hard news. Mellencamp recognizes reality, but he follows it with a reference to Jesus’s Beatitudes—“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
In his rock ’n’ roll endorsement of the Beatitudes, cleverly juxtaposed with social Darwinism, Mellencamp takes the position of providing the poor with spiritual power. He also aligns himself with the often marginalized Christian Left of America. Whenever Mellencamp invokes Jesus, the Bible, or Christian ideas in music it is to interrogate the contradiction in America’s piety and politics. In the Woody Guthrie song “To Washington,” Mellencamp rewrites the words to include: “What is the thought process to take a human’s life? / What would be the reason to think that this right? . . . From Jesus Christ to Washington.” The most endearing nickname for Jesus, to both the religious and the secular, is the “prince of peace.” Mellencamp released “To Washington” at the start of the Iraq War, and although songs are hardly armor against the onslaught of political shrapnel, perhaps his update of a classic folk song reminded some Americans that their president’s Christian identity did not square with his aggressive foreign policy.
The peace and comfort Jesus can provide is often the subject of Mellencamp songs. Most beautifully, he prays for guidance and sanctuary in “Ride Back Home.” “Hey Jesus / Will you give me a ride back home,” Mellencamp signs before identifying himself as a lost soul with a troubled heart of rain. In a live rendition of the song, Mellencamp speaks softly into the microphone, “I promise I won’t judge anybody / If you give me a ride back home.”
Religion is often a source of stupidity and cruelty, but it can also provide people with great beauty and love. Mellencamp’s application of spiritual searching to the themes of his music makes clear that he believes it is possible for Christianity to love the hated, heal the wounded, and disturb the complacent. Jesus visits the sick and suffering, but when he leaves, the fangs of social Darwinist predators are free to sink more deeply into the jugular of any victim—often suspecting but rarely protected.
“When Jesus left Birmingham,” Mellencamp sings in the funky folk song of that name, “All the people went completely nuts / They all busted out on a wild night /Riding high on a golden calf.” “When Jesus left Birmingham,” he continues, “All the people had themselves a big, long laugh.” Like his invocation of the Beatitudes and his tribute to the Bible Belt in “Jack and Diane,” in “When Jesus Left Birmingham,” Mellencamp expresses his belief in Christian compassion as a civilizing factor in American life. This civilizing force is not moralistic. Mellencamp left a moralistic church as a teenager and never looked back. The Nazarene Church of his upbringing forbade smoking, dancing, and rock ’n’ roll, and condemned women who wore makeup. A chain-smoking, James Brown–loving rock ’n’ roll singer who dates and marries models and actresses isn’t long for the Nazarene congregation. Mellencamp saw at an early age that the repression of natural urges and the relegation of life to a beige fantasy of uncomplicated wholesomeness are silly distractions from the adventure of real life. It seems he has never lost sight, however, of the belief that in a culture that is loyal to the strong, some institution must care for the weak.
Mellencamp’s consistent opposition to war and his Christian inspiration for dissent take on important class distinctions in a country with a volunteer army comprised of low-income and working-class people from the South and the heartland. The declaration of the end to the military draft was a great moment for freedom in the United States, but its unintended, undesirable consequence is that the volunteer status of the military allows for war to become a class issue. Because most middle-class and upper-class Americans already pay little attention to the lower classes, especially in other political conversations regarding education, health care, and neighborhood safety, it becomes easy for the nation to pay little attention—“Support the troops” slogans notwithstanding—to the consequences of war and veteran struggles. Just as Mellencamp warned about a nation collectively “turning its head” from the ghastly sight of one of its poorest citizens contemplating suicide in “Jackie Brown,” his songs about war and peace warn of the futility of violence and the cruelty of indifference when thousands of young men and women come home in body bags or wheelchairs.
There is now a coalescence of working-class struggle, military enlistment, and Christian conflict over the question of war, and because of his lifelong home in Southern Indiana - “the middle of nowhere,” as he calls it, Mellencamp was able to see the convergence coming and adeptly navigate it. The white working class, especially in Indiana, the military, and the American face of Christianity share a loyalty to political conservatism and usually the Republican Party. Mellencamp, in his music, activism, and lifestyle choices, becomes one of the rare independent travelers in public life because, in his words, he “doesn’t play to his base.” He is a leftist thinker and voter, but he often performs and always lives among conservatives. Rather than creating dissonance or producing constant confrontation, this gives Mellencamp the ability to exercise his citizenship in a way that challenges both him and his audience.
“Where in The Bible does Jesus say that it is okay to kill?” Mellencamp once asked an interviewer. He has also trashed political leadership for failing to provide proper care for “these kids coming home who were just doing the best they could do to follow the order of the Commander-in-Chief.” His best efforts of advocacy for peace and veteran support are not always appreciated. After the release of “To Washington,” Mellencamp recalls hearing the song on the radio in Indiana and listening to a caller comment on the song with hateful stupidity, “After hearing that song, I don’t know who is worse—Saddam Hussein or John Mellencamp.” Mellencamp told his son, who was also in the car, “You stick your neck out, sometimes it gets chopped off.”
A few years later, Mellencamp stuck his neck out again, demonstrating how leftist populism, antiwar spirituality, and working-class loyalty to place and community can combine for purposes of beauty, generosity, and compassion. In 2005, the ugly narrative that supporting the troops was equivalent to supporting the war and that therefore those who opposed the war also disrespected and dishonored the men and women fighting it still had cultural cachet and persuasive power. Mellencamp became the first performer in decades to play a free show at the Walter Reed Military Medical Center for 280 members of the military, and their families.
Before the show, Mellencamp toured the facilities and visited with wounded soldiers. He has played benefit shows for veterans’ organization and charities throughout his career, but the Walter Reed performance had a more moving quality due to its timing and its setting. Politics was not entirely absent that night. Mellencamp requested that the administrators of the hospital give Joan Baez clearance to duet with him onstage, and she was denied. The justification was that they did not have time to run a “background check,” but Mellencamp was suspicious. “If it had been Jessica Simpson, she’d [have] been given clearance in a second,” he said. His dedication of “Jim Crow”—the political protest song on which he’d hoped they would duet—to Baez was as contentious as the night got. Otherwise, it was a night of great music—and perhaps a few hours of comfort, reprieve, and pleasure for people who desperately needed it.
Mellencamp played familiar and beloved hits like “Pink Houses,” “Small Town,” and “Lonely Ol’ Night,” but much of the set list featured songs from his then new record, Freedom’s Road. Of all Mellencamp’s albums released after Scarecrow, Freedom’s Road is the one that sounds most like it. The 1960s rock and alternative country melodies and ornamentations are there, but with an added flare of anthemic drama. “Our Country” and “The Americans” showcase Mellencamp’s signature gift for simplicity masking complexity. “Our Country” sounds like a typical patriotic anthem with its populist chorus, but in its verses, it is a plea for “the ones who run this land to help the poor and common man” and for people to sign a truce in the culture wars: “There’s room enough here for science to live / There’s room enough here for religion to forgive.”
The faith of John Mellencamp is unclear. He seems far from devout in any particular religion, and he has consistently revealed a rebellious streak fast and flaming enough to cut across and burn through any doctrinal system of belief imposing unhealthy repression of urges and the narrowing of thought on the mind and body. Mellencamp’s demand and desire for physical release and adventure is too strong for the tethers of religion, but his belief in God and his compassion come from a seemingly Christian and prophetic place and spirit. The necessity for service, the vantage point of identification with the bruised and beaten, and the reciprocal love ethic stay with Mellencamp through his music, and in that music, he is able to express Christian ideas and thoughts from the corner of compassion, mercy, and humility. He is able to express the Christian philosophic idea without adhering to the narrow and foolish dogmas that often afflict religion with the viruses of close-mindedness and stagnation.
When I asked Mike Wanchic, Mellencamp’s rhythm guitarist for the past forty years, about Mellencamp’s conflicted spirituality, he reminded me that spirituality is the right word, cautioning me against using religion. “Religion is a loaded term. Religion is about doctrine. Spirituality is about human consciousness and compassion. So, we are very careful to express social awareness and empathy while making sure to separate the mythological aspects out of it.” It is a sensible practice and belief that prioritizes human connection and allows for the growth that it offers but rejects the repressive traps of religion. It is likely for this reason that Mellencamp, in “If I Die Sudden,” updates his condemnation of clergy from “Authority Song,” declaring that when he dies, he “don’t need no preacher around.” He will simply need those figures from his life—like his grandmother—who exemplify love, solidarity, and compassion. It is these virtues that inform Mellencamp’s patriotism and politics, alongside an insatiable drive to travel down the road of freedom he celebrates in song. It is also, undoubtedly, his personal experience. The doctor who performed his lifesaving surgery as a baby with spina bifida charged his parents only $1. Moments out of the womb, Mellencamp began learning of the power of compassion.
The Bible Belt is an undoubtedly conservative region of America, and just as Mellencamp rebelled against its most popular and prevalent lifestyle, he also rebelled against its politics by cultivating and guarding a form of spirituality vastly different from one obsessed with the consensual sex lives of strangers. When a collection of bigots organized under the mindless name of National Organization for Marriage began playing “Pink Houses” at its pathetic rallies, Mellencamp sent the organization a letter informing its leaders that he is a full and firm supporter of gay marriage. In his art and activism, Mellencamp enlists and enhances a minority tradition of Christian Left agitation. It is a tradition of political dissent and humanitarian charity that challenges the orthodoxies of mainline Christianity and mainstream politics.
In both his spiritual songs of personal prayer and his political songs of Christian fire, Mellencamp makes clear that his belief aligns the Christian idea and the Christian deity with the suffering, struggling, and lonely man. Christ’s loyalty and sympathy—like his “good news”—is not with the conqueror but the conquered. It is not with the glamorous but the filthy. It is with the poor. It is not with John Mellencamp. It is with Jackie Brown. Mellencamp’s songs become a sweet, soulful means of honoring that spiritual truth. “Sometimes my job is to write songs, and try to do my best to speak for people who can’t speak for themselves.”
On the question of class, Mellencamp advocates a minority tradition in Christianity, but he also advances the minority tradition of leftist populism as a political provocateur. Liberalism has undergone a transformation in recent decades. As Christopher Hedges explains, it is no longer the organizational means for implementing incremental change for the poor and working class. It is the trendy façade of hip social conformity accessible to highly educated urbanites looking to justify their elitist lifestyle choices with superficial protests of plastic bags, politically incorrect speech, and the unhealthy habits of the unwashed masses. Mellencamp, with the Midwest anger he channels into egalitarian action of communal loyalty, challenges not only the rightward drift of American politics but also the disengagement of the liberal establishment from the concerns of everyday people.
Indiana, as Mellencamp acknowledges, is a state of conservative politics, but as an artist, he is able to find a home in the spiritual community of his artistic predecessors. The heartland has raised Grant Wood, Theodore Dreiser, Jim Harrison, John Prine, Bob Dylan, and James Dean. In its politics, it has a tilt toward the right wing, but it has also provided a surprisingly nurturing home for aggressive and authentic firebrand politics of populist reform.
Kurt Vonnegut, the antiwar novelist who was born in Indianapolis, tells the story best in his last book, the criminally enjoyable collection of essays, A Man without a Country: “That wage earners, without social position or higher education or wealth, are of inferior intellect is surely belied by the fact that two of the most splendid writers and speakers on the deepest subjects in American history were self-taught workmen. I speak, of course, of Carl Sandburg the poet from Illinois, and Abraham Lincoln of Kentucky, then Indiana, and finally Illinois. Both, may I say, were continental, freshwater people like me. Another freshwater person and splendid speaker was the Socialist Party candidate Eugene Victor Debs, a former locomotive fireman who had been born to a middle class family in Terre Haute, Indiana.”
John Mellencamp worked at a minimum wage for a phone company before signing a record deal, and in his quest to become a troubadour genius, he was also a self-taught workman. Like Sandburg, Lincoln, Debs, and Vonnegut, he is also a Midwesterner delighting in the challenge of not “playing to his base.” The spirit of excellence and greatness, and the project of improvement in America rest on the promise, ambition, and courage of men and women who in art, politics, and the political art of living resist the flattery and praise that comes so easily with playing to the base. Mellencamp’s music takes diverse and even disparate elements and pulls them into a process of fusion. His political activism seeks to do the same. He votes Democrat but, more important, he is a democrat.
One of the greatest gifts to come from America’s underclass—whether it is black descendants of slaves in churches, dance halls, and smoky rooms or whites in the hills and on front porches—is the everlasting blessing of music. Mellencamp’s music—gypsy rock and rock with a street edge—is a living embodiment of the creativity and humanity of the expression and emotion of the underclass.
Kurt Vonnegut—a fellow Hoosier—appraises the value of that gift most accurately, too, and his statement of simple and beautiful truth certainly applies to the lifelong contributions of Seymour, Indiana’s John Mellencamp—“No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious institutions become, the music will still be wonderful.”
Excerpted from "Mellencamp: American Troubador" by David Masciotra. Published by University of Kentucky Press. Copyright 2015 by David Masciotra. Reprinted with permission of the author. All rights reserved.