“Girl on Fire” is the album’s most recognizable single and its title track. One hears it everywhere. The song lifts a section of its melody from Berlin’s 1986 power ballad “Take My Breath Away.” Like that song, the single features its share of melodramatic qualities, as Keys’ reaching vocals herald the triumphs of a girl—any girl will do—against the odds. A repetitive and bombastic work.
“Girl on Fire” was also the song played by Keys during her recent performance at President Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural ball. As the president and his wife looked on, Keys sang and changed her song’s lyrics to celebrate them. “He’s living in a world and it’s on fire,” Keys sang, “filled with catastrophe. But he knows he can find a way.” “Everybody knows Michelle is his girl,” she added, “together they run the world.”
This was pretty shameful, although predictable as well. Keys belongs to an affluent layer for whom race, gender and sexuality—and themselves, mostly—are the chief concerns in life and who have no difficulty at this point accommodating themselves to the actions of the Obama administration. Unfortunately, in fact, they hardly give the matter a thought. Such an accommodation with power and money, however, does not go hand in hand with serious artistry and an important treatment of life.
Is it any wonder so much of this music feels so thoroughly empty?
Finished in 1947 and lost to readers until now, House of Earth is Woody Guthrie’s only fully realized novel—a powerful portrait of Dust Bowl America, filled with the homespun lyricism and authenticity that have made his songs a part of our national consciousness. It is the story of an ordinary couple’s dreams of a better life and their search for love and meaning in a corrupt world.
Tike and Ella May Hamlin struggle to plant roots in the arid land of the Texas Panhandle. The husband and wife live in a precarious wooden farm shack, but Tike yearns for a sturdy house that will protect them from the treacherous elements. Thanks to a five-cent government pamphlet, Tike has the know-how to build a simple adobe dwelling, a structure made from the land itself—fireproof, windproof, Dust Bowl–proof. A house of earth.
Though they are one with the farm and with each other, the land on which Tike and Ella May live and work is not theirs. Due to larger forces beyond their control—including ranching conglomerates and banks—their adobe house remains painfully out of reach.
A story of rural realism and progressive activism, and in many ways a companion piece to Guthrie’s folk anthem “This Land Is Your Land,” House of Earth is a searing portrait of hardship and hope set against a ravaged landscape. Combining the moral urgency and narrative drive of John Steinbeck with the erotic frankness of D. H. Lawrence, here is a powerful tale of America from one of our greatest artists.
I’m curious as to this “erotic frankness of D.H. Lawrence bit. This could be disastrous. But whatever, I’m glad it’s available. Certainly would a read, since at the very least I imagine the prose flows quickly.
There’s a whole historical literature on red diaper baby summer camps and how 20th century radicals attempted to inculcate their children into their value systems through these camps. I don’t know if there’s a similar literature on conservative camps. If not, someone should look into this. But I have to wonder how effective these camps are? How many commie kids turned into capitalists and how many Randian kids learned to hold human values as an adult? Not sure how you could quantify something like this, but it’s an interesting question. I’ve often wondered if the only way to give any children I might have in the future the values I cherish is to raise them to be cold-hearted capitalists.
* Although I recognize that I am ideologically wrong about this, I wholeheartedly share Matt’s disdain for sing-alongs. I was once at the Highlander Center in Tennessee, where Guy and Candi Carawan were still the resident folksingers. This was probably 1999 or 2000. Guy Carawan is the individual who taught the old spiritual “We Shall Overcome” to the SNCC students in 1960, making it the anthem of the civil rights movement. Despite recognizing that I was in the presence of greatness, I really didn’t want to sing along. Neither did most other people under the age of 30. Disdain of pure raw emotion is an unfortunate byproduct of the Ironic Age. Contemporary writers about the IWW like Nels Anderson noted the power that common song had to unite the poor. We’ve lost that. Part of that is the greater diversity of musical styles in the 21st century–even if there were anthems to sing along to, what could we agree on? But an equal or greater part is dislike of the style.
I have a Johnny Cash picture, but it’s no good. Same thing with Merle Haggard. But at the time that I was shooting I wasn’t looking for the stars. Dolly Parton hadn’t yet gone out on her own yet when I shot her. I was looking mostly for the world of country music—the people.
My hero was E. P. Thompson. He was a terrific historian and a very good writer. I even went to study with him one semester in England. His kind of bottom-up philosophy of history was what I was following, and I was doing so very consciously. When I started taking these pictures, I was pretty sure about what I knew when it came to history but not very secure about what I knew about photography. So I looked at people like Brassaï and Weegie or Diane Arbus and August Sander, and they seemed to fit what E. P. Thompson was talking about, and that’s exactly what I set out to do.