Saturday, October 31, 2009

A New Take on Mellencamp's "Scarecrow"

Recently, my local rock station has inserted John Mellencamp’s song “Scarecrow” into its daily rotation. This is a song I have long been familiar with, having heard it often growing up in the 1980’s. It is the title track from his 1985 album – a record that my family and I listened to frequently.

If you are familiar with this song and its lyrics, you’ll realize that it doesn’t take a musical or literary genius to figure out what he’s talking about. It’s a song discussing the plight of Indiana farmers in the early 1980’s, when crop failures and rising prices led to the bankruptcy of a number of farms, not just in Indiana but throughout the Midwest.

The song gives a gut-wrenching and intimate look at that agricultural crisis from the perspective of those who were victims of it. The accompanying music video begins with an interview of three real farmers who were suffering through the difficult times.

As I listen to this song now, so many years down the line, it has taken on a profound and provocative new meaning for me. As strange as it will no doubt sound to my readers, I hear the echoes of Jesus’ life in 1st century Galilee reflected in this song about 1980’s American farmers.

If you’re so inclined, I invite you to read the lyrics along with me and consider a few things:

Scarecrow on a wooden cross, blackbird in the barn.
Four-hundred empty acres that used to be my farm.

This opening verse provides a beautifully stark image of what has befallen the narrator’s livelihood. A farm that used to belong to him, now abandoned, owned by someone in a corporate office somewhere a thousand miles away, an old scarecrow still watching over the forlorn and empty fields, a lone blackbird roosting in the vacant barn. If you read with the heart, you can hear the narrator’s resentment echoed in that second line – four hundred acres that used to be my farm.

Similar situations had befallen countless rural Jews in 1st century Galilee. In the previous decades, Roman commercialism had spread across the Jewish homeland like poison ivy. In the first 20 years or so of Jesus’ life, the Roman cities of Sepphoris and Tiberias had been built in Galilee, right in Jesus’ backyard. Historical texts show that these towns spread Roman commercial influence deep into the heart of rural Galilee. Lands that had once been farmed by Jewish peasant landowners were overtaken by wealthy Romans and their urban Jewish accomplices. These Jewish peasants, once landowners, were now dispossessed of their ancestral land. In the best cases, these Jews worked as common laborers on the lands they once owned. In the worst cases, they were forced into beggary and banditry.

One can imagine that their feelings of resentment towards the Roman commercialism that had destroyed their livelihoods would have been every bit as profound as that expressed by Mellencamp as the narrator of this song.

I grew up like my daddy did, my grandpa cleared this land.
When I was five I walked the fence while grandpa held my hand.

In this second half of the first verse, Mellencamp provides a stark glimpse at the reason for the narrator’s deep resentment. This land is not just the narrator’s possession – like a kitchen table bought from the local furniture store – to be bought and sold; this is his ancestral land, land cleared and worked and made into a viable farm by his grandfather and father before him. This land is as much a part of the narrator’s personal identity as his own name. As a child, he even helped pace out the fence line with his grandfather – pacing out, as it were, the borders of this property that was not just fields of corn and wheat, but home and identity.

The connection here to the dispossessed Jews of 1st century Galilee is blatant to any student of Jewish history. To these ancient Jews, land and God were two sides of the same coin. The Jewish homeland, the Promised Land of the Jewish scriptures, was God’s land, entrusted to the Jews as caretakers. They felt a deep and profound and even esoteric connection with this land. Their entire theological worldview was tied up in their rights to the land they inhabited. Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the last 50 years would see that this connection to land still pervades even modern Jewish identity. The Jewish people, then and now, were people of the land.

For 1st century Jews, unlike for the narrator of “Scarecrow,” it wasn’t just their father and grandfather who had shared this land, but many countless generations of Jews before them. To see it overrun by Roman commercialism – to see God’s land raped, as it were, by invaders, must have seemed like the worst sort of tragedy.

Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow.
This land fed a nation, this land made me proud.
And, son, I’m just sorry there’s no legacy for you now.

This is the chorus of the song, reflecting the narrator’s deeply felt pride in the land he owned and worked. Again, this wasn’t just a possession. Nor was it even just an ancestral holding. It helped feed a nation. Without this farm and others like it, nothing else would much matter, because if you can’t eat, you can’t do much of anything.

The sense of pride felt by the Jews of the 1st century in their land would have been no less – and in fact, probably far more – deeply felt. The land had been entrusted to them by God. They were proud of it. They felt a deep affinity with it. The loss of this legacy – a legacy that defined their entire cultural identity – would have been devastating. And to see other Jews – urban Jews of Jerusalem – collaborating with this systemic evil of commercialism would have created an enormous level of resentment and contempt within the Jews – like Jesus – of 1st century Galilee.

The crops we grew last summer weren’t enough to pay the loans.
Couldn’t buy the seed to plant this spring and the Farmers Bank foreclosed.
Called my old friend Schepman up to auction off the land.
He said John it’s just my job and I hope you understand.
Hey, calling it your job, ol’ hoss, sure don’t make it right,
But if you want me to I’ll say a prayer for your soul tonight.
And grandma’s on the front porch swing with a Bible in her hand.
Sometimes I hear her singing “Take me to the Promised Land.”
When you take away a man’s dignity, he can’t work his fields and cows.

There’ll be blood on the scarecrow, blood on the plow.
Blood on the scarecrow, blood on the plow.

In this second verse and chorus, the anger of the narrator becomes more apparent. The auctioneer attempts to deflect responsibility, but the narrator calls him on it – just because it’s your “job” doesn’t make it right. The whole enterprise, the narrator is saying, is a systemic evil, and you are a part of it.

The reaction Jesus had to the systemic evil he saw around him must have been similar. Like the grandmother who imagines the Promised Land, Jesus began to envision the kingdom of God overcoming the broken world. And he became convinced that if you were not part of the solution – part of God’s kingdom – then you were part of the problem.

The last line of this verse is especially powerful. When you take away a man’s dignity, what can you possibly expect the result to be? The Romans and their urban Jewish collaborators of the 1st century had taken away the dignity of the Jews of Galilee. They had beggared them. They had shed their metaphorical blood, leaving “blood on the scarecrow” and “blood on the plow.

To put it bluntly, the Galilean Jews were justifiably pissed. Jesus came from within that victimized world, voicing the frustrations and resentments of his people, and conceptualizing the kingdom of God, a kingdom of love, acceptance, compassion, and radical equality.

It is not hard to understand, within this context, Jesus’ famous actions in the Temple, where he is said to have “overturned the tables of the moneychangers.” The Romans and their urban Jewish collaborators had commercialized God’s land; they had taken this divinely given land away from its rightful owners so that they could turn a buck. Jesus’ actions in the Temple were symbolic to a great degree, but they no doubt also represented the “boiling over point” for Jesus. It was bad enough that they had taken the land; now they were commercializing the Temple – God’s very own house – too.

Well there’s ninety-seven crosses planted in the courthouse yard.
For ninety-seven families who lost ninety-seven farms.
I think about my grandpa, my neighbors and my name,
And some nights I feel like dying, like that scarecrow in the rain.

For me, this is the climax of the song. Mellencamp sings these words in such a way that the narrator’s anger and resentment is truly palpable. You can feel the resentment yourself, and you can understand it. At the risk of sounding like a “bleeding heart,” I’ll admit that this part of the song has, at times, brought tears to my eyes.

For Jesus, it was far more than 97 farms and 97 families. It was thousands upon thousands of Galilean Jews victimized by systemic evils. And when Jesus thought about his ancestors, and his collective Jewish name, he no doubt felt the same helplessness and bitterness that the narrator feels here.

These are the sociopolitical contexts that Jesus of Nazareth came from. Systemic evils. Hard-working people victimized and beggared by the politics and culture of empire.

I hope the irony of the image of a “scarecrow on a wooden cross” dying in the rain is not lost on anyone.

As “Scarecrow” shows us, these systemic evils are still around. Things haven’t changed all that much. I’m particularly reminded of a recent phenomenon: foreclosed homes being auctioned off by the thousands to real estate investors. Earlier this year, I heard of a foreclosed home in my neighborhood being sold “as is” for an especially low price. In anger, the homeowner had apparently spray-painted graffiti all over the walls of the house. In the news and in conversation, I’ve heard plenty of folks defend buying these homes at auction or through real estate agents: “Well, the house has already been foreclosed on. I can’t change that and didn’t have any involvement in that. As a real estate investor, it’s my job to buy and sell houses.”

Calling it your job, ol’ hoss, sure don’t make it right.

Systemic evil is still all around us. We can either live as part of the problem or part of the solution. For Christians, that means living reconciled to the world or reconciled to the kingdom of God.

Although written as a secular song discussing sociopolitical issues, “Scarecrow” is, for me, a deeply religious song, connecting me to the context of Jesus’ life and urging me to think deeply on his message and his call to love one another and fight injustice.

Here is the song and video, from youtube. I hope you’ll listen to the lyrics, and consider them through the lens I have just illustrated.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant analysis!

Reading those old song lyrics made me cry though!


Scott said...

Thanks, I thought it was rather brilliant myself :)

Anonymous said...

As the 'Program Director' of the station you're referencing, ( I gotta say you've made us proud! Bravo on connecting the dots and the milleniums between song and life. I'd be curious to get Mellencamps' thoughts on your article. It has become the 'calling card' of John's career and the centerpiece of his annual 'Farm Aid' Shows. Well-thought, Well-said and Well done!

Scott said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Dennis. I'd also love to hear what Mellencamp thought about it. Maybe I'll send it to his fan club :)

BC said...

This time, I got all the way through it. In a word: MAGNIFICENT!

Scott said...

Thanks BC. Maybe I should start a series analyzing popular rock songs for Christian connections.