The poetry of Katrina

Posted: Monday, September 19, 2005

Last week's televised musical benefit for survivors of Katrina opened with Randy Newman at the piano singing the song that's been running through a lot of people's minds lately, "Louisiana 1927." The song, about the devastating Mississippi River floods of 78 years ago and now more than 30 years old itself, has suddenly come alive again - as if it were just waiting for this tragedy to happen. "Some people got lost in the flood/Some people got away all right/Louisiana, Louisiana/They're trying to wash us away."

In fact, the song was just waiting for this to happen. So were a lot of scientists. In the October 2004 National Geographic, an article on Louisiana's wetlands opens with an accurate description of the devastation just witnessed in New Orleans, and asks "When did this calamity happen? It hasn't - yet." But we listen to our scientists almost as little as we listen to our poets.

Before Randy Newman traded his satirical wit for a spot on the Disney payroll, he wrote a number of savage songs exploring history for what's still true today - like "Sail Away," where the skipper of a slave ship gives Africans a sales pitch on immigrating to America: "In America every man is free/To take care of his home and his family." It's a fanciful take on American history to expose the way racism is sometimes fostered by personal and commercial interests (also something Shakespeare suggests in Othello), as well as that eternal truth that salesmen lie through their teeth.

When he wrote "Lousiana 1927," Newman knew that the lowlands would inevitably flood again and people (mostly poor people) would die. And he knew that, just as inevitably, the receding waters would find the politicians and bureaucrats on parade: "President Coolidge came down in a railroad train/With a little fat man with a note-pad in his hand/The President say, Little fat man, isn't it a shame/What the river has done to this poor crackers land."

The TV benefit last week had pop stars on parade instead, but many of them (except Newman) spouting the same earnest and meaningless rhetoric we hear from our politicians, even Neil Young, in black suit and black cowboy hat looking like a cross between preacher and cattle baron in a Hollywood Western. Sitting at the piano, he unveiled a new song, "When God Made Me": "Was he thinking about my religion/And the way I worshipped him?/When God made me/Did he give me the gift of compassion/To help my fellow man?"

It's not a great song, hardly one of Neil's best, but it's an important song if only for answering the religious conservatives who seem to want a theocratic America where God's will (in the form of constitutional amendments) would make us all behave.

It's a song someone had to write. Leave it to the guy who gave us "The Needle and the Damage Done," "Ohio," "Rockin' in the Free World" and after 9/11, "Let's Roll."

Unlike his earlier songs, however, this one offers little more than clichés. I don't disagree with the song's politics; it's just bad poetry and worse rock and roll, which is a shame because over the last 35 years Young has created our time's most vivid expressions of the notions of personal freedom and personal responsibility that make America such a crazy and hopeful place to live.

But this new song has no concrete details to make it immediate and poetic; no history to show the present more clearly; no Calvin Coolidge to satirize the sitting president. It makes Young sound more like Wayne Newton: just another vacuous show-business personality spouting vapid, abstract platitudes.

We'll have plenty of that in the months to come. Republicans are already spouting and spinning with our dilatory president. And with so much of this disaster falling on the poor, the Democrats rush to play issues of race and class to their personal advantage at the polls. And night after night, we'll sit and listen to them, instead of to the scientists and poets who actually have something to say, something we might really need to hear, about nature and human nature.

• Jim Hale is a technical writer who lives in Juneau.

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