Cornel West has written that one of the greatest gifts of black music is the inspiration it gives to suffering people to look at the darkness and destruction surrounding them and walk into it “singing a sweet song.” John Mellencamp has operated according to that manual throughout his career, citing as his job description to “make people feel good about themselves.”
The decimation of the family farmer and ruination of the rich land, however, did not elicit sweetness in Mellencamp’s music. Resembling a monstrous storm system, the 1980s brought devastation to small and midlevel farmers via a convergence and confluence of factors from Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, the international export market, and Washington, D.C. Throughout the Midwest, by the early 1980s, the value of farmland had fallen by 60 percent because of a drop in agricultural need and increased production. Jason Manning, a historian at Southern Illinois University, summarizes the cruel jokes and awful coincidences that collaborated to kill the family farmer:
The decision by President Jimmy Carter to enforce a grain embargo as a means of punishing the Soviet Union for its invasion of Afghanistan cost the American farmer a crucial overseas market. Subsequently, the Soviets diversified their agricultural suppliers in order to limit the effects of a future embargo. And though prices fell, American farm products were still costlier than those of competitors on the international market; federal price supports kept prices artificially high enough so that farmers in Argentina, Australia, Canada and Europe were able to seize more of the market than ever before. The strong dollar of the Eighties combined with the economic stagnation and financial straits of purchasing nations also hurt American agricultural exports, which declined by more than 20 percent between 1981 and 1983, while real commodity prices plummeted 21 percent during the same period.
Farm foreclosures rose with the same velocity and rapidity as the price of the crops on those farms plummeted. The boots bruising the farmers already on the ground came from a simultaneously dysfunctional and disengaged federal government. President Reagan claimed a “free market” philosophy to excuse policy indifference in the face of citizen collapse. So-called “faith” in the market’s corrective measures compelled Reagan to sleep on the sofa while the roof off the house started burning. The Ayn Rand–inspired surrender to the “invisible hand”—to use Adam Smith’s term—proved to be cynical maneuvering to disguise corporate favoritism. Due to old laws legislators wrote during the Great Depression, which Reagan made no attempt to correct, modify, or destroy, substantial subsidies went to agribusinesses and factory farms. Large corporations, already unaffected by the Midwest farm crisis, received millions in governmental aid that could have gone to families facing foreclosure, bankruptcy, and homelessness.
Few political, media, or business leaders would talk about the problem in the beginning. Jesse Jackson, in 1984 run for the Democratic nomination for president, made it central to his campaign and became the unlikely winner of the family farm vote in states like Iowa and Missouri. One year later, the largest benefit concert in world history—Live Aid—took place to benefit starving children in Africa. During his performance, Bob Dylan suggested from the stage that someone organize a similar fund-raising effort for the struggling and suffering family farmers throughout America. Willie Nelson was listening, and he went to work. He brought with him Neil Young, and together they began to discuss the possibility of Farm Aid. Nelson and Young believed that they needed one more “board member,” organizer, and headline performer to ensure the show’s success. John Mellencamp, in what he calls another example of how he is the “luckiest guy in the world,” was their first choice because he had just written and released a song lamenting and protesting the plight of the family farmer. That song was “Rain on the Scarecrow.”
Mellencamp comes from a farming community, and his home in Bloomington, Indiana, is surrounded by farm towns. The wealth he built with his songs might have protected him from recessions, unemployment epidemics, and other staples of the decline of the American middle class, but on the issue of family farming, Mellencamp saw the devastation and pervasiveness of the crisis before most media outlets and political leaders realized it, because he watched it happen all around him. His neighbors, relatives, and friends were among the bodies barely hanging onto the edge of sanity and solvency. Faces from his youth were the ones sinking to the soil under the weight of stress and pressure—their livelihoods suddenly expendable. The cruelties of “creative destruction”—a market outcome—along with the callousness of outmoded and outdated laws—a political problem—combined fatal forces to write the death certificate for hundreds of thousands of families who once fed themselves by feeding America.
Given the history of farming in Mellencamp’s own family, it was not difficult for him to put himself on the tractor and in the fields with the farmer. Mike Wanchic, Mellencamp’s longtime rhythm guitarist, reminded me that he and Mellencamp had farmers in their families. “The shit his us,” he said. “Unless you are AC/DC, you can only write so many songs about sex, and social awareness is simply part of being a human being. We [he and Mellencamp] always believed that you should at least be a passive commentator. Music has been his vehicle for that.”
Sitting at his kitchen table, Mellencamp and George Green—a childhood friend who also lived in Indiana at the time—wrote “Rain on the Scarecrow.” Before a live performance, Mellencamp once introduced it as a song about “what the devil can do you if you don’t keep your eye on him.”
As an opener to the album Scarecrow, it sounds like the eerie and angry testimony Grant Wood would have created if the devil had taught him how to play guitar. The twang of the electric guitar over the crunch of another is the bolt of lighting preceding the thunder from relentless pounder Kenny Aronoff on drums. Mellencamp sings in his deepest vocal, sounding more like Moses on Mt. Sinai than the front man for a rock band, and his lyrics boil with anger and color the air with the imagery of midwestern gothic. The song that follows “Rain on the Scarecrow” is “Small Town,” and it is a good example of how Mellencamp often turns to the past with a romantic eye and appreciative gaze. In “Rain on the Scarecrow,” memories are scars, and reminders of those scars are stones on his shoulders.
Scarecrow on a wooden cross
Blackbird in the barn
Four hundred empty acres
That used to be my farm
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
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
The violation of memory and memory of violation fill the song with its fire, and the origins of that fire become clear in the second verse. The singer shouts that the crops that grew last summer didn’t bring him enough to make the payments on his loan. Because he was already broke, he couldn’t buy seed to plant the next spring, and the bank foreclosed. To add insult to injury and humiliation to bankruptcy, it was his childhood friend whom the bank sent to auction off the land. The friend defends himself with the conventional ethos of capitalism: “It’s just my job and I hope you understand.” The singer counters, “Hey calling it your job ol’ hoss, sure don’t make it right.”
In a market-driven culture, the functional utility of the job trumps most philosophical, political, social, and cultural consequences. Alexis de Tocqueville worried about this tendency, warning that Americans, faced with any pressing problem, ask the question, “How much money will it bring in?”
How much money does it bring in or save to pollute the environment? How much money does it bring in or save to create and support the largest prison population in the world? How much money does it bring in or save to deny people’s health insurance claims after they’ve paid into a plan for several years? How much money does it bring in or save to foreclose on people’s homes and land when they are still willing to make payment with what little they have?
Waving off an inquiry into the consequences of occupational behavior by “calling it your job” does not “make it right,” nor does it even begin to answer the question. The second verse of “Rain on a Scarecrow” shows that what people wave off are not merely unflattering accusations but people’s lives. Baptized in the blood of the Bible Belt, Mellencamp sings about what it is like when blood begins to spill:
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
Farm Aid is the longest-running benefit show in America. The nonprofit beneficiary of the concert uses 80 percent of its funds for direct assistance and support to farmers. The concert, along with its associational organization, is Mellencamp’s way of serving and helping the people who have watched the auctioning off of their land and who have contemplated suicide after realizing that, in the coldest and cruelest monetary terms, they might be worth more to their families dead than alive. Mellencamp confesses to naïveté when he, Young, and Nelson hosted the first Farm Aid in 1985. “We thought we would do one or two concerts and solve the problem,” he said. Mellencamp also performed at several farmer rallies throughout the Midwest and testified before Congress—at one point excoriating a committee of representatives for making him do “their job.” They should be the ones “thinking and acting to solve these problems,” Mellencamp explained, not him. It turned out, despite doing great work and improving the quality of life for millions of people, they did not come close to ending the crisis. In 1900, 42 percent of Americans lived on farms. In 1990, only 2 percent did. A myriad of factors accounts for the drastic decline, but one is surely the triumph of industrial agriculture over human tilling, planting, and raising.
Recent American history, viewed under a microscope, resembles the destruction of the family farmer. Large forces—whether wearing the label “big government,” “big business,” or “too big to fail”—beset, surround, overwhelm, and attack small businesses, small towns, and small families so that the same rain soaking the scarecrow also drowns diverse groups of people who cannot afford corporate lawyers and political lobbyists, who don’t wield the power of governmental authority, whose voices come, as Mellencamp puts it in “R.O.C.K. in the USA,” from “nowhere and come from the larger towns.”
This is an excerpt from Mellencamp: American Troubadour, recently published by the University Press of Kentucky in an updated and expanded paperback edition.