By Don Henry Ford
(LSM Oct/Nov 2010/vol. 3 – issue 6)
Don Henry Ford Jr. is a former smuggler, convict, dope addict and “general no-good” turned cowboy, rancher, social activist, seeker of things spiritual and — when the spirit moves him — writer. By his own admission, he’s “still not so good, but aspiring to be.”
As a young man, I listened to a wide variety of music — and I still enjoy a broad range of sounds and styles. However, there is music which I appreciate but consider the work of another culture or social strata, and then there’s the music of my own. I’ve traveled rough roads over the years, and there’s a handful of artists who have guided my journey. Had I never found their music — or, perhaps more fittingly, had their music not found me — I might not have survived.
There are two names that I put at the very top of this list, because both men performed for inmates in federal penal institutions where I resided. I can’t begin to tell you how much this means to men and women written off by society as worthless. Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings sang not to us, but for us, amongst us, with us. It was as though they brought a breath of freedom into a world full of shackles, chains and razor wire.
Johnny Cash was the product of a generation before mine. But the man had deep roots in black cotton land and never, despite his wandering ways, forgot who he was or where he came from. Cash was and remains the voice of the downtrodden, the poor, the working class, the drug addict, the whore, the man branded a murderer for one moment’s indiscretion, the soldier sent to fight a war to protect someone else’s wealth, and others born into problems yet possessing an undeniable and unquenchable thirst for something better, with hope for redemption and reconciliation. I still smile when I remember that famous photo of Cash holding up a big fuck-you finger to the powers that be from the confines of a prison. To this day, his songs are as timely and pertinent as ever.
Waylon Jennings and his family showed up to play for another group of federal inmates I belonged to, this time at Fort Worth FCI. His career had passed its peak and he was experiencing heart troubles. But when he stood on that stage, he found his voice and its power and its passion and he became as good as he’d ever been. Like Cash, he knew he was among brothers and poured out his heart and soul for us. I had worn out 8-track tapes singing along to Honky Tonk Heroes while hauling hay, working cows, building fence, busting broncs and chasing (but rarely catching) the girls. Waylon’s songs spoke to me in a way that no others did, including many he called contemporaries, bearing names you would recognize. While the rest were mostly just selling records, Waylon was telling truths, damn the consequences. Truth doesn’t necessarily need a political bent. Sometimes an honest, less than flattering admission of who and what you are or feel suffices, especially when that admission runs against the prevailing current and jeopardizes your career. I recognized the man Waylon described in myself and the crowd of people I called friends. Sometimes I laughed at those descriptions; sometimes I cried.
Third on my list is a man known simply as “the Boss.” Bruce Springsteen sang to me during a personal era of disillusionment with the American experience, once again with a defiant fist raised in the face of those selling us lies. I may have been born in Texas, but being born in Texas makes me an American and I was and remain damned tired of those that have corrupted this nation and taken advantage of its citizens. Unlike Ronald Reagan and his crew, I listened to the words when “Born in the U.S.A.” blasted from my speakers. And I also saw signs of the things to which Bruce attested in the landscape of my country.
John Mellencamp, a Midwest farm boy, was another defiant anti-establishment hero of mine. Watching as a bank repossessed our family farm after breaking back and spirit trying to make the farm profitable wrecked my world. Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow” made the experience no less painful, but at least I knew I wasn’t the only one:
“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 cow …
There’ll be blood on the scarecrow, blood on the plow;
Blood on the scarecrow, blood on the plow.”
Mellencamp also wrote and sang “The Authority Song.” These words sum up his life and mine: “I fight authority, authority always wins.” It’s not just the words that matter, but the way in which they are delivered. Both Springsteen and Mellencamp sang large and they sang loud.
Next on this list has to be Steve Earle. Steve and I are contemporaries. Steve saw and recognized the same evils I observed while Bush and his grim band of neo-cons led us into a war based on false assumptions and outright lies, and he courageously stood and sang, even at personal risk, for what he believed in. Steve recognized that citizens of other countries are also human beings, deceived, trapped and controlled by their leaders, as are we. Like the rest on this list, Steve identifies with those who have had a rough go. Perhaps many of Steve’s trials were self inflicted, but that doesn’t make the pain any less real. Where he looks, he sees. When he listens, he hears. And he can play the shit out of a song.
There are times when I’d like to remind Steve that he wouldn’t be who or what he is if not for Texas, but I’m hoping a few more years of having to live amongst a bunch of blue-blood phonies in New York City will straighten him out. We all get off the path at times. The way I see it, getting fucked by neo-liberal Democrats instead of getting fucked by neo-conservative Republicans is still getting fucked. And I don’t like either experience worth a damn.
Finally, I have to give a nod to a fucking Canuck (or friggin Canadian, if you prefer) who wears a cowboy hat and claims to be a Buddhist (which I don’t buy). As Fred Eaglesmith himself would say, that god you got is a fancy god, he’s not the one I know. Fred has a finger on the pulse of this planet and he calls it as he sees it. That scares some and assures that he’ll not find acceptance among those that control the music industry. But Fred’s live show is as good as it gets. He was born scratching in the dirt and his soul still resides there.
This list is far from complete. I left out the women: Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, Stevie Nicks and Natalie Maines. I’ve never fully understood women, but these have helped. Bob Dylan, John Prine, Hoyt Axton, Terry Allen, Robert Earl Keen and others deserve mention as well. The list goes on and on. There’s a new crop continuing the tradition in new and brilliant ways. You’ll find some of them in the pages of this magazine. I will remember these people and their music until the day I die, good Lord willing. To the performers, I thank you, one and all. You have added meaning to my life and made my experience on this planet a bit more tolerable.
You are, in my opinion, the best of the best.