Monday, August 28, 2017

Jason Isbell: Understanding Responsibility in "A White Man's World"


If you’re still breathing, it’s not too late.
We’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate.”

--Jason Isbell, “White Man's World”

I attended Jason Isbell's concert at the Ohio Theater in Columbus last night and was staggered by his amazing talent. I had run into some of his recordings several years ago and almost instantly became a fan; however, seeing him perform in concert was incomparable. In today's music, Isbell and his band the 400 Unit represent a force of integrity.

As critic John T. Davis wrote, “Jason is at the top of his game and climbing... Hard-hitting sentiments, to be sure, but Isbell isn’t a doom and gloom merchant. Rather, he is selling stoicism and transcendence: marching forward no matter what, clutching the hand you’re dealt.”

Trying to categorize this Muscle Shoals son's music is impossible. The sounds in his Americana-tinged songs include folk, rock, country and blues influences. Just label the output as “great music with an emotional punch” and enjoy his stellar musicianship. I encourage all to attend a performance and discover the scope of his musical creations.

One song, “White Man's World” – the fourth single off of The Nashville Sound, drew special attention from me. Isbell wrote the song in the wake of the 2016 election. He sings it in the first person. The song addresses the privileges and disadvantages of the American system along lines of race, gender, class, and geography. Much has been written about the thought-provoking tune.

Isbell explains his motivation for writing the song …

My wife was on the road, and I was home with my daughter when that all went down. I was just very grateful that I didn’t have to explain that to her, because she was just a little over a year old. (The song) was written out of my anger and frustration. It was a way of me to process that. I was trying to get to the root of my feelings without bringing shame into it, because I don’t think shame does a whole lot of good.”

Isbell says when his daughter came along he felt he had “to tell everybody how he felt, one way or another” because that’s the father he wanted her to see. If there was any way he could make the world a better place for her, then he was determined to do it. He says it didn’t change his beliefs, but he acknowledges there are white men with daughters who are still misogynists.

Also, I’m not going to lie: I was motivated by the image I have of my audience. There are very few artists, musicians, and entertainers, that have the type or demographic of an audience that I have. Somebody like Sturgill Simpson or Chris Stapleton has it. Margo Price has it and my wife has it. It’s an interesting group of people, because it’s people who listen to a lot of different types of music. I think, for the most part, they’re people who are pretty open-minded. There is an opportunity there, however small it might be, to get people to think things in a little bit of a different way.”

(Steven Hyden. “A Long Conversation With Jason Isbell About Love, Politics, Jim Varney, And His Great New Album.” Uproxx. June 01, 2017.)

Isbell quips, “I don’t think I have a lot of Trump voters in my audience... I didn’t think there were going to be a lot of Trump voters at all. So, what the hell do I know?”

Still, the song is non-accusational, focusing on the responsibility of people who benefit from privilege to acknowledge it and to do whatever they can to help others who may be less fortunate enjoy the same comforts and assurances, rather than to attribute blame for those injustices on anyone living now.

Jason said the following about the song in an interview with Consequence of Sound:
“The song discusses my perspective on race and gender. I think its inspiration should be pretty obvious these days. I think my job is to constantly evaluate my role in the human struggle for equality without feeling guilt or shame for things I can’t control.”
(Michelle Geslani. “Jason Isbell takes our country to task on new song 'White Man’s World' – listen.” Consequence of Sound. June 01, 2017.)

Isbell sees the 2016 election as “a sort of a sneeze” from a cold that had been lingering for quite a while – a symptom of the problem of division. He believes discussing the divide in America is crucial to improving the social climate, and he feels the problem is not necessarily political, but definitely social.

In an article in Indy Week, Isbell explains ...

I don’t really see it (the problem) as politics, though. I hate that word for this purpose. I think politics is really more about how we exchange power and, and it’s about a business transaction in which we all determine who gets to make decisions on our behalf. I don’t think that’s the question here. I don’t think that how people should be treated based on the color of their skin or their gender or their identity, I don’t think those are political questions, I think those are questions of, really, ethics and beliefs. 

(Baynard Woods. “Jason Isbell Discusses Reckoning with White Southern Masculinity on His Excellent New LP, The Nashville Sound.” Indy Week. June 15, 2017.)

Acknowledging that being a white man in certain ways puts him “on the wrong side,” Isbell also thinks it gives him more responsibility.

“I’m not going to feel guilty or ashamed about being a white man. I think those are terms that people who are on the other side other argument use. The criticism I’ve received from 'White Man’s World' comes in the form of proud white men saying, 'I don’t have any shame or guilt for being a white man.'

“But nobody should really have guilt or shame about something they can’t control. I’m born a white person. The guilt and shame would come in if I didn’t use my privilege to try to make the world a better place for other people. That’s where the guilt and the shame comes in, if you’ve spent your whole life just enjoying your privilege and never actually working for it by trying to level the playing field for other folks."

When asked about growing up in the South and pretending not to hear a racial joke, Isbell admits ...

“Yeah, I didn’t do it every time. But I wish I’d spoken up every time, now. The older I get, the more I think I should have said something every single time I heard the N-word in elementary school or every time I heard someone make a joke about women or Mexicans in a bar when I was growing up in Alabama. If there’s any regrets as I’m getting older, it’s that I didn’t stand up for people as often as I could have. I really that what I’m talking about in that song is, since all these doors are already open for me, being a white man, my job is to try to hold them for the person behind me or the person in front of me, to try to open them for someone they might be locked for.”

(Baynard Woods. “Jason Isbell Discusses Reckoning with White Southern Masculinity on His Excellent New LP, The Nashville Sound.” Indy Week. June 15, 2017.)

Jason Isbell is the real deal. He uses his incredible talents to better the world. He represents his craft with great dignity and thoughtful expression. If you love music and you care enough to listen, you will find great rewards in his work. Give a listen to “White Man's World” for a taste of his artistry. Think about responsibility as you do. And, by all means, attend a Jason Isbell live performance for the full effect.

“White Man's World”

I'm a white man living in a white man's world
Under our roof is a baby girl
I thought this world could be her's one day
But her momma knew better

I'm a white man living in a white man's town
Want to take a shot of cocaine a burn it down
Momma wants to change that Nashville sound
But they're never gonna let her

There's no such thing as someone else's war
Your creature comforts aren't the only things worth fighting for
You're still breathing it's not too late
We're all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate

I'm a white man living on a white man's street
I've got the bones of the red man under my feet
The highway runs through the burial grounds
Past the oceans of cotton

I'm a white man looking in a black man's eyes
Wishing I'd never been one of the guys
We pretended not to hear another white man's joke
Oh, times haven't forgotten

There's no such thing as someone else's war
Your creature comforts aren't the only things worth fighting for
You're still breathing it's not too late
We're all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate

I'm a white man living in a white man's nation
I think the man upstairs must have took a vacation
I still have faith, but I don't know why
Maybe it's the fire in my little girl's eyes
Maybe it's the fire in my little girl's eyes

Click here to listen to the song:


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