Brilliant Songs #9: James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make It Here” 

Sometimes a particular piece of music hits you as so insightful, so acutely reflecting the issues of your time, that the songwriter seems to be channeling some urgent message the gods require in order to restore a measure of balance and perspective to the insanity that abides, on the events of your historical moment that leave you shaking your head and wondering, “How can this be happening?”

And then, in a kind of doubling down on the songwriter’s vision, the message of his or her song in a subsequent era, rather than fading into irrelevance, instead achieves even more urgency, as the forces that helped shape the original message grow only more dominant and oppressive over time.

And then, as if anticipating the far more divisive and nativist rhetoric that would sprout from the seeds planted in the Bush era, McMurtry scores with this bull’s-eye painted with eerie prescience right on the back of the current administration…

Such is the case with James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make It Here,” a 2004 composition that the Texas singer-songwriter wrote to protest George W. Bush’s America. In McMurtry’s piercing lyrics that never bother to catch their breath with a chorus, that America is a land of chicken hawks lusting for war and maximizing profits for the leisure class while mouthing verbal salutes to “family values” and doing zilch to stanch the bleeding of working class jobs to cheaper, more desperate populations overseas.

The song, from McMurtry’s “Childish Things” album, is now 15 years old, but to give it a listen in 2019 is to be catapulted into the far greater hypocrisy and betrayal of American values being perpetrated by the Trump administration, next to which the George W. Bush era stands as a paragon of decency and virtue (well, except for Dick Cheney).

Let’s have a listen now to McMurtry’s clearly discernible lyrics, which can be found en toto here, from a studio recording by KFOG radio in San Francisco. We’ll then return for some additional discussion.

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McMurtry’s core message of the working class getting screwed while fat cats thrive isn’t new, but its rendering in these vivid lyrics makes for a compelling listen. It calls to mind Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, prophets of their own time, hip to the machinations of a sharp-elbowed capitalism whose most powerful players forever seek sanction from the very state they decry.

The setting of “We Can’t Make It Here” is in the industrial heartland, the plants and factories to which high school graduates could flock in the post-war world for decent-paying unionized jobs that saw them home for dinner if they chose to be and able to afford a couple weeks on the lake with the family come summer.

These are residents of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, who “made it here” at one time—made the goods that propelled the American economy and “made it” in their pursuit of the vaunted American dream.

But that dream had busted out with a fever by 2004, from which it would not recover. The cause was a heated push by corporate America to dodge taxes and the payment of livable wages by sending jobs to poor nations overseas, their huddled masses yearning for the relative freedom (to eat, to afford rudimentary shelter) that their paychecks of a few pennies on the dollar would bring.

All while engaging in foreign policy often guided less by Lady Liberty than by the military-industrial complex, including the oil companies with their unflagging commitment to keep the world safe for pipelines and tankers.

The result was the kind of scene we have all witnessed on American streets, but which McMurtry developed into a dark anthem:

There’s a Vietnam Vet with a cardboard sign
Sitting there by the left turn line
The flag on his wheelchair flapping in the breeze
One leg missing and both hands free

No one’s paying much mind to him
The V.A. budget’s just stretched so thin
And now there’s more coming back from the Mideast war
We can’t make it here anymore

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Emptiness and desperation haunt this song and the streets it pictures, and this was before the opioid epidemic that makes a mockery of the current president’s triumphal claims of a booming economy fueled by happy, fully employed supporters. If the economy is so great, why is there still so much anger and addiction?

Perhaps because “employment” by Wal-Mart with its cheap Chinese goods isn’t quite what working class Americans had in mind after all as they survey the wreckage of the jobs that went away and a power structure that abetted it:

And that big ol’ building was the textile mill
That fed our kids and it paid our bills
But they turned us out and they closed the doors
‘Cause we can’t make it here anymore

And then, as if anticipating the far more divisive and nativist rhetoric that would sprout from the seeds planted in the Bush era, McMurtry scores with this bull’s-eye painted with eerie prescience right on the back of the current administration:

Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin
Or the shape of their eyes or the shape I’m in
Should I hate ’em for having our jobs today
No, I hate the men sent the jobs away 

The narrator here is wise to the wool being pulled over the eyes of American workers stretching back for decades. Neither of the Bushes nor Clinton nor Obama, for that matter, did anything to stop the hemorrhage of working class jobs.

What Trump has done masterfully, however, is to channel these workers’ rage and then deflect it onto the “other”: the Muslims, the Mexicans, the socialists, the namby-pamby internationalists, the effete anti-gun zealots, the baby-killing abortionists about which he cared not a whit until he realized even the most ardent Christian evangelicals would overlook his rampant, profoundly un-Christian immorality so long as he mouthed the right words about the “sanctity of life” and appointed judges pledged to uphold it.

And then it’s off a Mar-a-Lago:

I can see them all now, they haunt my dreams
All lily white and squeaky clean
They’ve never known want, they’ll never know need
Their shit don’t stink and their kids won’t bleed
Their kids won’t bleed in their damn little war
And we can’t make it here anymore

No, we’re not making it here anymore, in any way. A nation adrift, lost, two islands shouting across a divide, riven by a true “wall”—of alienation and anger fueled by a charlatan and his enablers. How do we find our way back?

Via the voting booth, is the best answer I can come up with.

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Definitely not a one-hit wonder (from 2017):

He don’t like the Muslims. He don’t like the Jews.
He don’t like the Blacks and he don’t trust the news.
He hates the Hispanics and alternative views.
He’ll tell you it’s tough to be white.

 

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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Abandoned building by George Lawie, Scotland  https://www.flickr.com/photos/glawie/

Graffiti photo by Ellen Freytag, Long Beach, California  https://www.flickr.com/photos/tgifreytag/

8 comments to Brilliant Songs #9: James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make It Here” 

  • Bruce Curran  says:

    Andrew
    A strident phillipic and cogent analysis of the situation we find ourselves in and the roots of the situation. I hope the voting booth is at least the initial solution to some of the panoply of problems facing us. But as Stalin once noted….”What is important is not who votes but who counts the votes.”

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Excellent post my friend/ James McMurtry is a fine singer songwriter, as his Dad Larry (Lonesome Dove etc) is a fine novelist. I’ve loved this tune for years but deeply appreciate the reframing in 2019! There is such an important tradition of artists calling our attention to “what’s going on” in our social/cultural/political- sadly some remain absolutely on the mark many years later as in this case… the voting booth will hopefully provide a chance to right the ship of state… lord knows we need it!

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    That’s a fierce little proviso there, Bruce, about the vote counters, Stalin and our current White House occupant sharing the totalitarian sensibilities that they do. And I am certain I am not the only one who is not confident that he will abdicate the office even if he does lose the official electoral college vote count, instead forcing a constitutional crisis by claiming fraud, getting his Magaheads out in the streets, God knows what else proceeding from there. Am I being paranoid? I would answer that rhetorical question by asking: Have you seen this man’s tweets? Do they strike you as coming from a sane man ready to abide by social and political norms of civilized society?

    Kevin: Yes, it’s why we come back to art again and again, isn’t it? And why the first thing the dictators do is round up all the artists, along with journalists and academics—all of them clearly a threat to despots.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Yesterday I just listened to music. I needed a break from the insanity that is Trump (e.g. Epstein, Google, Greenland, El Paso). My respite: Nessum Dorma (Pavarotti), Crazy (Cline), Take the A-Train (Ellington), Blue Bayou (Ronstadt), Mass in B minor (Bach), Send in the Clowns (J. Collins), Pancho & Lefty (Nelson and Haggard), A Change is Gonna Come (Cooke), Hallelujah (Buckley), Take Five (Brubeck & Desmond), You Don’t Know Me (R, Charles), Polonaise in A-flat major (Chopin)… the list is endless. God, there are those times in our lives when music takes over and allows us to feel the beauty of our creative and collective humanity.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    I have come fresh from viewing the recently released film “Blinded by the Light.” The film, as with the song and lyrics at the core of this post, bring art and wisdom to the fore as timeless. Bloggers, please see this film, an homage to the timelessness and depth of Bruce Springsteen. Andrew, re: your response to Bruce; you are not being paranoid regarding Trump. We see daily that he is capable of upending all manner of propriety and order. His defeat may likely elicit his most ugly, desperate behavior yet.

  • Karen  says:

    So disturbing…all of it!

  • boatbuilder  says:

    You unbelievable hypocrites. Donald Trump is the only politician since Reagan to even try to address the concerns set forth in McMurtry’s song, and he has done so with truly remarkable tenacity and sincerity in the face of the most extreme opposition from the establishment of both parties and from the irrational socialist left. His “upending of all manner of propriety and order” is precisely what McMurtry and you folks have been demanding for decades, and you are too damn elitist to see it.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Well, boatbuilder, I suspect your insinuation that James McMurtry is an “elitist” would elicit some major chortles from him, and even bigger chortles from my banker if you include me in that grouping. It rather baffles me how anyone can view a plutocrat billionaire who specializes in stiffing creditors and passing tax “reform” that overwhelmingly favors the wealthy as someone who is looking out for the little guy. And not sure where you got the impression that I have been “demanding” the “upending of all manner of propriety and order for decades.” As it happens, I am rather fond of propriety, order, and various other social conventions that allow a culture and its various constituencies to peacefully coexist within the normal push-pull common to all human groupings. No society, or at least no democracy, can long survive the constant vitriol, bullying and dishonesty that seem to be the president’s favorite tools of governance.

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