Songwriters write what they know about. Bruce Springsteen writes about New Jersey and the plight of the working man (though he never had a 9 to 5 job). Brian Wilson writes about Southern California and surfing (though he never surfed). Loretta Lynn writes about the challenges of romance and relationships growing up in the Deep South (she did ALL of that!). John Mellencamp writes about the midwest.
Mellencamp was born in Seymour, Indiana in 1951, and has lived in Indiana his entire life. He has never owned a farm, but he has always been surrounded by people who have worked the land.
Though a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, I have always thought that John Mellencamp is an incredibly sincere songwriter who sometimes writes a good song.
For every brilliant lyric he writes, it seems there a three others that are hokey and clunky. For instance, this one from the Lonesome Jubilee album in 1987.
“Now everybody has got the choice
Between hotdogs and hamburgers
Every one of us has got to choose
Between right and wrong
And givin’ up or holdin’ on”
Or this one, from the Uh-Huh album in 1983.
“I fight authority, authority always wins
I fight authority, authority always wins
I been doing it, since I was a young kid
I’ve come out grinnin’
I fight authority, authority always wins”
But when Mellencamp gets it right, he is brilliant. In 1985, Mellencamp released his eighth album, Scarecrow. “Rain on the Scarecrow” is the first track on the album, and a harrowing mood is immediately set. We imagine the dark storm clouds threatening overhead. We can smell the damp. This is not a happy day, this is not a happy story.
We first hear a wiry electric guitar, and then a thumping snare drum, sounding almost like cold raindrops hitting the ground. A bass rumbles low. The sound of the instruments gets a little louder, and a little quicker. The song begins.
“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”
When we live in the land of our parents and grandparents, the memories are all around us, as is the responsibility and the weight of tradition and legacy. We look at a house, or a yard, or a field, and we remember what happened there before, with people who are no longer with us.
“Rain on the Scarecrow” was released during the Reagan presidency, when farmers felt the pain of an economic downturn and land management that required fields to go unused so crop prices would rise.
“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 its just my job and I hope you understand.”
Hey calling it your job ol hoss sure dont make it right
But if you want me to Ill 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 mans dignity he cant work his fields and cows”
The land is connected to everything, and everything connects to the land. Family, legacy, work and community. His farm is everything, and everything is being taken away from him. Everything is summed up in the terse chorus that repeats throughout the song.
“Rain on the scarecrow blood on the plow
This land fed a nation this land made me proud
And son I’m just sorry theres no legacy for you now
Rain on the scarecrow blood on the plow
Rain on the scarecrow blood on the plow”
The Scarecrow album is arguably the high point of Mellencamp’s career. He surrounded himself with an excellent band of homegrown musicians, featuring the powerful Kenny Aranoff on drums, and Larry Crane and Mike Wanchic on guitars, and Toby Meyers on bass. The sound is lean, direct and purposeful. The songs of “Scarecrow” focus on stories of small towns, stories being handed from generation to generation, and the difficulties of supporting a family only on what you can raise and sell.
Sometimes the stories are hopeful, but on “Rain on the Scarecrow” there is only hopelessness and resignation.
“Well there’s ninety-seven crosses planted in the courthouse yard
Ninety-seven families who lost ninety-seven farms
I think about my grandpa and my neighbors and my name and some nights
I feel like dying like that scarecrow in the rain”
Mellencamp then sings the chorus for the last time, and it is here that the song reaches its apex. The sadness and regret are gone, and now there is only anger. Anger at what cannot be controlled, anger at a tradition of sustenance and work that has been taken away.
“Rain on the Scarecrow”
Written by John Mellencamp
Performed by John Mellencamp
Released August 5, 1985