I've just been tipped off that Dan Quayle, Tipper Gore and the sheriff of Broward Country, Fla., are raiding my house. It's part of their campaign against Sister Souljah, Ice-T and everyone who uses music to incite youngsters to kill white people and cops of all hues, to rape and pillage and worse. I wondered how long it would take them to catch on to me. I've been an offender for a long time.
I guess it all started with the Kingston Trio, when I was a fifth-grader learning the banjo. One of my favorite songs was an old cowboy ballad:
Now early one evening, I was fooling around.
I was feeling kind of mean -- I shot a deputy down.
I strolled along home and I went to bed.
I laid my pistol right under my head.
I sang this hymn of depraved indifference to human life and the profession of law enforcement, but only to my friends. But I soon did far worse, and in public. In junior high, our sacrilegiously named garage band, J.C. and the Waterwalkers, sang a regional hit by Bobby Comstock and the Counts, "I Wanna Do It," which glorified fornication out of wedlock:
Hey girl, you sure look great,
I wanna do it, I wanna do it.
This wasn't just a description of somebody else's attitude, as Sister Souljah and Ice-T coyly say in explaining their lyrics: I think I can speak for all the Waterwalkers in saying that we in fact dearly wished we could engage in such activity ourselves, and we recklessly advocated it to our audience. And yes, there were songs about drugs. Many is the time our folk-rock band in high school, the Lay-men, signaled our abject surrender to illegal narcotics, asking Bob Dylan's Tambourine Man to "take me for a trip upon your magic swirling ship."
At the famed Woodstock concert in 1969, I admit that I stood at attention to Jimi Hendrix's vicious parody of our national anthem at a time when it was unconstitutional to degrade the flag and sang along with Country Joe McDonald and a half-million co-conspirators on the "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag." That song sneakily advocated illegal resistance to the draft, even though the Selective Service laws had been enacted by our elected officials.
It was when I started working my way through college with a country-western band that I really became a significant criminal, since as part of Rich Flavin and the Real Thing (and you know what thing that was) I incited people to violence four nights a week for three years, from the stage of such popular dives as Tweitmann's Halfway House -- not a recovery program, but a bar halfway between Ithaca and Dryden, N.Y. The feds probably have it taped, all those times I sang lines celebrating:
* Senseless murder, from Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues": "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die."
* Drunken rage, from Lloyd Price's "Staggerlee": "Staggerlee shot Billy, he shot that old boy so bad, that the bullet went through Billy and broke the bartender's glass."
* Drowning an unwanted baby (maybe), in Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Bille Joe": "I saw Billie Joe McAllister throw something off the Tallahatchie Bridge."
But that wasn't the worst: It was about that time that I signed up with Linda Feitner and her Black Diamond Boys and began to play country-western's "roots" music -- bluegrass. Here, I have to admit, I mimicked such debauched rappers as folk artist Doc Watson, who described the knife-murder of Little Omie Wise on records that were sold without parental warnings, and Earl Taylor and the Stony Mountain Boys, who sang in the "White House Blues" about the murder of a president, without so much as a disclaimer that they themselves were saddened by the fact that: "McKinley he hollered, McKinley he squalled; the Doc said, 'McKinley, I can't find the ball.' "
One ballad we sang, "Knoxville Girl," became my daughter's favorite when she was 6. If that had gotten out, I'm sure she would have been taken into protective custody. In that song, Willie, a rascal who stars in so many bloody country songs that he must be a serial killer, solves the problem of his girlfriend getting pregnant in a state without abortion rights in this gruesome way:
She fell down on her bended knee, for mercy she did cry.
She said Willie, dear, don't kill me here, I'm not prepared to die.
She never spoke another word; I only beat her more.
Until the ground around me within her blood did flow.
You can't get more explicit than that. Willie popped up again in the Stanley Brothers' classics, "The Little Glass of Wine" and "Pretty Polly," the latter based on a centuries-old British folk song that must have caused untold damage to the moral fiber of the empire. In the first song, Willie "killed that girl, my own true love, by giving her poison in a glass of wine," and in the second, he again handles a Polly's pregnancy with his favored method:
He stabbed her in her heart, and her heart's blood did flow.
And into her grave Pretty Polly did go.
Unfortunately for my ability to plea-bargain, it's well-documented in the calendars of numerous elementary schools of upstate New York that our band sang these songs to assemblies of school children! And as recently as last month, I was heard singing Woody Guthrie's paean to outlaws, in which there's clear sympathy for the cop-killer Pretty Boy Floyd:
So Pretty Boy grabbed a log-chain,
And the deputy grabbed a gun.
And in the fight that followed, he laid that deputy down.
This song gives every kid who hears a cop talk trash to his girlfriend a license to kill! I'm trouble, all right, and I can see why they're coming to get me. But I won't go easily. You see, it's not just music that encourages people to be criminals. It's movies too, and when they come for me, I'll have no choice but to emulate "Terminator" Arnold Schwarzenegger, the president's physical fitness adviser and ambassador to the Olympics. As Warren Zevon sings, "I'm a desperate man."
Caleb Rossiter, a foreign policy analyst, is working on a book about the '60s.