Here’s a song for the silly season. May I call your attention to Iris DeMent, performing her song, “Wasteland of the Free.”
The video itself may be one of the worst ever seen on You Tube, which is saying a lot. But check out the lyrics as DeMent strums her guitar at an outdoor bluegrass festival in 2010.
It may sound as if she wrote the song while watching Sleazy, Dopey, Starchy, Wifty and the rest stumbling toward the Iowa caucuses, but in fact she issued it in 1996 during the Clinton years.
“We got politicians running races on corporate cash,
“Now don’t tell me they don’t turn around and kiss them people’s ass.”
DeMent is raging about extreme CEO pay, resistance to raising the minimal wage, wars for oil, teen-age ignorance, preacher hypocrisy.
Her shrill cutting sound – Dolly Parton on ‘roid rage – may not be to everybody’s taste (she’s one of my favorites) but watch handsome, driven redheaded Iris nailing her own words and unleashing the anger behind them.
First time I heard her voice was in 1994 while I was writing about a farewell tour by the great Tom Paxton, who had recorded his tribute to the Verdigris River in his native Oklahoma. I hope I didn’t insult him by asking, who in the world is that backup singer?
It was Iris DeMent, child of Arkansas, raised in California, from a Pentecostal family, the 14th child of her father, the eighth child of her mother.
Her first CD, “Infamous Angel,” would have been a career masterpiece for most singers except that she followed it with “My Life,” which contained two signature songs – “My Life” and “No Time to Cry” – which makes the listener cry and think and try to gather up "the pieces of my heart," as Iris puts it.
I caught her once, at some club on eastern Long Island, mid-winter. She played a few songs and then paused and looked around and solemnly pronounced, “Stopped off at Amityville on the way out.” She meant the site of the Amityville Horror, the family massacre, many years earlier. We all whooped at a glimpse of her noir streak.
In her third CD, “The Way I Should,” DeMent kept growing – with a haunting personal hymn, “When My Morning Comes Around,” plus songs about sexual abuse, the toll of Vietnam and politics in “Wasteland” -- no red, no blue, just fat-cat preachers and grubby politicians. Somebody recently started a web site called Wasteland of the Free, tied to the Occupy movement, for which Iris could be the songwriter laureate.
Check out the video but better yet find “Wasteland” on her third CD, with Iris in the studio, on a better beat. After that, enjoy the silly season.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.