[24 July 2011]
We Iowans like to poke fun at the national media when they come to cover local stories, such as the presidential caucuses, and use images of Iowans as family farmers wearing overalls standing in a cornfield. Sure, there are such individuals, but there aren’t many these days. The family farm in Iowa largely disappeared decades ago (Check out Osha Gray Davidson’s excellent Broken Heartland on this topic). Identifying Iowans in such terms would be like defining a typical Pennsylvanian as an Amish farmer (and yes, Iowa too, has Amish communities). The distortion is greater than the truth.
But we Iowans are also proud of our agricultural heritage. The independent, self-sufficient cultivator of the land plays a large role in our self-image. William Elliott Whitmore comes from rural Lee County, Iowa—on the Mississsippi River in the far southeastern portion of the state—and he still lives on a farm. He doesn’t romanticize the life. He delineates its many pitfalls and problems. He knows that farming today is a fool’s game. But he holds out hope despite the darkness. “Bury Your Burdens in the Ground” he sings on the first track. And this theme of holding on for a better tomorrow permeates many of the eight self-penned tracks.
Whitmore plays banjo and acoustic guitar and sings with a deep, gravelly voice as rich the state’s black soil on his latest release, Field Songs. But he’s not singing just about the Hawkeye State. He universalizes the situation by putting its historical and geopolitical contexts the way a Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger might. He sings of those who lost when the West was won as a result of homesteading, and how that was superseded by the injustice of “the Manifest Destiny of factory farms”. He knows that those who come from south of the border seeking work are no different than he is. He empathizes with the migrant worker as he sings in the first person, “To provide for my little ones / I’ll do anything I can / Jump the fence / outrun the dogs / Defy the laws of men.” The sovereignty of the individual and the family trumps all other concerns.
This notion gets taken to the extreme on “Let’s Do Something Impossible” as he metaphorically compares contemporary existence to Paris 1943 (when the French Resistance formed to fight the Nazis), and suggests we practice the strategies of by Theodore Cole, who escaped from Alcatraz, and the American Indians at Little Big Horn. This radical critique of present day America as a repressive entity that treats us inhumanely suggests Whitmore’s Populist concerns, but he’s no Tea Partier. He’s much more Jeffersonian representative agrarian.
But the secret to Whitmore’s genius lies in his musical presentation more than his literate lyrics. His booming voice resonates with authority, but there is always a small ache in his voice, even when he croons “I’m Not Feeling Any Pain”. He plays his stringed instruments as if he swinging a baseball bat and clubs the chords rather than finesses them. Oh, he’s not one trick pony. Every song is different and he performs in several folk and blues idioms. But they all share a sense of power and influence. His guitar may not kill fascists, but it’s still a dangerous weapon that makes one think and feel.
We Iowans may not be family farmers anymore, but we’d still like to think we share their values and that these are true American ideals. Whitmore connects us to that in an inspiring and stimulating way.