The Musical is Political: ‘White Man’s World’ – Jason Isbell

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Nina Simone once said,

“An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true for painters, sculptors, poets, musicians. As far as I’m concerned it’s their choice. But I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. That to me is my duty. And at this crucial time in our lives when everything is so desperate; when every day is a matter of survival; I don’t think you can help but be involved. Young people, black and white, know this. That’s why they’re so involved with politics. We will shape and mold this country or it will not be molded and shaped at all, anymore. So I don’t think you have a choice. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times? That to me is a definition of an artist.”

Jason Isbell has embraced this responsibility time and time again but nowhere more so than in ‘White Man’s World’ the new song off his upcoming record The Nashville Sound.

“I’m a white man living on a white man’s street/ Got the bones of the red man under my feet/ The highway runs through their burial grounds/ Past the oceans of cotton.”

With Brexit in the UK, the rise of the far right in Europe and the election of Donald Trump in America, we can no longer pretend that racism, sexism and bigotry are artefacts of past generations. They are very much alive, being stoked by the fires of fear, poverty and frustration in communities across the world.

‘White Man’s World’ blends rhythm and blues and outlaw country. It has a soulful powerful groove to it but one that doesn’t overwhelm or distract from the lyrics but rather deepens the socio-political context of the song. After all, rhythm and blues is rooted in jazz and blues and gospel, music crafted by African Americans.

Isbell’s musical and life partner, Amanda Shires has her fingerprints all over ‘White Man’s World’. Not just instrumentally – her fiddle bringing a distinct melancholy to the song, carving some sharp and uncomfortable edges into the sonic landscape – but also in the form of Isbell’s narrative; the acknowledgement that being a white man affords a certain privilege that his wife will never have.

“Momma wants to change that Nashville sound/ But they’re never gonna let her.”

The bridge of the track is a conversation between the masculine (the guitar) and the feminine (the fiddle), between the anger and the sadness, between the hard and the soft. The instruments weave around each other, a call and answer in chords and treble clefs, pulling from another, lifting each other – filled with sadness, a crying out in frustration – until both fall into one another.

“There’s no such thing as someone else’s war/ Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for/ You’re still breathing it’s not too late/ We’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate.”

“The song discusses my perspective on race and gender,” Isbell told Consequence of Sound. “I think its inspiration should be pretty obvious these days. I think my job is to constantly evaluate my role in the human struggle for equality without feeling guilt or shame for things I can’t control.”

It is an artist’s duty to pull out the ugly bits of society and of the human consciousness, to shine a light on the darkness because that will always be what need our most attention. The world needs open heart surgery and if the politicians refuse to do it then the artists will.

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