Just in time for Tuesday's presidential election, Steve Earle has released a video to accompany "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)," a tune sung from the perspective of a man about to be executed.
"It seemed like a good time to release it," Earle said of the video, which features pictures and names of 140 prisoners executed in Texas since presidential candidate George W. Bush became the state¹s governor in 1995.
The clip ends with the words "Under George W. Bush, the state of Texas has executed 140 men and women, more than any other state in the nation. Almost every executed person was poor."
Representatives for the Bush campaign did not return phone calls by press time.
"Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)," from the singer's latest album Transcendental Blues, is based on Earle's relationship with Jonathan Nobles, who was executed on October 7, 1998 for the murders of two women. The video, which can be found at www.steveearle.com/yonder.ram,
includes Nobles' picture.
The video has not been sent to major music networks like Country Music Television or VH1, said a spokesperson for the singer. A portion of it was included in an October 20 "Nightline" episode profiling Earle.
The clip is available on the commercial video "Steve Earle and the Dukes: Transcendental Blues Live," filmed at a July 26 concert at Convocation Hall in Toronto, Ontario. Both the "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)" and "Transcendental Blues" [RealVideo] clips are included at the end of the tape.
Earle befriended Nobles in 1988, and wrote in an article in the September/October issue of Tikkun magazine that while he was certain that Nobles was guilty, he was equally sure Nobles had become a changed man by the time of his death, having converted to Christianity and become a lay minister in prison. Earle was present as a witness at Nobles'
at Huntsville Prison.
The article is scheduled to be reprinted in the January issue of the Utne Reader.
While Nobles' is the only execution the singer has witnessed, Earle has befriended other convicts on death row.
"Sometimes I regret having gotten into it," he said from his Nashville office, because of the emotional cost. "It's very hard."
Earle has long advocated the abolition of the death penalty, and has worked with Journey of Hope, an anti-capital punishment organization comprised of families of victims whose killers received death sentences. He was also active in the Illinois Moratorium Project, which advocated a halt to executions in Illinois after it was revealed that several convicted offenders on death row were innocent. Illinois Governor George Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions on January 31.
Earle said he understands politicians who say they support the death penalty for political reasons. "Most of the people I
worked with on the moratorium weren't abolitionists," he said. "They were people who support the death penalty but were willing to admit that the system had problems."
But he said that the number of executions in Texas far exceeds the number in other states with comparable populations, and that he's disturbed by Bush's attitude toward the death penalty. In an interview with Talk magazine, Bush mocked Karla Faye Tucker, who was executed in 1998, and in the first presidential debate (October 3) smirked when talking about the death penalty.
"Anyone who takes pleasure in the death penalty f---ing frightens me," Earle said. Earle is writing a play about Tucker.
At the October 17 debate in St. Louis, Missouri, Bush adamantly denied that he was proud of the death penalty, and said "some of the hardest moments since I've been the governor of the state of Texas is to deal with those cases."
The total number of executions since Bush took office rose
to 145 on Wednesday (November 1), when Jeffrey Dillingham was put to death for the 1992 murder of a Fort Worth woman. Ten more executions are scheduled between November 8 and January 22, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Web site.
Between 1982 and early 1995, 88 prisoners were executed in Texas.
"Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)," isn't Earle's first song about the death penalty. His 1990 album The Hard Way included the tune "Billy Austin," also sung from the point of view of a man on death row. He also wrote the song "Ellis Unit One," about a prison worker on death row, for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack.
But even though Earle is well known for his political songs, he's no one-trick pony, he said.
"I've written way more songs about girls than about anything else," he said. "But I do write about other things. That's how I was brought up, and that's how it should be."
In concert, Earle often prefaces the
song with brief comments describing his opposition to the death penalty, which occasionally brings jeers or shouts of disagreement from the crowd.
"Sometimes I handle it better than others," Earle laughed. "But people who think they can shout down somebody with a microphone really irritate the f--- out of me."
Earle said he hasn't made up his mind about the presidential election, but said he'll probably end up voting for Vice President Al Gore.
"My politics are just slightly to the left of anybody who's running," he said. "Actually, they're way to the left."