Song of the Day: Johnny Appleseed by Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros

Johnny Appleseed is the leadoff song in Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros second studio album, Global Agogo (2001). It is a touching song about the human spirit and its relation to the society that produces the material and cultural interface in which the individual exists. Worker’s rights and civil liberties are strong themes in the first and second verses, and the third verse poetically calls into question the “soul,” perhaps questioning the very freedom of the human spirit in regards to the cultural framework that shapes our cognitive understanding of the world. When a society, composed of individuals, is willing to exploit the individual to achieve some ends, there is something tragic about the process. Joe Strummer leaves us with the haunting refrain, “When you’re out to get the honey, you don’t go killing all the bees.”

Joe Strummer is one of my all time favorite musicians and icons. He is most famous as the lead singer of The Clash, but his earlier work with The 101ers and his later work with The Mescalaros are also well worth listening to. The son of a diplomat, Strummer spent much of his childhood in various parts of the world until being sent to an upscale boarding school in London. Despite all this, he moved to the poor neighborhoods of Wales after his schooling and began playing music with students attending the Newport College of Art while working low paying, day-wage jobs including a job at a carpet factory and grave-digging. He turned his back on middle-upper class society and embraced the grungy, gritty, underground music scene in Britain. He moved back to London where he played with the 101ers until he was introduced to Mick Jones by future band manager Bernie Rhodes, inciting the tidal wave of punk-rock, The Clash.

The Clash deserve a post of their own, but they had a explosive ten-year run before finally self-imploding. What set The Clash apart from other puck-rock bands was that their music stood for something. While other punk-rock bands touted nihilism and flirted with hedonism, The Clash fought for social justice, critiqued war and military industrialism, explored globalism and modernity, and stood up for what mattered. After inflammatory xenophobic remarks made by Eric Clapton at one of his concerts, The Clash and other socially conscious bands performed in a “Rock Against Racism” concert, which has largely modeled after by various causes. Their idealism earned them the nickname, “The Only Band That Matters.”

After the break up of the Clash, Joe Strummer spent a decade in what are known as his wilderness years. He traveled a bit and recorded music with a variety of individuals, though he didn’t settle into a permanent group. He even produced a soundtrack for a movie that he performs as an extra in. But most of his wilderness years were an introspective time, which had a large effect on his character. Many of the people who met him during this time formed a loyal following and interviews with the people who knew him show a great reverence for his character and humanity. His began working with The Mescaleros in the late 1990’s and he would stay with them until his untimely death in 2002 at the age of fifty from a congenital heart defect. He really enjoyed his work with The Mescaleros, and his work with them is among my favorite. Towards the end of his life, he liked to have gatherings where people would come, play music, and tell stories around campfires along the beach.

Joe Strummer is such an amazing character. Born into a comfortable station in life, he turned away from it and explored the gritty underground world of punk, holding true to his ideas of social justice and equality. He lived the fast-paced life of a punk rocker in his youth, but also matured into a wizened, deeply human individual who inspired many people. He lived his life like it mattered, and he leaves behind a strong and touchingly-human legacy.

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