None of us are from here, we just live here: Happy Fourth

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It’s the Fourth of July and I’m sitting on an early morning train that is passing through sunny New England hamlets and those verdant tunnels between them and I’m struck by the balls it took to carve those towns out of the wilderness. I’m also wondering whether we still have those collective balls, or if the comforts of the age have shrunken them like Maine ocean water.

But then I listened to James McMurtry’s “I’m Not From Here” and I think we might actually be just fine.

All the grim realities of native genocide and the slave trade aside (and I know putting those things aside is a real white guy thing to do, but bear with me), what makes America unique is the fact that we are all descended from a massive genetic experiment that rewarded risk-taking and survival. My Mom’s ancestors came over on some boat shortly after the Mayflower, which means they were fucking crazy. You know how long that trip was? How bad did England have to be?

They,  like all the immigrants that followed them, had to have had a crazy sense of adventure and a belief in themselves and their ability to mold their future, otherwise they would have never even  tried to make it here. And that’s still true today, whether it’s people sneaking across the Mexican border, African immigrants working for minimum wage, Indian doctors, or Chinese engineers. These people are not timid, and do not accept the status quo they were born into. They roll the dice. That is why we need them.

(Quick aside: slavery brought people here unwillingly, but those who survived the unimaginable middle passage and had children were survivors through and through, and must have had an unbelievable resiliency. So although their journey here was not by choice they enriched the tough, adventuring aspects of the gene pool as well.)

We were a people from somewhere else, and we were on a mission to create a new world according to our desires and our hopes. Many horrible things have been done in the name of that mission but there are some beautiful things as well. But what makes us unique is not the result of our attempts at creating new society, but the basis for those attempts. We are descended from survivors, risk-takers, adventurers, and yes, crazy religious fanatics.  There were not a few idealists pushing for change. The whole society desired something new.

It is in this light that I present James McMurtry’s “I’m Not From Here” on the Fourth of July. In 2009, Ron Rosenbaum proposed on Slate.com that McMurtry’s “Choctow Bingo” should be the new national anthem, and while “Choctow Bingo” is a masterpiece of musical storytelling, it’s clear-eyed survey of the rural middle and lower classes isn’t appropriate for an anthem. An anthem should be about our best qualities, it should inspire us to be better. But it also shouldn’t be overly idealistic, sentimental, or hyperbolic.

“I’m Not From Here” reminds us of what is best about America, which is the drive toward a brighter future, a better spot to stop the wagons over the next ridge. McMurtry might be the best song writer alive not named Dylan or Cohen, and it’s a quote from his “Live in Aught Three” album that gives this website its name. He has written blistering protest songs and realist depictions of the heartland that are some of the best social commentary in any artistic field. In “I’m Not From Here” he celebrates the drive of any people (although it’s hard not to see these people as particularly American) to leave a world behind and go find another one. It’s universal and about the past, but it’s also about the present, about people who see farmland turned into parking lots and decide to move on. It’s about the locals who have “long since moved away.” It’s also about the nature of stagnation, that some people move to the next place, and then can’t really understand why other people are moving on again. It’s a celebration of people who create their own destinies by packing up and going. But it’s an ambivalent celebration at best, since he understands and acknowledges that the drive itself is the thing that is followed, that the end result doesn’t necessarily matter. He seems to wonder if the point is lost in this confusion of means and ends, of this drive that might not really have a useful function anymore in a settled country.

But isn’t that what we are as a people? Totally confused about whether freedom, wealth, and equality are means or ends? Totally confused about whether traveling, the road, and wandering is the point in and of itself,or whether, as McMurtry sings we are “off to some bright future somewhere”?

I don’t know whether my restlessness and constant motion is the means or the end.  It’s hard to tell. It’s tough when it’s bred into you, into all of us.

Here are the Lyrics to “I’m Not From Here:”

I’m not from here, I just live here

Grew up somewhere far away

Came here thinking I’d never stay long,

That I’d be going back soon someday

Been a few years since I got here

Seen em come and I seen em go

Crowds assemble, they hang out awhile

Then they melt away like an early snow

On to some bright future somewhere

Down the road to points unknown

Sending post cards when they get there

Wherever it is they think they’ll go

I’m not from here, I just live here

Can’t see that it matters much

I read the papers, I watch the nightly news

Who’s to say that I’m out of touch?

Been a few years. Yeah right

Nobody’s from here, Most of just live here

Locals long since moved away

So they played out farms for parking lots,

Went off looking for a better way

On to some bright future somewhere

Better times on down the road

Wonder if they ever got there?

Wherever it was they thought they’d go

I’m not from here

But people tell me

It’s not like it used to be

They say I shoulda been here

Back about ten years

Before it got ruined by folks like me

We can’t help it

We just keep moving

Been that way since long ago

Since the stone age

Chasing the great herds

We mostly go where we have to go

On to some bright future somewhere

Down the road to points unknown

Sending post cards when we get there

Wherever it is we think we’ll go

I’m not from here, I just live here

I’m not from here, I just live here

I’m not from here, I just live here

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