The following was originally posted at Ongoing History Of Protest Songs.
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle tragically died on August 20, 2020, at the age of 38 years old.
The son of influential alt-country artist Steve Earle, like his father he was able to establish a reputation as a gifted storyteller who at times was also able to provide meaningful social commentary.
His eighth and final full-length album “The Saint of Lost Causes” was released in 2019. While not overtly political, tunes such as “Don’t Drink the Water” and “Flint City Shake It” touched upon real-world issues, such as environmental and economic injustices.
One of the most powerful songs on the album is “Over Alameda,” which addressed issues of generational poverty and systemic racism. The song is written from the perspective of a 19-year-old boy living in the Jordan Downs Housing Project in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
The story starts with his mom moving from the Mississippi Delta to Los Angeles in 1966 when the family bought a home after his grandfather landed a job at the Firestone factory in south Los Angeles.
The hope of a new start for the family was shattered when the factory closed which resulted in the family relocating (“Then the jobs moved out. Grandaddy died and we lost the house. Moved into the Jordan Downs. And been here ever since”).
Jordan Downs was known as a violent area that was heavily associated with the Grape Street Watts
Crips. The lyrics express a desire to escape the violence and poverty. “Mama’d say there’s something
better. I’d say I know that there is. Over Alameda. Where the white folks live.” That poignant line links economic injustice to racial oppression.
Justin Townes Earle had the gift of empathetically articulating the plight of humans. He will be greatly missed.
Listen to “Over Alameda”: