TARRYTOWN, N.Y. (AP) — Singer Steve Earle believes it was important to have a Southern voice on his new protest song urging Mississippi to change its state flag to remove the Confederate battle emblem.
"And I've got one," said the Texas-raised Earle, although he notes that "people will disqualify me because I've lived in New York for the last 10 years."
Earle's Facebook page is aflame with a vivid debate over the song "Mississippi it's Time," released on Sept. 11. While one commenter told Earle that "the spirits of slaves are smiling down on you," another urged him to "shut up and sing (Earle's 1988 country hit) 'Copperhead Road.'"
The song quotes both the American standard "Dixie" and Nina Simone's civil rights-era song, "Mississippi Goddam." Earle even throws in a "reckon."
Earle said he began writing it the day after South Carolina removed the Confederate battle flag from its Capitol grounds following the June 17 killing of nine black Bible study participants at a church in Charleston. The song was released as a digital single with proceeds going to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is campaigning to remove signs of the Confederacy from the South. Sales are small, but supporters say the real goal is to encourage people to watch the video on social media.
"Sometimes you can make an intellectual argument and sometimes you can make a powerful emotional one, and Steve's song is a combination of the two," said Richard Cohen, SPLC president.
The speaker of the Mississippi House and both Republican U.S. senators support an effort to remove the Confederate symbol, in the upper left corner of the flag. Gov. Phil Bryant said voters should decide. In a 2001 referendum, voters decided overwhelmingly to keep the flag the way it is.
Earle said a few people have walked out when he plays the song on his current concert tour. The response is otherwise muted, nothing like his 2002 song "John Walker Blues" sympathetic to an American who joined the Taliban.
"You have to create a character and you have to get people to empathize with the character — to write politics in personal terms," Earle said. "Not everyone can do it and not everyone will do it. So I think I'm supposed to."
Associated Press writer Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.
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