Many people remember the presidency of Ronald Reagan fondly. They see the economy improved under his watch, and see the image he created as a strong and confident chief executive who wore his love of America proudly. At the time I didn’t like the Reagan presidency, but many years later, I have to admit that there were some good things about it. As a person, even his political adversaries have admitted that Reagan was a very kind and gracious human being who had friendships with both his political supporters and opponents, as his friendship with Tip O’Neil would attest. After the Vietnam War, Watergate, high inflation, long gas lines and the Iran hostage crisis, the United States was feeling very low, and I give credit to Reagan for making America feel good about itself again (even if I think he made America feel good about itself for the wrong reasons). And I do think his sincere attempts to reduce the number of nuclear weapons with Gorbachev was probably the greatest achievement of his presidency. But I still disagree with a lot of Reagan’s economic policies. As a result of his domestic policies 13 million children lived in poverty, the live of people living in the inner cities grew worse as government social programs were cut, and social conservatives were given carte blanche to attack the gains in women’s rights, reproductive rights, affirmative actions programs, and gay rights laws. One of the hardest hit communities during the Reagan era was the farming community. During that time, John Mellencamp released the album Scarecrow which described the plight of the American farmer during the Reagan era.
According to the essay The Midwest Farm Crisis of the 1980s by Jason Manning, the American farming community was going through a severe crisis of debt and farm foreclosures that hadn’t been seen since the Great Depression. Manning wrote in his essay:
By the early 1980s, tight money and high interest rates had burst agriculture’s speculative bubble. The federal government estimated that farmland value dropped by nearly 60% in some parts of the Midwest between 1981 and 1985. Many farm operators found it impossible to retire their debts as fast as their asset values declined. [FN6] Record harvests led to overproduction which in turn resulted in a glut of farm commodities, forcing prices down. In addition, the decision by President Jimmy Carter to enforce a grain embargo as a means of punishing the Soviet Union for its invasion of Afghanistan cost the American farmer a crucial overseas market. Subsequently, the Soviets diversified their agricultural suppliers in order to limit the effects of a future embargo. And though prices fell, American farm products were still costlier than those of competitors on the international market; federal price supports kept prices artifically high enough so that farmers in Argentina, Australia, Canada and Europe were able to seize more of the market than ever before. [FN7] The strong dollar of the Eighties combined with the economic stagnation and financial straits of purchasing nations also hurt American agricultural exports, which declined by more than 20% between 1981 and 1983, while real commodity prices plummeted 21% during the same period. [FN8]
In the high times of the 1970s, the number of “middle level” farmers — those whose income ranged from $40,000 to $500,000 a year — had increased by an astonishing 250%. Numbering 675,000 by 1985, they were the hardest hit by the debt crisis. [FN9] The small farmers (grossing under $40,000 a year and deriving much of their income from non-farm employment) had not incurred large debts, while the large farmers (those who grossed in excess of $500,000 a year) were financially able to weather hard times. [FN10] As he watched profits decline by 36% between 1980 and 1988, the middle level farmer who had aggressively indebted himself in the Seventies faced grave financial peril during the next decade. [FN11] By early 1984, in the depths of the crisis, farm indebtedness had risen to $215 billion, double what it had been in 1978, and fifteen times the 1950 level. According to Emmanuel Melicher, Federal Reserve senior economist, more than one-third of America’s commercial farmers were in serious trouble. For the first time in history, the total of interest payments on farm loans exceeded total net farm income. [FN12] Farm foreclosures rose dramatically, and the crisis had a ripple effect, negatively impacting the manufacture and sale of farm machinery, seed and fertilizer. Rural banks went into receivership. Rural communities suffered in other ways; as more and more farmers were forced out of business, small town enterprises saw their profits plummet. In 1986, the Minnesota Agriculture Department calculated that every farm loss wiped out three non-farm jobs. [FN13] Many described the farm crisis of the Eighties as the worst since the Great Depression.
I loved the album “Scarecrow” when it first came out and it remains one of my favorite CDs. In the Bay Area in the 1980s there used to be this radio station 1260 AM KYA that used to play all these great rock and soul music from the 1950s and 1960s and I grew to love all those great bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Smokey Robinson, and Elvis. I could tell from listening Mellencamp that he listened to the same type of music, and this sort of 60s inspired rock and roll was very prevalent in 1980s music. My favorite basketball player was Larry Bird and “Scarecrow” seemed epitomize the spirit of this blue collar player from French Lick, Indiana. Songs like “R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A.”, “Lonely Ol’ Night “, and “Small Town” could easily have fit in a 1960s rock station alongside the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Van Morrison and The Animals.
I could tell that Mellencamp had a serious message in his songs from listening to the lyrics and the chorus of the songs. They were songs about farmers facing foreclosures, people struggling in small towns, individuals disillusioned at the state of American. As a suburban kid living in the Bay Area, I didn’t know anything about the plight about the American farmers until Mellencamp’s “Scarecrow” made us aware of their struggles. I had always assumed that the farmers of the midwest would be among Reagan’s greatest supporters. I found instead that the farming community had a lot more in common with the people living in the inner cities who were also struggling with the free market policies of Reaganomics. Jimmy Guterman wrote in a September 6, 1985 Rolling Stone review of the album:
Like Springsteen and Alvin, Mellencamp has learned that writing “smaller” makes one’s work both tighter and more relevant: little victories are often the most salient. Conceptually, Scarecrow isn’t as focused as Born in the U.S.A. or the Blasters’ Hard Line (both Mellencamp and co-producer Don Gehman made important contributions to the latter), but Mellencamp shares with those artists utter terror at the Reagan administration’s assault on working-class America. When Mellencamp sings that he can’t recognize the face of the nation anymore, he’s not grandstanding — he’s articulating for a growing underclass that’s being stripped of everything, starting with its voice. Mellencamp’s refusal to move to either glamorous coast from his Southern Indiana base illustrates his commitment to his roots and ensures his insulation from the false standards a big city imposes.
Mellencamp’s stance wouldn’t matter as much as it does if his music wasn’t as mature and concise as it is. Like many rockers who came of age in the early Seventies, Mellencamp apparently worships Exile on Main Street, not a bad starting point. The musical and production values of the Rolling Stones have had a strong influence on this band. Guitarists Larry Crane and Mike Wanchic have perfected their Keith Richards-Mick Taylor moves, but never on Scarecrow do Crane and Wanchic deteriorate into a glorified cover band. They have been studying the Stones’ recording methods, though.
The overall musical feel of the album is summarized in the Rolling Stone article on the best 100 Albums of the Eighties:
When it came time to cut Scarecrow, the band members employed the lessons they learned from their Sixties studies. The idea, according to producer Don Gehman, was “to learn all these devices from the past and then use them in a new way with John’s arrangements.” Mellencamp would make comments like “I want this to be like an Animals record…. And I want the overall record to have this kind of a tone, like maybe it was a modern-day Dylan record.” Indeed, Dylan himself hadn’t been that bitingly topical in years. “You’ve gotta stand for somethin’/Or you’re gonna fall for anything,” Mellencamp sings, and on Scarecrow, he dug in and made a stand.
Mellencamp did more than just make music about the plight of the American farmer. Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young, spurred on by Bob Dylan’s comments at Live Aid earlier in that year that he hoped some of the money would help American farmers in danger of losing their farms through mortgage debt, organized the benefit concerts known as Farm Aid to help struggling farmers who were faced with farm foreclosures. According to Wikipedia, the first concert was at the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium in Champaign on September 25, where performers like Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, and others raised over $9 million for America’s family farmers. Nelson and Mellencamp then brought family farmers to testify before Congress, which motivated them to pass the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 to help save family farms from foreclosure.
In researching for this blog, I’ve grown to admire Mellencamp as much for his activism as for his music. There is a rich history of artists/activists using their art to help struggling communities. Though I haven’t listened to “Scarecrow” in quite a while, I’m going to look around for my old cassette tape and give it another listen.
A music video of John Mellencamp’s “Rain On The Scarecrow”
A music video of John Mellencamp’s “Small Town”
A youtube video of John Mellencamp performing “Minutes to Memories” in 2008s Farm Aid
A youtube video of John Mellencamp performing “ROCK in the USA in 2001s Farm Aid