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Streets Of America

I do my best to keep politics out of my posts on One Toke Tom and Facebook. There is a song Brewer and Shipley wrote that, like some others, could be taken as political. A while back I did a music video for the song but never posted it. Jan informed me last night that just about everything is political these days and people seem to like stories about how songs get written. She said I should just go ahead and post it. So here goes. 

I was sitting on the corner of the couch doodling on my guitar with nothing particular in mind. To be honest, I was thinking about Jackson Browne and a lick I had heard him play when I first got to know him. At the time he was 16. As I tried to remember it, a groove of my own popped up along with a couple of chords, and out of nowhere some lyrics. 

Brewer and Shipley had just finished our annual tour of the east coast. As always, there had been several trips up and down the New Jersey Turnpike. Traffic, nasty drivers cutting us off, and toll booth after toll booth. At some point, Michael and I stopped at a rest stop. It was hot, we were starving, and the Turnpike had put us in its usual lousy mood. I was already feeling agitated as I waited in line to get something to eat. It seemed like it took forever to get up to the counter to place my order. When I got there, I realized the problem. The young girl behind the counter. She barely looked old enough to work there, much less understand any English.

Eventually, I got part of what I had ordered and some of my change. As I grumped my way back to where Michael was standing I saw the fellow behind me was having a difficult time. He was being really hard on her. “This is a service establishment. Why don’t they at least hire people who can speak some English.” 

As I was about to gripe to Michael about what had just happened I looked back at the little girl who was getting yet more grief from another customer. She was very young and pretty but it was her eyes that caught my attention. They glistened with the shine of tears that were trying their best to spill over her lower lids and run down her cheeks on their way to her quivering lips. 

Reality dropped on me like a ton of bricks. Here she was, this poor young girl from God knows where, having to deal with lines of rude, rushed, overfed, people like myself giving her grief all day. Fortunately she really didn’t understand much English so she couldn’t know the horrible things people were saying about her.

It only took an instant for this poor girl to go from being a hassle in my day to a little heroine. Her bravery, given the situation she was faced with, was well beyond my comprehension. Where did she come from? Was she legal? If not how did she get here? A coyote? Packed in a shipping container? Hidden in the trailer of an 18 wheeler? I had no idea. And even worse, where was she going to sleep that night? I think that is the one that got to me the most and sadly I really didn’t want to know.

She had finally gotten to “the land of the free” but she wasn’t free to do much. Given her circumstances, I could see her freedom to do anything was pretty limited. But she had made it to “the home of the brave” and that is exactly what she was doing. Bravely facing the day-to-day obstacles that having no money throws at a person. And I began thinking about all the people I see every day whose freedom is limited by the size of their paycheck if they are lucky enough to even get one. And I realized how really free I was just because of a song I had written years earlier. It didn’t seem fair and gave new meaning to the word inequity. How, I wondered, can the measure of one’s freedom be so capricious that it depends on so many factors beyond a person’s control? 

So here I am, sitting on the couch with a new rhythm and chord progression on my guitar and a melody starting to take shape. Then out of nowhere came thoughts of this little girl and the words, “I’m not sure why they call it the land of the free. But I know why they call it the home of the brave.” They just appeared followed by an intro line about how some of our ancestors came here on the Santa Maria. It was never meant to be a song about immigration. It was about life’s inequities and that little girl on the New Jersey Turnpike. 

It wasn’t long until Michael added to my original idea and the song was finished. “Streets Of America” has become one of our most popular songs. It often gets as much response as “One Toke Over The Line,” this song about inequity which is sadly an issue that has gotten worse over the years. While we will always salute the first responders and those charged with keeping us safe as being the heroes and the brave ones, there are so many other people we should also consider. The folks who are bravely doing the hard, day-to-day work that keeps America going. Sadly that fact is often hidden by the inequity of it all. 

So this song is my apology to that little girl on the New Jersey Turnpike, along with a prayer that life has worked out well for her. And will do so for all those who have been dealt a hand that is difficult to live with. Streets Of America

7 Responses

  1. Karen Taylor
    | Reply

    Another winner, Tom. Love the video. It goes so well with the lyrics. Keep the stories coming. Love reading them. Keep up the great work.

  2. David Dunstedter
    | Reply

    This was Debby’s favorite B&S song. In general, she was very particular about music. She was not much on Gooey Love Songs, disliked humor songs, had a 2 song limit on C&W, Bluegrass, Standards, and Jazz and religious Songs made her edgy. She gravitated towards message songs– Jackson Browne’s–Lives in the Balance, Steve Still’s–For What it’s Worth, T. Petty’s–Refugee, Woody’s–Deportee’s, Cohen’s–Democracy. But “Streets” had a special place. It’s the only message song that she would dance to in the Kitchen while she made dinner. Over the years–Blue Heron, Belle Fair, Wildwood, she came to hear “Streets.” Powerful stuff–the times, the song, the video and the web story. It all works together. Great work.

  3. John W. Luther
    | Reply

    Thank you (and Michael) for writing this song and creating this video, Tom. the song always moves me.

    • Tom Shipley
      | Reply

      Thanks John. I love doing these videos and I’m so glad you like this one. I hope life is treating you well. I finally got my first vaccine and hope to get out into the world once we get our second. In a perfect world…Peace

  4. Connie Jeannotte-Bakall
    | Reply

    This has been my favorite song because it paints so vividly such a poignant picture of the lives of immigrants. A very important song to all those trying to make a better life here.
    Keep them coming Tom!

  5. Connie Jeannotte-Bakall
    | Reply

    The video matches the poignancy if the lyrics. So timely! Jan was right! And, life is political and this song has so much impact and shines a light on a real issue in this country where we all descend from immigrants.

    • Tom Shipley
      | Reply

      Many thanks, Connie Jeannotte . I’m really glad you like the song and the video. This may be the most important song I’ve done over the years. I thought the inequity thing might be a little over the top and until I saw Ted Cruz leave for Cancun with his state frozen over. I guess he figured everyone could do it if they wanted. Jan and I could have met him at the Cancun airport because we usually fly there on our way to Isl Holbox and some of our other Yucatan places. But not with covid this year even though Jan and I survived a dose of it. Maybe this summer. Peace…Tom

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