One of the most effective strategies I’ve used in teaching across four decades is writing models of the kind of essays I’m assigning students to do. This practice has so many advantages, and demonstrates so many essential ideas:
- That you are not above the task you’ve asked them to do.
- That you can actually complete the task you’ve asked them to complete.
- That the work can be fun.
- That you’re not afraid to open yourself up to critique.
- That, being a teacher, you can do and do do.
- That there is a way to do the task correctly.
- That thievery is an essential action in creation (“Take from me, my child!”)
- That communication between writers about writing is hugely advantageous.
- That teaching, in case you or your students have any doubt, is about leadership.
- That, being a teacher, you are not above Trojan-horsing into the classroom material you’re enthusiastic about!
Why am I going on about this? Well, my freshman comp/pop music students are taking their first steps toward writing their first record reviews, and of course I am preparing a model for them to look at and possibly follow. I will lead them to believe I just wrote it, when, in actuality, I’ve been tinkering with it for almost exactly a year. Of the many I’ve written, this one is the best. It’s clean, focused, true to my actual voice, specific, and–here’s the tough part–as well-angled to my 18-and-19-year-old audience as I can get it. That last is what I’ve mostly been tinkering with. If you’re curious, take a look!
Phillip M. Overeem
February 28, 2018
Every Day Above Ground: Jinx Lennon’s Past Pupil Stay Sane (Septic Tiger Records)
Though the 21st century’s first seventeen years have not exactly been an easy ride, 2017 proved so turbulent in its first two months that the name “Woody Guthrie” crossed many a music fan’s mind. Guthrie, the Oklahoma-born songwriter, poet, and memoirist, though an intricately flawed human being, was a master of speaking truth to power during the first half of the last century, in songs like “This Land is Your Land” (the uncensored version, of course), “Deportee,” and “Jesus Christ.” He even wrote a distinctly unflattering song about our president’s dad. Where is our Guthrie now, you can hear crusty old musical and political history buffs (like me) asking.
Only I am not asking it, because we have a Guthrie. Sort of. He isn’t an American; he’s from Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland. He isn’t a star; in fact, he’s only played across the pond on scant occasions, and he isn’t even well-known in his home country. However, the ideas he sings about, and how he sings about them, are what we desperately need right now, and that his songs are about the struggles of the people of Dundalk (“I Know My Town,” he titles one of the songs here—and he does) should be no barrier for us. We have the same struggles.
Mr. Lennon’s musical attack is basic. Though he is sometimes described as a rapper, he is more accurately a yeller, a concept familiar to any rock and roll fan, except Jinx sings like he’s yelling over Saturday night pub noise, sometimes inserting a “YEAH!” to make sure we’re paying attention and getting his point. His accompaniment is spare: a guitar (usually acoustic, but sometimes amplified), a drum machine, occasional alien instruments (like a trumpet), and back-up singing (from his wife Sophie). This basic attack adds up to something important: a sound anyone can make, uncluttered but unpolished, that is direct. That is a compliment one cannot extend to so many of the sounds we’re hearing stateside right now.
The album title also communicates something important. Mr. Lennon’s songs are indeed about staying sane amidst the welter of bellicose social and political messages that sting our ears and unsettle our guts on a daily basis. One reason to buy this album is that we can feel less alone in the knowledge that U. S. citizens aren’t the only ones grappling with their mental stability in times of upheaval. From health care crises (“Bed Blocka,”in which Jinx sides with ailing working-class patients against fast-processing hospitals: “Why you shoutin’ at them like that?/Who do you t’ink you are?/These people built the country around ya!”) to amped-up consumerism (“Shop Thy Neighbor”) to money worries (“70,000 New Jobs”—in this song, not a number over which to rejoice) to immigration (“Not Bad People”), the subjects of Lennon’s songs about post-Celtic Tiger Ireland suggest he might as well be American.
However, the beauty of the man’s art is that he doesn’t leave you wallowing in despair over these ills; countering every song that gives one a reason to be anxious is another illuminating a reason to be cheerful. In “Chinaman in Dundalk Town,” the song’s persona rejoices in a simple moment experienced with an immigrant: “He spoke to me!” He reminds us that “Every Day Above Ground is a Good Day.” He commiserates with us in “Don’t Let the Phone Calls Annoy You.” He proves quite gallant and empathizes with women (worthy of lauding always, but especially lately) as he chides a fellow pubgoer to “Learn How to Talk to Girls.” He recommends the liberating quality of playing music in “God is In My Guitar.” He even lionizes the humble “Water Meter Man.” Perhaps most striking, though, in Lennon’s efforts are his urgings—the first step toward our recovery—that we not retreat to a state of denial:
Yeah, there’s good t’ings, and there’s bad t’ings ‘ere.
Yes! WE CAN LOOK AT IT!
We can do it! Let’s do it—YEAH!
I will walk the railway line out the countryside
Where my grandparents used to live:
They built a big motorway right t’rough the center of it. (“I Know My Town”)
It isn’t easy to deny denial—but it’s necessary. Lest you think Jinx’s relentless focus on the travails of real life might be hard to take over the course of a 24-song album, the man is also very (and very frequently) funny: Future and Lil’ Wayne might get a laugh themselves from Lennon’s song “Cough Medicine,” and, as for “Fireman Meets Samurai Sword” and “45 Degree Angle Phone Face”? Let those be a comic Siren call to the uninitiated!
What’s not to like about this record? First-time samplers may require time to get used to Lennon’s in-your-face delivery, as well as his reliance on repetition in order to make sure his messages stay gotten. No doubt the hour-long-plus running time and 24-song playlist could stand some pruning; with an artist as ebullient, energized, and boisterous as Lennon, the listener must be game if she does not want to be worn down.
On the other hand, though, the same listener might just enjoy a good, long drink of something clean, clear, powerful, and empowering after many months of having to force-guzzle dirty water. During the Great Depression, Woody Guthrie inspired many citizens to endure—to not give up on their fellow men and women. Jinx Lennon is capable of the same, if we can reach across the water (via Bandcamp) and pull him across. As critic Robert Christgau pungently writes: “All he wants is to keep us out of the circle of shit and help make a better world….”
Christgau, Robert. “Jinx Lennon: Know Your Station Gouger Nation!!!” Robert
Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics. http://www.robertchristgau.com
/get_artist.php?name=Jinx+Lennon. 2015. Accessed 8 March 2017.
Lennon, Jinx. Past Pupil Stay Sane. Septic Tiger Records, 2016.
Psst! If you’re intrigued? BUY THE RECORD!
This post is dedicated to Liam Smith, my Irish friend who is directly responsible for me knowing about Jinx!