The Jolly Librarian did something quite unusual last night–at least for me; I went to a concert on a school night. My friend Michele, an avid Mellencamp fan for years, had called me back in the summer when the tickets first went on sale, neither of us thinking of the trials of getting away from work and then getting up the next morning in November. Yesterday, I had to take vacation hours from work. Michele had to convince her poor husband to take three nights of single parenthood duty in one week. Still once it was over and our voices hoarse from singing every song at the top of our voices, we agreed it was more than worth it.
I have 1600 songs on my iPod, but there are only five or six artists who have more than ten. John Mellencamp is one of them. He is one of those singer-songwriters who seem tailor-made to be loved by librarian and English types.
Mellencamp writes songs of rural Americans, going beyond the stereotype. Sure, maybe some of these folks are red-necks (a term I happen to hate), but they are more complicated than that. They simultaneously dream of the bigger world while loving the small world they find themselves in. They are deserted and betrayed by those in power but still find strength and meaning in their lives. These are the sorts of people we often see in our classrooms and libraries: their strength and persistence continually amaze us.
It is easy to imagine an American literature course with a Mellencamp soundtrack, both centering as they do on themes of faith, the American dream, optimism, and progress as well the darker sides of each (with a liberal sprinkling of Bible references mixed in).
And his own growth is reflected in his songs. This is a man who has pondered being young, being middle-aged, and now growing older. It is done with an honesty that very few songwriters manage to do, or maybe, in our youth-centered culture, are brave enough to attempt.
There was something both invigorating and ironic about the crowd last night as we all shouted out the lyrics to “Jack and Diane” and “Little Pink Houses.” I wondered for a moment if Mellencamp sensed it: the football stadium enthusiasm for songs about an American dream that seems out of reach for so many and the compromises that come with age.
But then, the band started “R.O.C.K in the USA.” and like those who around me, I gave up deep thoughts for a good time.