Legendary agitator and union singer Utah Phillips said, “It’s a long way from ‘Dump the bosses off your back’ to ‘How many seas must the white dove sail’” comparing the folk poetry of Bob Dylan to the call-to-action proselytising of the IWW. With “The Saint of Lost Causes,” Justin Townes Earle expands the folk cannon by forging a path right through the center of it.
While there is certainly no shortage of anguish in the current musical landscape, Earle cuts decisively through the droning mass of regurgitated social commentary by assuming the role of both poet and protestor.
The story goes that Saint Jude earned his title as the Patron Saint of Lost Causes thanks to the unfortunate coincidence of being named Judas. Fearing that any prayer aimed at Saint Jude could accidentally land in the hands of Judus Iscariot, parishioners avoided the saint. As the years rolled by, Saint Jude faded into the background, earning him both the title of The Forgotten Apostle and the responsibility of tending to everyone’s lost causes.
Heaving lament at the forgotten Saint of Lost Causes, Earle has little concern with who gets their hands on this prayer. God, man, politician and priest, Earle warns of wool skinned wolves, sharp-toothed sheep and shepherds who have blood on their hands and something up their sleeves.
“Just pray to the Saint of Lost Causes” Earle sings.
In the flicker of candlelight, in every drop of poisoned holy water, “The Saint of Lost Causes” stretches liturgy and elegy in the crumbling infrastructure of the American class system. Like Earle’s 1930’s and 1960’s folk counter parts, he questions power and privilege through an inherently disenfranchised and distinctly American lens. Hope is allowed its due season. Prayer its piety. But Earle’s poetry finds solace in the blunt and absolute, forcing action or acceptance or at the very least, acknowledgment.
In the parabolic cannon of folk music, the art of wrapping a moral imperative in a poetic narrative is the height of accomplishment. With, “Throughout time, between a wolf and a shepherd, who do you think has killed more sheep” Earle does just that.
According to Woody Guthrie, “It’s a Folk Singers job to comfort the disturbed people and to disturb the comfortable people.” Justin Towne Earle is such a folk singer. “The Saint of Lost Causes” sits squarely between Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing” and Utah Phillips’ We Have Fed You All For A Thousand Years as one of the great albums and songs in the folk cannon.