‘All Lives, You Say?’ Wilco and Psalm 139

John J. Thompson

Sometimes the events of the day make such little sense, or are so filled with evil, more rhetoric brings little understanding. Sometimes we need art.

Although nothing in the song specifically references last weekend’s white-supremacist rally and ensuing violence in Charlottesville, Va., Wilco’s “All Lives, You Say?” was released this week in direct response to the fear and hatred that was on display in that city. Proceeds from sales of the song are being donated to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“All Lives, You Say?” pointedly recalls Wilco’s earliest Americana days, as well as lead singer Jeff Tweedy’s previous band, Uncle Tupelo, with its lilting country shuffle, twangy atmosphere, and melancholy melody. It also offers up a sentiment that, at times, feels pretty biblical.

All lives, all lives, you say?

I can see you are afraid

Your skin is so thin

Your heart has escaped

All lives, all lives, you say

Tweedy presents his rebuke with a mumbled tone of resignation, but it cuts nonetheless. That phrase, “all lives matter,” despite its underlying truthfulness, arose in repudiation of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in that context is a cop-out. There’s an implied “too” at the end of “black lives matter,” but too many can’t hear it. We need to be reminded that black lives matter and we need to say with our own mouths that black lives matter, because far too often the available evidence suggests that they do not.

In a few short, prophetic lines, Tweedy nails the festering insecurity, the fear of a loss of privilege, and the desire to equivocate that lies at the heart of outright racism and that too-often simmers between the syllables of a phrase like “all lives matter.” He calls it out for the heartless cancer that it is, even while humanizing those who say it. It’s a subtle bit of brilliance that convicts and challenges.

The same God who knit us together longs to hear our passionate repudiation of wickedness.

I have long seen Psalm 139, particularly verses 13 through 16, used as a Scriptural claim for the sanctity of human life. David’s beautiful and poetic language describes each of us as being “fearfully and wonderfully made.” It’s an ennobling reminder of God’s purpose, his artfulness, his attentiveness, and his excellence. And although this passage is often cited in defense of the unborn, it should also bring sobering tears to the eyes of anyone witnessing the systemic injustice faced by people of color in the “Land of the Free”—let alone the blatant dehumanization that was expressed in Charlottesville. If human life is sacred, should we not honor it more thoroughly than we do? That seems to be the question Wilco is asking.

The verses leading up to the middle section of Psalm 139 cover some critical ground. David, who was painfully familiar with the sting of sin and hypocrisy, proclaims God’s omniscience. The Lord knows everything, from our smallest actions to our deepest thoughts. He knows our Bathshebas and Uriahs, even those we won’t admit. “My mind is gone,” Tweedy similarly sings. “It's too hard for me to know when I'm wrong.” His song, along with David’s psalm, reminds us of the limitations of our perspective.

Later in Psalm 139, with hardly a bridge or chorus of separation, David moves straight from outright worship to protest rock:

If only you, God, would slay the wicked!

Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!

They speak of you with evil intent;

your adversaries misuse your name.

Tweedy echoes this despair. “This is the last dying gasp of a deadly lung / Turning blue on a lawn in the sun.” On Wilco’s Bandcamp page, Tweedy dedicates “All Lives, You Say?” to his recently deceased father, who was named after a Civil War general. “[My father] used to say, ‘If you know better, you can do better.’ America—we know better. We can do better.”

The same God who knit us together longs to hear our passionate repudiation of injustice and wickedness. I’m certainly eager to hear more music composed in response to the madness happening in our streets and the darkness hiding in our hearts. I need these songs. They remind me that I’m not alone. They assure me that, no, this is not the way the world is supposed to be and that this is not the way it will continue to be forever. I need the ugly truth in my own heart and mind to be revealed to me so that I can mindfully change.

Psalm 139 doesn’t leave us in our anger. I can almost hear the chords resolve from that crescendo of rage into something more like resolution. David sings:

Search me, God, and know my heart;

test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting.

Wow. Sometimes we need art. Come on you troubadours, you modern psalmists. It’s time to sing.

All Lives, You Say? by Wilco

Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure