“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” That question is one of the earliest lessons in kindness and compassion that a lot of us were taught, at least by the TV. I have a hard time imagining Mister Rogers thriving in the current environment, though. I suspect he’d actually be drummed out of the neighborhood by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh for being soft on “terrorists” and “illegals,” much in the same way FOX News took Spongebob Squarepants to task for promoting climate change and Alex Jones attacked Nintendo for pushing a “gay agenda,” whatever that is.
Anyway, I thought about Mister Rogers a lot during this election cycle as the leading contenders for the highest office in the land painted a vision of a country ready to shut its doors and wall-off outsiders in need. When GOP presidential nominee Ben Carson was asked about welcoming displaced Syrian refugees, he said, “If there’s a rabid dog running around in your neighborhood, you’re probably not going to assume something good about that dog, and you’re probably going to put your children out of the way.”
Somehow that wasn’t a disqualifying point of view. In fact, it bolstered his credentials with a lot of voters, as did Donald Trump, Jr.’s infamous Skittles tweet: “If I had a bowl of Skittles and told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.” Forget for a moment that we don’t have a refugee problem other than our poor treatment of them, and forget for a moment the disgusting degree of dehumanization and demonization involved in those statements. Just consider the fact that these attitudes helped endear these men to a broad swath of Americans. It starts to make “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” sound downright radical and subversive.
Hearing that song in the new context presented by our modern political landscape inspired me explore a variety of other tracks that have taken on new weight in 2017: Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” took on new urgency with a professional bully in the Oval Office, while Bob Marley’s “One Love” sounded like a last-ditch prayer for peace. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” felt eerily prescient with its lyrics denouncing walls and bearing witness to the plight of the poor.
A lot of those songs are ones we take for granted and listen to on autopilot, so I wanted to rearrange them in a very stripped-down way that would force listeners to grapple with the words. As I got deeper into the project, I discovered that I was far from alone in my feelings, and I was lucky to have several artists I really admire contribute to the recordings. Josh Ritter, Sean Watkins, The Mastersons, Israel Nash, Michaela Anne, Lizzie No, and Miwi La Lupa all shared their time and talent generously, and the end result is a truly homemade EP created in the spirit of community and inclusiveness.
All profits from sales and streaming of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? will be donated to The International Rescue Committee’s refugee aid efforts around the world. You can pick up a limited edition, signed, hand-painted and hand-numbered CD at my website or stream an abbreviated version on Spotify.