Monday, September 1, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 244): "SALT OF THE EARTH" (1968) The Rolling Stones

It’s Labor Day, the national holiday Grover Cleveland signed into law after the Pullman Strike, where striking railroad workers were dispersed—more than 50 died—by U.S. federal authorities during the boycott of the Pullman company. The first Monday in September was chosen, rather than May 1, International Workers Day, to avoid collusion with communists and socialists who celebrate that day. So the day has always been kind of a sop to the working-persons of North America (Canada celebrates in September too). Honest, hard-working people who would never undermine capitalism—and its chief toady, the U.S. government—to achieve their ends. Nah, give ’em a day off work instead. Panem et circenses, folks.

yes, that's Yoko Ono as a witch
And with that kind of jaundiced intro, what could I choose but a rather jaundiced tribute to the employed masses earning to breathe free: Mick and Keith’s rather ambivalent tribute: “Salt of the Earth” from Beggars Banquet. It’s an album full of an interesting range of affiliations—with Lucifer, with the “street fighting man” of the youth riots of the Sixties, with factory girls and underage, sexually adventurous girls, with gospel (the prodigal son, from swine to fatted calf), with Dylan (“there’s a tramp sitting on my doorstep”), with country (“down in Virginia with yer cousin Lou”), with the blues with no expectations, and with the blues with a row to plow (“land on me tonight”)—that concludes with today’s song.

The song leads off with a verse sung by Keith Richards, and that sets the tone. Keith generally sounds kind of boozy when he sings, and he sounds like he’s ready to tie one on for the people: “Let’s drink to the hard-working people / Let’s drink to the lowly of birth / Raise your glass to the good and the evil / Let’s drink to the salt of the earth.”  It was Christ who gave the working people the “salt of the earth” epithet, and sharing a libation, in memory of thee, as it were, suits well enough. The “lowly of birth” retains a sense of aristocracy since it carries more significance than simply “poor,” as we would say in the U.S. It means those with no means.

Mick takes over and bids us “say a prayer for the common foot soldier” and his wife and his children, thinking of his “back-breaking work,” who “burn the fires and still till the earth”—the imagery and diction is going for something a bit dated. The workers of the world tended to be in factories by the time Labor Day or International Workers Day was founded—though it’s interesting that the farmers mainly stood with the strikers against the railroad, though they too suffered. So let’s keep those earth-tillers in the picture.

The bridge, which gets used twice (this is a longish, sprawling song by the standards of the time, clearly showing ambitions that would culminate on the next album in one of the great, sweeping rock anthems of all time: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”—and if that’s not a mantra for the lowly of birth, then I don’t know one), points to the “swirling mass” who “don’t look real to me, in fact they look so strange.” Particularly from the rear of a limo. We could say Mick stays in character of some mogul who has a moment of empathy but can’t go quite so far as claiming kin—but we could also say it’s the point of view of one who comes “from above” that crowd and is well on his way to rock royalty and celebrity shenanigans. Then again, even Jesus saw the “salt of the earth” and “the poor” as Other to himself.

Then comes the verse I tend to think most highly of (and, yes, 1968 was an election year in the States—a presidential election year, while this year is a mid-term, but important mid-term, election): “Spare a thought for the stay-at-home voter / Whose empty eyes stare at strange beauty shows / A parade of gray-suited grafters / A choice of cancer or polio.” We’ve already been told that the workers “need leaders but get gamblers instead.” Another telling line about where this tribute is coming from. The “wavering millions” don’t know what’s good for them; they don’t have leaders who give a shit about them; they don’t have a voice. Their vote is pretty worthless: “a choice of cancer or polio.” That verse stays with me because I’ve always felt it summed up my dad’s view, pretty well. A “stay-at-home voter” and a lifelong worker, he seemed, by the time I was around and aware—post JFK, in other words—to have given up on the parade of gray-suited grafters and the strange beauty show which electoral politics became, even more than before, in the TV age.

“Salt” is an interesting book-end to the side that begins with “Street Fighting Man,” a song about the need for action in the streets, even as the singer demurs from taking action himself (“what can a poor boy do / 'Cept sing for a rock’n’roll band / 'Cause in sleepy London town / There’s just no place for a street fighting man”). No, guess, not, and no need to join the forces in Paris or elsewhere, I suppose. But the point of the song is causing “disturbance” by whatever means. “Salt of the Earth” likewise doesn’t advocate anything in particular, but the two make clear the perspective of the Stones via Jagger: they’re not leaders, and they don’t have answers, they think it all “looks so strayyyyyynge.”

In any case, the song is one of the grandest the Stones cranked out in their fertile 1966 to 1972 period, with Nicky Hopkins on piano and a choir singing along too. It’s all very grim, in its way, but also kinda uplifting in an ironic way, and true to life and of its time. Let’s drink! 

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