Oh my mama told me
‘Cause she say she learned the hard way
She say she wanna spare the children
She say don’t give or sell your soul away
‘Cause all that you have is your soul
So don’t be tempted by the shiny apple
Don’t you eat of a bitter fruit
Hunger only for a taste of justice
Hunger only for a world of truth
‘Cause all that you have is your soul.
The sentiment above, expressed beautifully by singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman, goes to the heart of Americans’ self-image. In this nation, we tell ourselves, we are free to be true to our souls. I guess it all depends upon what you mean by “true” or “soul.”
Like the narrator’s mother in the song, we seem condemned to learn this truth the hard way, if we learn it at all. If the financial meltdown has not taught us anything else, it should teach us that there’s hell to pay when you sell your soul.
Jean Paul Sartre famously described hell as other people. I think, instead, that our soul is other people. Living within a Ayn Randian/Social Darwinist myth of the isolated individual versus the world, we exploit others for our own advantage. It’s our own souls that pay the price. By the way, Sartre always claimed he was misunderstood. He said:
It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.
I meet people from all walks of life and from all parts of the country who live as if they recognize this simple truth. Our everyday interactions with friends and strangers depend upon it. We give honest change at the bar. We hold doors open for the elderly and the frail (in the South, men still hold them open for women).
Collectively, though, we live by a dim and different light. Others are our competitors in a zero sum game. It’s insane, really. The devilish rich think they can run off with all the money. They shrug off 10 percent unemployment and all the suffering it causes, knowing all the while that it’s caused by their actions. They can’t run away with the money, though, ‘cause there’s nowhere for them to run. That’s Tracy Chapman’s lesson of the bitter fruit. Sartre’s, too.
In his song about a young boy’s friendship with an old oilfield roughneck, Guy Clark sings that they we’re “desperados waiting for a train.” He was on to something there. We live in the Land of the Pinkertons, and it often seems like love and friendship so threaten the Randians among them that those of us looking for a little kindness, love and justice are, of necessity, desperados.
The beautiful thing about Clark’s song is its unpretentious, down-home prairie humanism. The magic of life is in our relationship with others, especially others who never gave up on their souls, fortifying our own. People like the roughneck, who, Clark tells us, was “an old school man of the world” and a “hero of this country.”
The clip above is from an old Letterman broadcast. Singing with Nanci Griffith are Clark, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Rodney Crowell, Eric Taylor, Jerry Jeff Walker and the inimitable Steve Earle. I’ve been privileged to meet most of this gang. Some of ‘em I know pretty well. We ought to elect them all to Congress.
Hungering only for a taste of justice, only for a world of truth, one day we’re gonna elbow one another and say about the train we’ve been waiting on, “Come on Jack that son-of-a-bitch is coming.”