David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 353: Tracy Chapman (All That You Have Is Your Soul)

May 24, 2024

As this series often does, something I write a few days earlier reminds me of a song. In this case, a crack about not having to buy my soul off of Ebay reminded me of Tracy Chapman, not merely because she seems emblematic of "principled," despite going country with the re-release of "Fast Car." No, it is even more apt because of her powerful "All That You Have Is Your Soul."

The closing song from her sophomore effort, Crossroads, the song cuts several ways. It grabs me immediately because of the lovely sentiment in the opening lines of

My mama told me 'cause/

She said she learned the hard way/

Say she want to spare the children/

She say, don't give or sell your soul away.

Because she couches the song as a generational message through parents, the father in me takes notice. Many of my decisions the last two-and-a-half decades were consciously made as markers for my son, as ways to show him lines to draw in the sand. I have made several decisions because I was not going to sell my soul while others around me did, so Chapman helps me feel justified, if not a wee bit arrogant, about that. (With me now occasionally beating my head for my son's strongly developed resistance to appeasement.)

My self-righteousness within "All You Have Is Your Soul" will not last long because after that opening, Chapman quickly advises, "don't you eat of a bitter fruit."

Well, shit! That took some of the pompous air out of my sails.

I must admit that I have that tendency (every work place personality test I have ever taken hints at this as one of my weaknesses, so no one should be surprised, least of all me). I guess a guy like me who's had trouble using food as comfort would struggle with the advice to "hunger only for a taste of justice."

"A taste?" That's like putting a pool of M&M's in front me and telling me I can only have two! Besides, how do I rectify that with your next line, Tracy, which says "hunger only for a world of truth"? Are you saying full justice and truth are not always intertwined? Are you saying I can't handle the truth?

Bitterness is something I have struggled with in my life. Recently, my former administrative assistant shared a great passage from a book about gratitude that I gave her for Administrative Assistant Day; it speaks of letting resentment go:  "You have a choice to continue along the emotional road of more pain, more resentment, and more anger, or to choose to be grateful for those parts of your mind that are still intact. Choosing gratitude during a time of suffering offers a pathway out of the pain." (I suppose I need a citation here, but the screenshot she sent from the page in the book has no source info, and Google isn't giving me direct hits. Can I retain bitterness about the place of citations in the modern world?)

That seems to be what Chapman is telling us, but damn did she have to turn the spotlight back on me? I'd rather she just kept focusing on the people who can't "wake in the world with a clear conscience and clean hands." There are so many more of them, right (he asks, smugly, hereby again suggesting his soul is for sale, but only to the right horseman)? I have a feeling this unyoking of bitterness may take some time. Grab a Snickers (reader, not writer).

Meanwhile, as I am drafting this, my son comes in to randomly talk pop culture--it's what we do here in the Fleming household--and he tells me, no kidding, that his favorite movies are revenge movies (Tarantino, often), admitting that all of us are weak when it comes to using force on enemies, perceived or real. Now I am looking back at some of my decisions since he was born and wondering if I am getting unintended consequences. I'm sorry, Tracy, but it seems like I got a long way to go to live out your mantra.

That still won't stop me from delighting in this song anyway, in the way your voice glides over "shiny apple" when you remind us "not to be tempted by the shiny apple," in the way you almost scat some of the longer lines in the verses, in the way Neil Young quietly slips in with some delicate piano, in the way your voice breaks in one of the late "all you have is your soul" lines. Or, that you seem to be practically willing yourself to get those last lines out. It makes a pretty powerful final moment of a fairly overlooked album.

Tracy Chapman. "All That You Have Is Your Soul." Crossroads. Elektra, 1989. Link here.

Day 352: Shirley Bassey "Goldfinger"

Day 354: Boz Scaggs "Lowdown"

See complete list here.