Salt Of The Earth (1968)
The Rolling Stones
No one is ever far from his or her roots.
John Fogerty’s biting social criticism in “Fortunate Son” is rendered no less trenchant because he became a millionaire after being raised by a single mother in straitened circumstances. Dylan certainly didn’t grow up deprived yet his social commentaries bite as hard as any dog. The Stones, perhaps because of their excessive lifestyles, have had to take a hit for singing about powerful political and social issues. But at bottom they’re plain old middle-class guys. In the era of their coming of age, the great middle was much less fragmented. Except for the power elite, no one was very far from working class roots.
Raise your glass to the good and the evil
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
Uncharacteristically for The Stones, Keith Richards delivers the opening lyrics of what promises to be a folk song. His beautiful acoustic guitar in “Salt Of The Earth” is one more testimony to his virtuosity on the stringed instrument no matter its shape or form. Richards also lays in a devastatingly moving slide guitar track.
Keith’s vocals promptly yield to Jagger’s vocal entrance and we jet from world-weary to defiant in a heartbeat:
Say a prayer for the common foot soldier
Spare a thought for his back breaking work
Say a prayer for his wife and his children
Who burn the fires and who still till the earth
Strikingly, “Salt Of The Earth” is the roadmap for “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” a song that has often been cynically and facilely tagged with being the epitaph for the 1960s. The latter song is unquestionably one of The Rolling Stones’s greatest works and one of their most popular. Head to head, however, “Salt” beats “Want.”
An epitaph for the ’60s? Yawn.
“Salt Of The Earth” is one of the most openly, honestly soulful songs by Mick and company, or by anyone else. It is impassioned about the absolutely awful looks of snobbery and ignorance the rich cast on the “lowly of birth.” The song’s honesty extends to a bit of self-examination – one that is unresolved, but one that highlights a persistent failure of conscience and consciousness. Jagger and Richards judge themselves harshly but there is an upstanding decency to the lines:
And when I search a faceless crowd
A swirling mass of gray and
Black and white
They don’t look real to me
In fact, they look so strange
The poor, the struggling, those with terrible burdens are hard to see as individuals. So we are left with tortured labels like “the underclass” or “the working poor,” expressions that are like empty cups. With some of the most mellifluous singing in his career, Jagger delivers the lyrics convincingly and invites us to not look away at the greatest part of humanity, and not look away from our smug, unconscious selves.
The meat and potatoes of the song’s message come next, as the band reaches a high simmer. The vocals are now a multi-tracked duet of Jagger and Richards, half Blues and half drunken, projecting an impression of a barroom singalong. Charlie Watts shoves his drumming up a few gears and begins to propel the song.
After another round of the refrain about “the faceless crowd,” when the song returns to the final verse, the Watts Street Gospel Choir from Los Angeles joins the fractiousness. Pots and pans are clanking. The screaming slide guitar cranks the big Stones engine up and up like a 19th century steel factory in full bellows.
A mash up of the first verses ensues and then evolves into one of Rock’s most memorable codas. There is almost a full stop as all instruments (except Keith’s acoustic guitar) drop out and we circle back to the opening riffs.
Then this sucker catches fire.
Enter Charlie Watts at the peak of his form. You really don’t hear many drummers pound those cans like he does in the coda. Enter Nicky Hopkins who hammers his piano with a revelatory gusto. Hopkins takes us to every working class bar from Belfast to Boston, New Orleans to Manchester, from Mumbai to Baghdad.
The fervid “Salt Of The Earth” is the finale for the immensely powerful album Beggars Banquet, what may just be The Rolling Stones’ greatest full-length effort. Certainly they were in the midst of their prime.
With pitch-perfect showmanship, they played the number at the Concert For New York after 9/11 and famously changed the lyrics from “let’s drink to the good and the evil” to “let’s drink to the good not the evil.” Evil had visited, no question, and it couldn’t be shrugged off easily.
It was played semi-live on the made-for-TV concert Rock and Roll Circus. Jagger and Richards sing live against a taped version of the studio track. Both men’s voices are very impressive, Keith’s surprisingly so.
- In 1970, Jagger said in an interview that “Salt Of The Earth” is “pure cynicism. I am saying [in the song] that these people have no power and never will have.”
- The expression comes from the Book of Matthew: Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
Also by The Rolling Stones on SongMango.com:
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- Dead Flowers"Dead Flowers" stands at the intersection where the British Invasion meets Bakersfield (the epicenter of West Coast country music).
- Just My ImaginationThe guitar-shredding version of "Just My Imagination" thrashes the beautiful-dreamer, rose-colored classic by The Temptations.