There are two songs that Ray Charles sings that are a permanent part of my life’s soundtrack. The first time I heard “Let’s Go get Stoned” was at an NCO club in Frankfurt am Main, West Germany while drinking 15 cent Miller High Lifes with some GI buddies of mine. We had been given the afternoon off from unloading commissary trucks and the Senior Master Sergeant who was our boss felt magnanimous for an afternoon. So, he got us all drunk on his ten-dollar bill. Afterwards, two of my buddies and I headed over to the nearest city park and took Ray Charles’ advice to heart. For years afterwards, I could hear Brother Ray whispering in my mind,
When you work so hard all the day long
And everything you do seems to go wrong
Just drop by my place on your way home
Let’s go get stoned
Indeed, as I worked at a number of day labor and other menial jobs throughout my twenties and thirties, there were many days when this possibility was a highlight. Like many other folks working just to get by, that little taste at the end of the work day was, at worst, all that kept you going and, at best, the perfect ending to an otherwise humdrum day.
Especially when the bills came in. It always seemed that no matter how much I worked, or how hard, there was never much money left over after the creditors collected their part. Even when I lived hand-to-mouth, it seemed as if another hand was grabbing over half of what I made before it hit my mouth. If I got a raise, the cost of gas went up. If I lost a job because of the economy, the gas still cost the same and there was even less to spend on food. Beans and rice were always on the menu. Somewhere in the world there was prosperity and people were drinking fine wine and whiskey, but it was Old Tennis Shoe and potatoes in my circle of friends.
My bills are all due and the baby needs shoes and I’m busted
Cotton is down to a quarter a pound, but I’m busted
A big stack of bills that gets bigger each day
The county’s gonna haul my belongings away cause I’m busted.
In Washington, DC, a dead man who sent many of his countrymen to the poorhouse while he promised a new “morning in America” lies in state. Powerful people (and those who identify with that power) from all over the world are bowing to his memory while the rest of us pay for the world he and his cronies installed. Meanwhile, the true man of the people-a man who overcame poverty and physical impairment to create a joyfully melodic soundtrack to our lives-lives on in our heritage of song. Ray Charles’ legacy is of the spirit. Ronald Reagan’s is to a lack of that spirit.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is being republished by Verso.
He can be reached at: email@example.com