Years ago, a conversation with Bruce Hampton, a pretty good picker himself, touched on Atlanta’s best-ever guitar players. In the back and forth, there was speculation on how much Joe South had listened to Blind Willie McTell’s recordings. Within ten minutes, I played McTell’s “Kill It Kid” and South’s “Walk A Mile In My Shoes” on the stereo. “How did South do that? How did he think of that?” and “Blind Willie moved his fingers just as fast,” were the awe-soaked words posed to Hampton. Though he has shared the stage with many of the guitar masters, Hampton was right to the point in his response, “Amazin’ on both counts.”
Joe South was amazing on many counts from the mid ’60s through the early ’70s: As guitarist, producer, singer and songwriter. In ’70, he became the first genuine rock artist from America to win a Grammy for Song of the Year (“Games People Play”). His songs were covered by Elvis Presley, Deep Purple, Lynn Anderson, the Raiders, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell and many others from a wide array of musical genres. He put across a quick and dramatic opening at lead guitar on Aretha Franklin’s “Chains,” and quite famously, won public praise from Bob Dylan for his guitar work on the Blonde On Blonde sessions.
South could work his way around the English language, very much as he did a six-string. His songs that voiced concerns over the hypocrisy in contemporary life could be construed as sidewalk sermons. Words of wisdom for those willing to listen. That was especially so with “Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” his country-soul infused hit from ’70. The song opens with 18 seconds of studied but dazzling guitar work and then South emerges with thoughts on the “world you see around you.”
His first works provide a brilliant supposition:
If I could be you and you could be me for just one hour
If we could find a way to get inside each other’s minds
If you could see you through my eyes instead of your ego
I believe you’d be surprised to see that you’ve been blind
Then the fiery chorus, serving as a proclamation, begins:
Walk a mile in my shoes,
Walk a mile in my shoes
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes
Musically, the song has nearly everything going: It rocks and is very Southern in the way it blends white and black Gospel styles. There’s the swampy soul production. Being admonished never sounded so good. Yet despite the critical observations made by South, his song does inspire a sense of hope. The call to “walk a mile in my shoes” is a plea that should lead to better understanding, a more peaceful world or at least a more peaceful neighborhood.
“Walk A Mile In My Shoes” climbed the charts when the first of the Baby Boomers were getting settled in the job market. Those boomers, at least those still with us, are now veteran recipients of Social Security checks. A lot in the world has changed. Some for good. But there haven’t been enough positive changes for the good, even when we as a society could make change happen. Such thoughts and Joe South’s song resonated whenever we think on the sadness of the Trayvon Martin case.
The saddest part, especially for Martin’s parents, is that he would still be alive if one George Zimmerman didn’t tail him and arouse his emotions — or if Zimmerman had taken the advice and let someone of higher rank than “Neighborhood Watch Captain” check on Martin. But Zimmerman couldn’t set aside his suspicions of Martin, who was simply walking down the street, doing the type of things that come naturally to most teenage boys.
Parents who’ve raised teenage boys — or are still going through the challenging process — should relate to what’s been reported on the last couple of years of Martin’s life. Those years were hardly atypical. To rally troops among the conservatives always looking for ways to vilify black people, the right-wing noise machine highlighted Martin’s tough guy poses — hoodie and all. There was also news of Martin’s three suspensions from his high school, the most recent involving possession of an empty marijuana pipe and a bag containing residue of marijuana. True, all concerned parents want their children to avoid even the mildest aspects of the drug scene. Only bad can come out of it, but a lot of young people dabble in it, then set it aside and get on with life’s serious demands. The respected attorneys, doctors and business people from white communities can look back and laugh about being out of their minds on this or that pill at a ’60s concert. It’s a blast from the past that has no bearing now. And they’re remembered by their elders as being real good boys back in the day — not the types to dress wildly and buy illegal drugs. Oh no; not them.
But it works differently for many young black men – teenagers and guys in their 20s, not sure what do with their lives yet. When they get in trouble, they are deemed as evil personified. And it’s impossible for many people, especially those who seek wisdom from the likes of Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham, to try on the shoes of young black men. In their closed corners of the world, be they gated communities or areas of the country with homogeneous populations, they have no idea what it’s like to be part of a minority group. If one of their number found himself the only white guy among a dozen black men, they might begin to understand.
In the mid ’70s I worked eight months at a major utility company and then for a year at the Post Office. At Georgia Power, I pushed a broom, dragged a mop and cut a lot of grass. That sort of work was tough and tedious, especially when being the new kid — and the white kid on top of that. The work at the Federal Annex didn’t involve brooms or mops but there were physical demands: push, pull, lift, unload, push and pull again. As with the first few weeks at Georgia Power, the beginning was arduous and friends were few, but as time went on, the work became routine and most importantly, friends were made –friends different than me — at least different when it came to skin color and home environment. Eventually there was the pay-off in making the new friends, learning about them, their learning about my background and of the interests we shared. There were commonalities that went beyond enthusiasm for the NBA or the NFL. When we’d run into one another in the years to come, the occasions were happy as we related to what had been going on in our lives. It’s always been comforting to look back at those days, when my co-workers, listening to Al Green sing “Let’s Stay Together,” would check out a friend’s tricked-out Ford Maverick (yes, there was such a thing). Those guys made a lot from their lives even when there were society-imposed strikes against them. Such strikes are still imposed among many young people who deserve a better shot.
Society needs equilibrium. People desire protection from street violence just as we assume the Fourth Amendment guarantees Americans security in their persons, houses, papers and effects. It’s no special privilege to anticipate getting through the day safely. The people at the gated community where Trayvon Martin was killed expected to feel secure. Trayvon Martin expected to enjoy a long life.
When any person is attacked, harmed or worse, punishment should be handed out by judges and juries after recognized law enforcement agencies apprehend those who committed the crimes. That said, equilibrium also requires we appreciate how other people feel. If we don’t walk a mile in their shoes, we could at least take some walks alongside them.