Environmentalists like to refer to the impact our lifestyles have on the earth as our footprint. The more we draw upon the earth's natural resources, especially non-renewable ones, without giving anything back the deeper and heavier the footprints we leave. The ideal people according to this formula would be able to pass their lives on earth having taken so little that they would leave no trace of having been here at all.
Akin to that are the costs associated with the actual procurement of natural resources. Something that most people aren't aware of is the hidden price paid to accommodate our demand for certain commodities and resources. I'm not talking about monetary issues here; it's more along the line of a moral issue. An example of this in recent history in North America was the United Farm Workers campaign for fair treatment of the migrant workers who picked fruit and vegetables in California.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s people were asked to boycott all produce grown in that state in an effort to garner fair wages and better living conditions for those temporary workers. By publicizing the plight of these people, the United Farm Workers forced people to realize the true cost of getting the produce to their tables. It was the unwillingness of people to accept maltreatment of workers as part of the price for fruit and vegetables that resulted in the boycott's success and the eventual protection of the rights of migrant workers.
History is chequered with examples of how society has willing turned a blind eye to the true costs of ensuring the availability of various resources for our comfort and pleasure. Governments and businesses have long counted on our selfishness to allow them to, in some cases literally, get away with murder.
Musician Stace England has created a new CD, Salt Sex Slaves that tells the story of one especially horrid example from the history of the United States. In the town of Equality, Illinois, in the years before the Civil War, slavery was illegal like it was in most other states north of the Mason Dixon Line. However, for some strange reason the constitution of the State of Illinois allowed for the leasing of slaves for salt production.
A man named John Crenshaw, a.k.a. The Salt King, pretty much had the monopoly on salt production in the area; in one year alone he leased 800 slaves from his neighboring states that still allowed for their ownership. He also ran a lucrative business of kidnapping escaped slaves and returning them to their former masters in the southern states. Hidden away in the attic of the mansion he built were cells complete with manacles where he could hold his victims until he was able to get them back to their owners.
Stace England has written a collection of songs that describe various scenarios that could have and did happen in and around the Wabash Salines. As one of the songs describes, we're not talking about digging up rock salt here; this process involved the rendering of salt from underground liquid saline deposits. This involved fires of extreme heat, which in turn meant hue amounts of wood to be burnt. "Three chords of wood to a pound of salt" is how one verse describes the work.
I don't know if you can begin to understand the amount of firewood that needed to be cut to keep the fires burning on a continual basis. Or, what it would have been like to work around open fires that were hot enough to bring saline water to a boil and keep it there until the water dissolved? As these folk were slaves, we can safely figure that little or nothing was done for their safety. Probably the only thing that bothered Mr. Crenshaw about injuries was the loss of labor.
Aside from the working conditions, Stace also writes about some of the colorful characters that were reportedly around at the time. There was Uncle Bob who was supposedly kept as a "Stud" and whose only job was to sleep with all the female slaves who were able to become pregnant. Then there was the slave who finally had enough and attacked Crenshaw with an axe but only managed to cut off his leg. Crenshaw outlasted the slave by a number of years as the man was hung that night for his troubles.
There's one tune on the disc that was written during the time of the Salt Slaves called "Freedom's Star." It's a beautiful song, about escaping from slavery on the Underground Railroad. The title refers to the North Star, used by all the escapees as their navigational reference point. A note says the song was taken from The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection Of Songs For Anti-Slavery Meetings compiled by William W. Brown an escaped slave in 1848.
There are two songs on this disc that carry a message from America's history to the people of today. When does the cost of producing something outweigh the need for it? In the song, "Rationalize" Stace talks about how a government convinces itself and the country's people that something is essential for the economy and must be acquired at any cost. You can always rationalize any amount of violence through the simple expedient of national security.
On "Do It Right (And Set Yourself Free)" he asks us to take a look at ourselves and see what we have become enslaved to. What's the difference between whipping people to prod them to make salt, and invading another country to get us oil reserves for the internal combustion engine that we are all enslaved by? How much of a cost are we willing to make the rest of the world pay for our selfishness?
An empire with blood on its hands will end up paying a high cost in the end state the lyrics of the song. How many Americans have died in Iraq, Afghanistan, and through various attacks targeting them around the world recently? That's only part of the cost to be paid, and who knows how much more it will be when the bill finally comes due.
In Salt Sex Slaves Stace England has created another excellent song cycle about the history of his home state of Illinois, proving again that he has an excellent ear for both music and story telling. However, this time he shows how we have still not learned anything from the lessons of the past. Not only do we continue to make the same mistakes for the same reasons, we now do them on a larger scale with an ever-increasing chance of repercussions increasing in severity as we continue. It's a warning we all would be smart in heeding.
Salt Sex Slaves is not officially on sale until mid November of this year, but you can purchase advance copies through Stace's web site.