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Steve Spurgin's Muley: About a Man With a Calling

Gary North
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Steve Spurgin is one of the most talented performers I have ever seen. He writes great songs, sings them flawlessly, and plays an acoustic guitar better than most, but without flash.

For four decades, he has had a calling. I define "calling" as the most important thing you can do in which you would be most difficult to replace. His calling is to perform. The trouble is, there aren't a whole lot of people who have seen him perform. It's not a job that has matched his income with the level of his talent. Like most men who try to make a living from their callings, he has never made it onto Oprah.

One of his songs is about a man with a calling. It is the only song I have ever heard that gets across the idea of the driving power of the calling in a man who has clearly been called. The lyrics grabbed me.

I use this song in a course I teach in the Memphis inner city to adults who do not have jobs. Some of them have never had a steady job. My task, as I see it, is to explain the difference between a calling and a job.

I know their first jobs will not be exciting, high-paying, or prestigious. But that first job is a step in the development of a career. If they see the larger picture, they may not get discouraged and quit that entry-level job.

Spurgin's song is about a porter on a passenger train, back in the days when passenger planes provided ear-popping experiences for the rich. Trains were for the middle class. It's title: "Muley Was a Railroad Man." Here are the lyrics. Print them out. You can hear a sample here.

Muley Sikes had one gold tooth,
An Elgin watch, and a porter's suit.
He hustled bags for fifty years,
And he worked the railroad line.

From overalls and cotton fields
To spit-shine shoes and rumbling steel,
His life was made to roll on rails.
And that suited Muley fine.

His old Pap never got so far as
Twenty miles from a sharecrop farm,
While Muley, he's seen shooting stars
From Denver up to Maine.

He loved the gentle, rolling sway,
The sound the lonesome whistle made.
He knew his calling from the day
That he first saw a train.

Muley was a railroad man,
From Portland to Miami's sand.
He knew that in this great big land
There's nothing like a train.

He'd tell the children stories
How the rails were laid by hand.
And they knew his name
From coast to coast.

Muley was a railroad man.
Muley was a railroad man.

He'd spend his off-days at the yard.
And he knew each engine there by heart.
He could have taken one apart,
But they never let him try.

He said, "We've all got a gift to use.
Some drive the train; some shine the shoes.
The engineer may get folks there,
But me, I make 'em smile."

He always spoke about the time
That Woodrow Wilson rode the line,
And tipped him twenty dollars, gold,
He carried 'til he died.

But he'd have praised the Lord
If someone laid a quarter in his hand.
God put him here to ride the trains.

Muley was a railroad man.
Muley was a railroad man.

Muley spent his golden years
Explaining throttles, wheels, and gears:
Caretaker for the train museum
At the Dallas County fair.

He'd tell you how the whistles blew,
The engines roared, and the cinders flew.
When he got to heaven, he just knew
They'd still be running there.

He lived to be a hundred-four.
He died in Ft. Smith, Arkansas.
Laid to rest in his porter's cap,
A double eagle for his fare.

And when I step off heaven's train,
He'll have my bags in hand.
With a smile and a "Yes, sir,
Right on time."

Muley was a railroad man.
Muley was a railroad man.

Muley was a railroad man.
Muley was a railroad man.

A song never sounds the way we think it will when we read the lyrics. This one is no exception.

Muley knew what he wanted to do with his life as soon as he saw a train. Most people never experience this early. It's love at first sight. I had the same experience at age 18. It changed my life.

Second, he was content to shine shoes, yet he had a mastery of all aspects of the operation. "He knew each engine there by heart." African-Americans were legally and socially limited in what they could achieve in that era. Porters were an exception. They could have good careers in an undistinguished field. That is sometimes the nature of a calling: undistinguished but good.

Third, he was committed to the customer. "We've all got to give to you." He understood his task: to make them smile.

Fourth, he did his job with enthusiasm for five decades.

Fifth, he stuck with the field after he retired. He tried to show people what was great about trains.

Spurgin wrote this song years after encountering a porter who impressed him as a child. This song is a testimony to what a calling is: God-given. When you find yours, pursue it even after you retire, if you retire.

On applying the job-calling distinction in your life, watch the video of my presentation to undergraduates as the final speech at the week-long Mises University program in 2012.

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