by Mark Steyn
A Song for the Season
I was born one mornin' and the sun didn't shine
For LaborÂ Day, we need a song about labor – not just about work, a job, but a song you can feel the sweat and ache in. You can find plenty of working-nine-to-five-what-a-way-to-make-a-living numbers but not a lot in which you can feel the writer putting other folks' muscle into it. There's "Ol' Man River", of course:
You an' me, we sweat an' strain
Technically, there's a little too much physical labor going on there. "I can never hear those words without feeling a fierce twinge of embarrassment," Richard Bissell, a licensed Mississippi River pilot apart from anything else, once said. "To 'tote' is to pick something up and carry it. A 'barge' is a large non-self-propelled boat used usually for the marine transport of bulk cargoes. Nobody in the long history of the Mississippi, including Mike Fink, has ever picked up and carried a barge."
Ah, well. That aside, Kern and Hammerstein's song is a masterpiece, but its place in the canon is so special – there's so much more going on in there – that it seems reductive to use it as a song for Labor Day. Which leaves us with this, the work song that America at the height of the so-called white-bread picket-fence baby-booming middle-class Eisenhower era was cheerily singing along with:
You load Sixteen Tons and what do you get?
It was huge in its day, in a way that the fragmented and shriveled Hot One Hundred of today can barely imagine. Tennessee Ernie Ford's version was released on October 17th 1955. Nine days later, it had sold 400,000 copies. By November 10th, it had sold another 600,000 to become the fastest-selling million-seller in pop history, a record it retains to this day. By December 15th, it had sold two million. It was Number One for seven weeks before being displaced by Dean Martin's "Memories Are Made Of This". Who'd have thought there was so much gravy in a singalong about the unrelenting grinding misery of coal mining?
When something's that big a hit, it's easy to be dismissive, but, in fact, it's very deftly done. There's a whole world captured in that line about owing your soul to the company store. In many mining communities, workers lived in company-owned housing, the cost of which was docked from their wages, and what was left was paid in "scrip" – that's to say, company-issued tokens or vouchers that could only be redeemed for goods at the company store. To the unions who fought and eventually defeated the system, it was a form of bondage in which it was impossible for workers to amass any cash savings: there was no future except the next paycheck to be spent on next week's over-priced necessities at the company store.
On the other hand, a couple of years back, The West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly took a more balanced view:
Pricing in the company stores was often higher than in surrounding non-company establishments. It is true that in the mining families, coal operators had captive purchasers for their goods. However, the availability of rail transportation, mail order products, and the proximity of other local merchants gave miners more choice than has been portrayed. The quality of company store goods was equal to that which could be bought in town. When the miner weighed the price of shipping his purchases from a mail order catalog or local merchant against the price of what could be purchased at the company store, very often, the store ended up being the better bargain… For the companies, scrip provided an easy way to pay the miners without the necessity of keeping large amounts of cash available. However, according to Crandall Shifflett in his study of coal towns in Southern Appalachia, there is no evidence that miners were 'forced to draw their pay in scrip.' On payday a miner could draw scrip or cash or both, the choice was his…
Miners drew scrip advances for many purposes. Should he run short and need food before the next payday, scrip credit was available. If a miner needed a piece of furniture and did not have the cash, scrip credit would take care of it. if a miner was sick or injured, companies would advance scrip pending receipt of his Workman's Compensation checks. For the operators, this was a no lose situation. Companies had the ability to 'virtually garnishee a worker's wages to collect on a debt.' It would appear that with the availability of such easy credit, most miners would in fact 'owe their souls' to the company stores. However, studies cited by Shifflett seem to indicate that miners used this option judiciously.
Which sounds less like bondage and more like a primitive prototype of MasterCard. Whatever the reality, the line is a brilliantly evocative shorthand of what, in mid-20th century, was still an instantly recognizable way of life. Written almost a decade before Tennessee Ernie Ford struck gold with it, "Sixteen Tons" was the work of Merle Travis. He was a country singer and in the Forties found himself facing what would be a common predicament in a music industry coming to value "authenticity" over Tin Pan Alley professionalism. In the wake of Burl Ives' success, Travis had been asked by Capitol Records to make an album of folk songs, but, as he told 'em, "Ives has already sung every folk song." Unfazed, Capitol's Cliffie Stone told Travis that in that case he should just write his own folk songs, but to go ahead and do it quickly because they wanted to go into the studio the next day. So, on one night in August 1946, Merle Travis sat down and wrote three "folk" songs about Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, where his father had worked in the mines. One of those songs was "Sixteen Tons".
Travis had grown up among coal miners. His father played the banjo, Merle took to the guitar. Two other miners, Mose Rager and Ike Everly (father of the eponymous brothers Don and Phil) helped improve his technique, teaching him how to use his thumb for the bass strings. By 1935, he was playing with the Tennessee Tomcats, then the Georgia Wildcats, and pretty soon he figured (as few had up to that point) that the guitar could be a lead instrument. He landed the Capitol contract and scored big with "Divorce Me COD" and "So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed".
Travis had a facility for big memorable hooks, and so, asked to hustle up a handful of folk songs overnight, he figured why not? He said he remembered a letter his brother had sent him during the war, about the death of the great reporter Ernie Pyle in the Pacific. In the course of his musings, John Travis had sighed, "It's like working in the coal mines… Another day older and deeper in debt." Merle recalled, too, his father's weary fatalistic shrug when asked how things were going: "I can't afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store."
Put those two lines together and you've got half the song:
You load Sixteen Tons and what do you get?
Travis was off and running:
Some people say a man is made out of mud
And that line came from his childhood, too: the rueful acknowledgment of any one of a thousand long-suffering miners that he had a strong back but a weak mind.There's another story told about the birth of "Sixteen Tons" – that it's nothing to do with Merle Travis or John Travis or Pa Travis. If you'd been around WKIZ in Hazard, Kentucky in the early Sixties, you'd have run into a fellow called George Davis who told folks that he'd written the song and that Travis had changed a couple lines and called it his. According to whom he was telling and when, the song was originally called either "Twenty-One Tons" or "Nine To Ten Tons". The second is ridiculous – you can't get away with a ballpark figure, you need a precise explicit number to give you the sense of a backbreaking target racked up painfully pound by pound. As for "Twenty-One Tons", that sounds more like the British singer Max Bygraves' gleeful parody, "Seventeen Tons". (There were a lot of those about at the time: Spike Jones did "Sixteen Tacos".) In November 1966, someone at the radio station in Hazard recorded Davis' version. As he sings it, it comes out as something of a bad cover. There are a few chord changes which make the song more static, and the lines have a little less polish:
I loaded sixteen tons, I tried to get ahead,
It's certainly inferior to Travis' version. Does that meanÂ it must be the original? Written, as Davis claimed, back in the Thirties and merely buffed a little in 1946? There's no supporting evidence for the aggrieved man's claim, though one notes that there's a long tradition of rough'n'ready fragmentary vernacular work songs eventually being neatened and organized into a finished version by professional songwriters. ("John Brown's Body" more or less falls into that category.) It's possible that the same thing could have happened here, with Travis unaware that the original writer was still alive and well. Or it could be that, as composers and lyricists well know, failure is an orphan but success has a hundred fathers, and a successful song a hundred paternity suits. And there's something a little too pat in a song about getting ripped off by the mining company itself getting ripped off by the record company.
Either way, in this instance, success was a long time a-comin' – until one day in 1955, with nary a thought, Tennessee Ernie Ford sang it on his daily NBC daytime show. He'd heard it when he'd worked with Merle Travis on Cliffie Stone's "Hometown Jamboree" show, and he'd always liked it. Within five days of his casual exhumation of the song, NBC had received 1,200 letters from viewers demanding to know what it was and where they could get it. A few weeks later, Tennessee Ernie sang it again, live at the Indiana State Fair, and 30,000 fairgoers roared their approval.
What with the daily TV show, Ford's record career had suffered from lack of attention. In September that year, Capitol sent him a formal letter warning him of a breach of contract suit unless he cut two sides for an instant single. So he hurried into the studio and did a lively country blues for the A side, "You Don't Have To Be A Baby To Cry", and, more or less as a filler, offered "Sixteen Tons" for the B side. Who knows what makes a hit? To set the tempo for his six-piece band, Ford, as he often did, began snapping his fingers. The producer Lee Gillette buzzed through from the control room: "Leave that in." So they did. And maybe it was the finger-snaps or Ford's voice or the plaintive instrumental echo of the final line after every chorus, or maybe it was the combination. But, for whatever reason, it's one of those occasions where the record transforms the song; an ordinary pseudo-folk verse-and-chorus number had been enlarged into something big, bold and emblematic:
I was born one mornin' it was drizzlin' rain
There have been other versions since – by Johnny Cash and Tom Jones. There's a cool slow jazzy take by Stan Ridgway that doesn't quite come off, and not so long ago General Electric used it for a strange commercial featuring a lot of hunky Chippendale-like pec-flexing pick-axing mine-studs. For all I know, some fey flower-chick has reinvented it as a limpid hippy anthem. But the reason you can get away with that is because of what Tennessee Ernie Ford did with it back in 1955. At the time, there was another version out by Johnny Desmond. I like Desmond's voice but it's too smooth and creamy. Ford's big bass growl is just right, man enough to sound like a guy tough enough to work in a mine and thereby to underline the sense of diminishment, of a big man rendered small by his economic circumstance. It's the same trick Paul Robeson's big deep voice pulled off in "Ol' Man River". If Ford had never recorded the song, Desmond would have had a hit, and no one would have remembered it a decade later. A song about the anonymity of shift work depended on very particular individual talents.
Merle Travis certainly understood. In later years, he'd end the song this way:
I owe my soul ...to Tennessee Ernie Ford.
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