Another day older and deeper and debt.
Merle Travis wrote Sixteen Tons in about 1946. There is some debate that a Tennessee coal miner George Davis penned the original draft in the 1930s as noted by John Cohen’s liner notes to the Folkways album When Kentucky Had No Union Men, but folklorist and musicologist Archie Green in the exhaustive Only A Miner asserts his belief that Travis did indeed write the song.
I picked up my shovel and walked to the mines.
Travis himself says when asked by the fledgling Capitol Records to record an album of folk songs said that Burl Ives had already recording them all. He was then told to write his own. He answered with songs like Sixteen Tons and Dark As A Dungeon.
The songs were a departure from his C&W style that had given us No Vacancy, Divorce Me C.O.D., So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed, and the sublime Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette. But he knew of what he wrote.
I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine.
Travis was born in Muhlenburg County, Kentucky to a family of miners in 1917. Muhlenburg County should be familiar to fans of John Prine and Jim & Jesse as the locale of Prine’s mining entry Paradise.
If the right one don’t get you, then the left one will.
The song wasn’t a big hit when it was recorded and released on Travis’s album Folk Songs of the Hills. That would come today in 1955 when Tennessee Ernie Ford sang it live for the first time on his special Labor Day television show. The song has a snaky rhythm and blues quality to it, not particularly country, but that’s partly what’s so great about the song and also about Travis and Ford. No one felt inclined to just do one thing.
Since those days company script has gone out of style and been replaced by plastic cards. They seem to be about the same thing. This is Travis’s intro to Sixteen Tons:
Yessir, there’s a many a Kentucky coal miner that pretty near owes his soul to the company store. He gets so far in debt to the coal company he’s working for that he goes on for years without being paid one red cent in real honest-to-goodness money. But, he can always go to the company store and draw flickers or script – you know, that’s little brass coins that you can’t spend nowhere only at the company store. So they add that against his account and every day he gets a little farther in debt.
The times haven’t changed as much as we’d like to think. So sure strip away corporate regulations, allow tax loopholes to the mega rich, fantasize they’ll in turn do the right thing and keep working people’s wages down at the ankles – that helps us know where to grab. Happy Labor Day!
Is this on your shelf too?