Kentuckian country musician Merle Travis performed on radio in the 1940s, and played bit-parts in western B-movies. It was the period of 78 rpm records. Capitol Records offered him a contract. “Make an album of folk songs,” they told him. Three of Travis’s songs were about coal miners. After all his father was a miner. Travis knew the lingo of miners. “You load sixteen tons an’ what do you get? Another day older, deeper in debt.” Or: “St. Peter don’t you call me cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.” This became the refrain to “16 Tons.”
The song came out in 1947, and didn’t attract much attention. Not so unusual in the post-World War II anti-communist witch hunt years, where folk songs about coal miners weren't encouraged. A manager from Capitol Records later reveal that while working at a radio station in Chicago, the FBI turned up and warned them against playing Travis’s songs.
Whether he was interested in the song because his grandfather and uncle had worked in the mines, or whether a voice deep within whispered that “this song will make it”, or for that matter what the FBI thought of all this… we do not know, but a few years later, out of the blue, local TV star Tennessee Ernie Ford sang Sixteen Tons on his program. NBC TV received 1200 viewer letters in five days, asking about the song. When Ernie Ford released his new single in 1955, he put Sixteen Tons on the B-side. The radios pushed the B-side and the single sold a million in a month.
A song about the miners lot became the fastest selling single in Capitol's history.
In November 1955, Sixteen Tons topped the country music charts for ten weeks. By December two million copies were sold. It became the best-selling single ever. In early 1956, it topped the pop lists too, for eight weeks.
The 1950s US is always presented as a time of revival, of new hopes, dance, nice things, etc. How strange that a song about the darkest coal mines and the blackened lives of miners achieved such unprecedented success.
Let's turn away from radio, TV and record companies to the US mines: December 1951, explosion, 119 dead. February 1952, explosion, 6 dead. March 1952, mine flood, 5 dead. March 1953, explosion, 5 dead. November 1954, explosion, 16 dead. January 1957, explosion, 5 dead. February 1957, explosion, 37 dead. September 1957, explosion, 6 dead. December 1957, mine collapse, 5 dead, explosion, 11 dead. October 1958, two explosions, 36 dead. January 1959, mine flood, 12 dead. March 1959, explosion, 9 dead. March 1960, fire, 18 dead… No, let's not even think of the 60s; check out Sixteen Tons in the version made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford.
The success of the song was attributed to the rapidly developing new American way of life. The claim was: fair enough, not everyone works and dies in the mines, the standard of living is rising; but yet, everyone sure is in debt. And when someone talks about owing their soul to the company, it rings a bell.
Talking about companies, in 1955 Capitol Records increased its profit by 33 percent and its sales by 25 percent, partly thanks to this single. They had a turnover of 21 million dollars and a flashy new headquarters.
The same year, the widow and two kids of a miner killed in a collapse was paid 844 dollars 67 cent in compensation.
This ("gogo") version of Sixteen Tons, from only a few years later, seems to reflect the relationship between the miners lot and society at large in a truer light.
There is more to the history of humanity, but we'll leave it at that.
The song was written by Travis (left), but Ernie Ford enjoyed the fame and fortune it brought. Another famous Travis composition about miners is “Dark As A Dungeon”. To listen to this song performed by Travis click here, and to hear it performed by Johnny Cash, here.
World War II delayed the spread of TV. The device itself was pretty much a finished item in the technical sense by the late 1930s. Engineer and inventor Vladimir Zworykin emigrated from Russia to the USA, and whilst working for the Westinghouse Company he spent almost all his time on this new invention. His bosses told him to focus on “something useful”. But David Sarnoff, the owner of RCA, was a visionary capitalist, and poured money into Zworykin’s research. The marketing of TV and its spread across the nation took place immediately after the Great War. By the 1960s, 90 % of American households had one. With the new professions it created, the programs it broadcast, the changes it brought to people’s lives, and its own unique ideology, it created a new world.
According to the “mita” system, as used in its modified form by the European colonialists across South America, all adult men had to work in the mines. They were paid not in cash but with a special stamp, with which they could only shop at the boss’s store. This was the same system as the “company store” system implemented in mining areas throughout the USA in most of the 20th century.
Some people say a man is made out of mud
A poor man's made out of muscle and blood
Muscle and blood, skin and bones...
A mind that's weak and a back that's strong
You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter, don't you call me, 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store
I was born one mornin' and the sun didn't shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal and
the straw boss said, "well bless my soul!"
I was born one mornin' it was drizzlin' rain
Fightin' and trouble are my middle name
I was raised in a cane-brake by an old mama lion
Can't no high-toned woman make me walk no line
If you see me comin', better step aside
A lot of men didn't, a lot of men died
One fist of iron, the other of steel
If the right one don't get you, then the left one will
We have painting exhibitions scattered throughout the film. In this part, we visit the exhibition featuring the works of Rosie Little, Mikayla Henderson, Deanie Francis, Hubsky Ivan, Joseph Herman, Elizabeth Olds, Kaziah, Sara Jordan, Gilbert Daykin, Ben Shahn and Vincent Van Gogh. The miners of Rosie Little are on the left, and M. Henderson’s on the right.