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25 March 2017
Morning Sedition

Sixteen Tons… of Lies

Company Store in Mining Town

Company Store in Mining Town

Just about everyone knows the song "Sixteen Tons." It's about an angry coal miner railing about how no matter how hard he works he can't get ahead. (You can listen to it here.) The most famous part is:

I loaded sixteen tons and what do I get
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don't call me cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store.

"Sixteen Tons" by George Davis

The phrase "company store" comes from the practice of mining companies of setting up towns that were owned lock, stock, and barrel by the mining company. Workers were paid in "scrip" basically monopoly money created by the mining company and spendable only at the company-owned stores, which could charge whatever they wanted. This allowed the mine owner to pay the workers with one hand and take it back with the other, an effective tool in controlling profits, and thus, prices:

Miners resented the company store for three reasons: prices were much higher than those charged by independent retail stores, their grocery and supply bills were checked off their earnings even before they received their pay, and trading was compulsory. It hurt the miner's pride to know that he was being robbed in the "pluck-me,'' his term for the company store. Responsibility for budgeting family income was shifted from the housewife, where it was in normal households, to the company store manager. Moreover, the debts which a miner piled up in the store bound him as securely to his employer as miners were bound to feudal barons in medieval Scotland....

Many coal corporations issued their own money, which for all purposes took the place of United States currency. This phony money, called scrip, took various forms such as pasteboards, coupon books, paper bills called shinplasters, brass checks, and metal discs with holes through them like Turkish piasters.... In states where the law barred the issuance of scrip, coal companies distributed wage advances or store orders, but the miners regarded them as just another form of scrip.... Chronic layoffs, part-time work, and low wages made the ground fertile for scrip as its purpose was to tide over the miner from one payday to another.

When an operator was unable to expand his mining capacity or the volume of his sales, he would increase the number of his miners. This would so cut each man's working time and earnings that it left no surplus to spend outside the camp. Because of monopoly, there was no limit to the height to which a company store could hike its prices. John McBride, president of the United Mine Workers of America (1892-1894), related how an Ohio coal operator of his acquaintance worked two mines for thirteen months and made a profit of only $287. During the same period his store, which without the mines would have been worth nothing, earned him a net profit of $22,000.

An unscrupulous store-keeping coal operator who sought to undersell the market could do so simply by cutting the price of coal below cost and making up his operating losses out of company-store receipts. It was a competitive device often resorted to, especially in the South, where non-union operators thereby were enabled to take business away from Northern operators.

"Coal Dust on the Fiddle," by George Korson 1965, pp. 72-73

Merle Travis

Merle Travis

So much for the song's meaning, which most people sort of know. Fewer know, however, that the song was allegedly (yeah, you've spotted the direction of this entry) written by Merle Travis, a record company employee, in August of 1946:

In August, 1946, Cliffie Stone, then an assistant producer and talent scout for Capitol Records, called Merle Travis (a Capitol hitmaker at that time) about recording a 78 rpm album (four discs in a binder) of folk songs. Capitol, seeing the success of a Burl Ives album, wanted their own folk music album. Merle told Cliffie he figured, "Ives has sung every folk song." Stone suggested Travis write some new songs that sounded folky, and to do so quickly; the first four-song session was scheduled for the next day. Travis recalled the traditional Nine Pound Hammer and wrote three songs that night about life in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky's coal mines, where his father worked. One was Dark As A Dungeon, the other, Sixteen Tons.

The song's chorus came from a letter Merle received from his brother lamenting the death of World War II journalist Ernie Pyle, killed while covering combat in the Pacific in 1945. John Travis wrote, "It's like working in the coal mines. You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt." Merle also recalled a remark his father would make to neighbors when asked how he was doing: "I can't afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store. " This referred to coal-company owned stores where miners bought food and supplies with money advanced by the company, called "scrip"."

"Sixteen Tons - The Story Behind The Legend" on ErnieFord.com

Travis apparently ran into trouble with the FBI because any song promoting workers rights must be promoting communism. And so the good boys working for Jane Edgar Hoover told radio stations to not play the song; that's a difficult thing to do with a hit, and many ignored the directive. Here are Travis' lyrics:

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

(Repeat Chorus)

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 (Repeat Chorus)

(Repeat Chorus)

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!"
.....you loaded...

(Repeat Chorus)

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

(Repeat Chorus)

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

(Repeat Chorus)

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.

— "Sixteen Tons" by Merle Travis

I put together some notes explaining the lyrics:

  • A "straw boss," according to Wentworth & Flexner's Dictionary of American Slang, is "the boss attended to the grain going into the thresher; the second-man watched after the straw coming out and hence had little to do."
  • The term "script" or "scrip" refers to a piece of paper printed by employer and used to pay its workers in lieu of money. The script is, naturally, only good at the company's stores, allowing it to charge whatever it wants.
  • The term "cane-brake" is derived from the term "brake," for bracken swamps, that surrounded cane fields. (This is why the crotalus horridus atricaudatus rattlesnake is often called a "cane breaks;" it lives in these lowland swamps.)
  • The term "number nine coal" was a little trickier to track down. "For some time, miners had followed the custom of naming the main pay zones of minerals, and numbering the splits, as in "Pocahontas Number Nine Coal" or "the Great Gossan Lead" for example. This method seemed to allow more flexibility, so it worked its way into use by the scientific community, and is now known as the Geological Time Scale." (Friends of Roan Mountain Newsletter, Volume 5, No. 1, Winter 2001) All sorts of coal gradations exist.

Tennessee Ernie Ford

Tennessee Ernie Ford

Once allegedly written by Travis, it became popularized by Tennessee Ernie Ford as a B side. What's interesting is that nobody remembers the A side, and "Sixteen Tons" became the best-selling single in the country. The famous finger snapping at the beginning was a happy accident:

It had a good solid beat to begin with. In addition, I snapped my fingers all through it. Sometimes I set my own tempo during rehearsal by doing that. The orchestra leader asks me, "What tempo do you want, Ernie?'' I say, "About like this,'' and I begin to snap my third finger and thumb together. After I was through rehearsing that song, Lee Gillette, who was in charge of the recording session for Capitol Records, screamed through the telephone from the control room, "Tell Ernie to leave that finger snapping in when you do the final waxing.''

Interview with Tennessee Ernie Ford by Pete Martin, Saturday Evening Post, 28 September 1957

George Davis

George Davis

There's one tiny problem here. Travis didn't write the song. He stole it from George Davis, a man known all over Kentucky for singing songs about mining, who wrote it circa 1930. The real lyrics are:

I loaded sixteen tons and what do I get
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don't call me cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store.

(Chorus)

I was born one morning, was a drizzling rain
A fussing and fighting ain't my middle name.
Well they raised me in a corner by a Mammy hound
I'm as mean as a dog but I'm as gentle as a lamb.

(Chorus)

Well I got up one morning, the sun didn't shine,
I picked up my shovel and I went to the mine,
I loaded sixteen ton of that number four coal
The face boss said, ''Well bless my soul!"

(Chorus)

I loaded sixteen tons, I tried to get ahead,
Got deeper and deeper in debt instead.
Well they got what I made, and they wanted some more,
And now I owe my soul at the company store.

(Chorus)

Well I went to the office to draw some script
The man, he told me -- was a wreck in the dip.
To clear the tracks would be a week or more
But your credit's still good at our company store.

(Chorus)

If you see me coming, step aside.
A lot of men didn't and a lot of men died
I got a fist of iron, I got a fist of steel,
The left one don't get you then the right one will.

— George Davis, circa 1930

Here's the real story behind the song:

When I first met him [George Davis] at the Hazard radio station in 1959, he was very hesitant about doing any recording because of his previous bad experience with the records business. He claims to have composed "Sixteen Tons" during the 1930s, and feels that Merle Travis and Tennessee Ernie Ford capitalized on his song through changing the chords somewhat. George's original version is on this record....

According to George Davis, this song was first called "Nine-to-Ten-Tons,'' and he wrote it in reference to "this particular mine (which) had what is known as a Clean-up System. This was before the days of the UMW. In a clean-up system you either cleaned up your place every day, or brought your tools out (quit ? ). An old expression the operator used then was, 'We've got a barefooted man waiting for your job.' Here's the catch -- each place would make nine or 10 tons, but where you loaded this coal was very low; most of them had water in them -- as much as three or four inches -- and they had no pumps. On top of this you might have a cut of draw rock from 8 to 12 inches thick, 14 feet wide, and up to 9 feet long. All the coal, rock, and anything like wrecks, tore up track. All that was 'dead work' and it always had to be cleaned up, even if it took you 18 or 19 hours to do it.

John Cohen, liner notes for "When Kentucky Had No Mining Men," 1967

This is the key point: the mining company, like many large corporations today, forced workers to work off the timeclock for no pay. Americans, in some sense, still work for the company store, except now it's made from plastic and charges workers 18%, compounded daily.

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