Sixteen Tons…

For the benefit of those younger readers out there, I will print the lyrics to a song from 1955.

This song was on the airwaves of my childhood for years after it’s release and I remember asking many questions about it then. “What is the company store?” “Why does the guy keep loading the coal if he doesn’t get anything out of it? “Why does he threaten anyone that gets in his way?”.

It was supposedly written in the 30’s by a real coal miner…and that would make sense. In the 50’s the song’s lyrics were generally seen as an anachronism from a time of virtual slavery, gone by…by those that didn’t know better.

Hearing Tennessee Ernie Ford crooning this tune endless times over every radio back then, deeply impressed me and perhaps could have been one of the factors that led to this disease, “social conscience” with which I have struggled all these years.

How new and timely this song seems now.

The lyrics: (you can sing along if you like)

Some people say a man is made outta mud
A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

I was born one mornin’ when 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, a-bless my soul”

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

I was born one mornin’, it was drizzlin’ rain
Fightin’ and trouble are my middle name
I was raised in the canebrake by an ol’ mama lion
Cain’t no-a high-toned woman make me walk the line

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

If you see me comin’, better step aside
A lotta men didn’t, a lotta men died
One fist of iron, the other of steel
If the right one don’t a-get you
Then the left one will

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

Of course over the following years, I learned who the miners really were, and who the “store bosses” were as well. It’s no different now. Debt is debt. Labor is labor. And labor is debt. We haven’t learned much in the 55 years since this melody filled our ears. We still walk to the mine…and the store bosses are still the same.

Just thought I would pass a memory along…


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