Last week we picked up a documentary on Pete Seeger called ‘The Power of Song‘. It was especially moving, full of great archived footage, and worth recommending to anyone. We were inspired to dig up some old union music and add it to our repertoire. Now, for some of you this song may be familiar, but apparently it wasn’t too well known in the mines I worked in growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Here’s a great video of Tennessee Ernie Ford singing 16 Tons:
There are a couple of hilarious things about this video. The obvious, of course, is that a man with a mustache like that would name his fists ‘iron’ and ‘steel’. Maybe Subscooby said it best in the comments of the Youtube video when he remarked “it seems a little incongruous, a song about back-breaking labour being sung by a guy who looks like he would be more at home sipping martinis while smooth talking Miss Sweden 1955”. Indeed, I couldn’t agree more.
A little bit of research (read: visiting the wikipedia page), revealed that Sixteen Tons was claimed to have been written by Merle Travis, although another man named George S. Davis (who had actually been a coal miner) claimed that he was in fact the true author.
The song refers to the truck system in which workers were paid in vouchers redeemable at the company store instead of cash. This system prevented them from saving any money and forced the laborers into debt bondage. We found this all very fascinating, and there’s a good possibility that more union music can be heard at TDH shows in the future.