Coal Company Store

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When you do a show five days a week and one night a week, the way I was doing, you use up so much music every day that pretty soon you find yourself hustling for material. You do repeats and you do songs in the top twenty -- that way you keep current -- but if you do six songs a day five days a week, pretty soon you're scratching for stuff you can use as hard as a starving hen in a concrete barnyard.

Still, it takes more than just desperate looking through old material to make a smash of an eight-year-old song. You can keep rummaging around until you find a song you like, but you can't predict whether it'll hit or not. Sometimes it's a new twist that boosts one of those songs up into the million sales class. Sixteen Tons was written eight years before I recorded it, too. I'd sung Sixteen Tons years before [on radio], but it hadn't been any blockbuster, and Merle Travis, who'd written it, had put it in an album of his songs called Folk Songs of the Hills. Nothing happened then either. Then we decided to do some of Merle's things with modern instrumentation [on television]. When Merle did them, he'd used a straight guitar music background. When we did them we used a flute, a bass clarinet, a trumpet, a clarinet, drums, a guitar, vibes and a piano. They gave it a real wonderful sound.

"But what gave Sixteen Tons its hammerlike rhythm?'' [Martin] asked, "It sounded like a chain gang pounding on a hard-top road.''

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.''

They liked Sixteen Tons, all right, at Capitol, when I brought it over and suggested that they record it, but nobody threw a fit over it. Nobody said, "We're glad you brought this along because it's sure to sell a million copies in twenty-one days.'' Thcy didn't say that because anybody in his right mind knew that wouldn't happen. Yet that's exactly what did happen.

Tennessee Ernie Ford interview by Pete Martin, Saturday Evening Post, CCXXX (Sep 28, 1957), 124; reprinted in Archie Green, Only a Miner, Urbana, IL, 1972, pp. 301-302.

Merle Travis' song (original recording: Capitol Studios, Hollywood, CA, Aug 8, 1946, released as Capitol 48001, 1947), according to Archie Greeen (who obtained this info through conversations with Merle Travis in 1960), is derived from the following "sources":
Lee Gillette [who later also produced Tennessee Ernie Ford's hit version] and Cliffie Stone had been prodding Merle to write coal songs. During the war his brother John had written him a letter containing the cliché "another day older and deeper in debt."...

The Saint Peter fragment came from Merle's memory of his father's ironic reply to a friendly query about his health: "I can't afford to die, I owe my soul to the company store."

The "strong back and weak mind" quip belonged to the proverbial speech of all miners.....

Archie Green, Only a Miner, Urbana, IL, 1972, p. 309.

A Capitol Electrical Transcription (Capitol G-109), recording date unknown, was recorded (for radio station use) around the same time (exact recording date unknown).

First printing of the song: Sing Out, III (Nov 1952), uncredited to Merle Travis, with the following description:

This traditional miner's song speaks a sharp language -- with a real worker's imagery in its poetry.

Tennessee Ernie Ford's hit version was recorded at Capitol Studios, Hollywood, CA, on Sep 21, 1955. It steadily climbed the charts from No. 40 (Oct 15, 1955) to No. 1 (Nov 26, 1955). On Dec 3, 1955, Billboard reported that the song had "already passed the 1,000,000 disc sales mark."

In the 1960s, Kentucky ex-coalminer George Davis, when recorded by John Cohen for Folkways, claimed to have written "Sixteen Tons" in the 1930s.

Lyrics as recorded by Merle Travis, Capitol Studios, Hollywood, CA, Aug 8, 1946, released as Capitol 48001, 1947; reprinted in Green, p. 295; ALTERNATE LYRICS (in indented italics) from Electrical Transcription Capitol G-109 (unknown date), reprinted in Green, p. 297.

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

(SPOKEN) 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 a-workin' fer that he goes on fer 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 scrip -- 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. (CHUCKLE) That sounds pretty bad, but even that's got a brighter side to it.

Down in southwest Kentucky where I was born and raised up, they have a little sayin' around the coal mines that they get so far in debt that they owe their soul to the company store. That's almost a fact because a lot of boys works [sic] for years and never really sees [sic] any United States money -- it's all coal miner's money they call flickers or scrip. Here's a little song about sixteen tons and you'll notice that the line in there says he owes his soul to the company store.
Now, some people say a man's made out of mud,
But 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.


Well, I was born one mornin' when the sun didn't shine.
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mines.
I loaded sixteen tons of Number Nine coal,
And the straw-boss hollered, "Well, bless my soul.''


Well, I was born one mornin', it was drizzlin' rain.
Fightin' and trouble is my middle name.
I was raised in the bottoms by a mama hound.
I'm mean as a dog, but I'm as gentle as a lamb.

I was raised in a cane-brake by a big mama lion
Cain't no high tone woman break this heart of mine.
WeIl, if you see me a-comin' you better step aside.
A lotta men didn't and a lotta men died.
I got a fist of iron, and a fist of steel.
If the right one don't get you, then the left one will.



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