Sixteen Tons -author Merle Travis, Sang by Tennesse Ernie Ford

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 .......

This song is representative of the Hocking Valley Coal Miners, and all miners for that matter. Miners were often paid monthly. At the end of the month, they owed the company for the company house they were living in, for groceries to feed their family, for any doctor bills, and for the tools they used in the mine. Miners had to buy what they needed from the company store. They were paid in scrip, not real money and this could only be spent at the company store. The company was able to charge the miners whatever they wished. Most miners with families were in debt to the company. When the miners did get paid at the end of the month, they had to pay their employers and if if there was any money left, it was certainly not enough to last . So it was a viscious cycle, and the next month, they again had to pay the company first and were fortunate if they had anything left for their families.


Postcard to Mrs. Annettie Nutter from her coal miner brother John Mitchell , March 6, 1888:

"Well brother and sister, I will inform you of my bad luck. I got my hand mashed December 1 and never worked until March 1. And on the first day of February my wife (Maggie Winchell) had a stroke of paralysis in her right side and she lays here yet helpless and can't talk. I tell you I playced in a bad fix but didn't know where to direct until Mr. Nutter's brother came to work on Jobs New Hopper and gave me the number. Bill and me work together at Job's mine. Bill's folks is all well. I guess Amos lives in Nelsonville. So goodbye and write soon. Yours respectfully John W. Mitchell, Brashears, Ohio Hocking county." (Postcard in possession of Nutter descendant 2001) John was the brother of William "Bill" Washington Mitchell of Murray City, Ohio.


For more information on the life of a miner, check out John Holt's diary

Holt's diary

More about Merle Travis:

"Minstrels of the Mine Field

Author: Mara Lou Hawse
Published on: April 9, 1999


Music has always played a large part in the lives of coal miners and their families. People closely connected to mining frequently expressed their joys and sorrows through song and verse. They used these means to celebrate their victories, commemorate their disasters, and mourn their losses. Other writers and composers who were not miners or related to miners often found themes for their works in the experiences of the miners.

Several talented performers and composers come to mind when I think about coal mining and music. Two famous musicians who sprung from coal mining roots were the brothers Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, whose father Thomas Dorsey, Sr. was an anthracite coal miner. Family legend claims that Thomas Sr. taught himself to play the coronet, and he eventually became so skillful that he traveled for awhile with a circus band. Later, after he married and settled down as a miner, he began to coach coal miners' bands, at one time working with as many as eight different groups. In 1902, during a strike, he took a miners' band to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and gave concerts there.

Two other musicians who come to mind are Merle Travis and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Travis, the son of a Kentucky coal miner, wrote the words and music to the old familiar song, "Sixteen Tons," and Ford, who hailed from Bristol, Tennessee, recorded the version that sent the song to the top of the charts.

In December 1955, the United Mine Workers Journal claimed that "Sixteen Tons" was the most popular song in America. Shortly after the song's debut, more than a million copies of Ford's recording and 110,000 copies of the sheet music were sold in three weeks, both new sales records.

Journal editors believed that the universal appeal of "Sixteen Tons" resulted from "the depth of feeling put into it by Travis." Travis, one of four children, never worked in the mines, but his two older brothers did for a time. His sister married a coal miner. Travis's father, William Robert "Rob" Travis was a coal miner who passed on to young Travis "a deep respect for the men of the pits and a great love for music. ['Sixteen Tons'] is the saga of every coal miner's family since the beginning of time."

In a letter to the United Mine Workers Journal, Travis tells of the role music played in his home as he grew up. Often in the summer, because there was little demand for coal, the mines wouldn't work. But when the whistle blew, "Dad would brighten up like a child anticipating a fishing trip . . . Maybe [he] would take the old five-string banjo from the nail on the wall and pick and sing. . . . Mother in the kitchen adding more coal to the stove [might remark], 'Rob Travis, ain't you never gonna quit singin' them silly ol' songs?"'

Travis also remembered the hard times - during the strikes, for instance, when hundreds of miners "would gather . . . and listen to the speeches. The promise of miners becoming united was music to the ears of the miners and their wives." Songs were composed and sung about that expectation.

Travis quit school and left home, with his guitar, to work in the entertainment world. He was successful, and about 1944 he composed several songs for an album that told of the mines and the miners. Those songs were collected in an album called Folk Songs of the Hills and included "Muskrat," "Nine Pound Hammer," "Dark as a Dungeon," "John Henry," "That's All," "Over by Number Nine," "I am a Pilgrim," and "Sixteen Tons." Alan Lomax, folk music authority and author, called Travis's album "authentic and refreshing."

In his 1955 letter, Travis said, "There's one thing I'm certain of. Things have changed. . . . A miner has the chance to provide his family with the things that were only a dream not long ago." A miner no longer has to explain to St. Peter that he owes his soul "to the company store."

Perhaps because conditions have changed so drastically for miners, the use of music to express what happens in their lives has dwindled over the years. Music is no longer a vehicle to express what writer Archie Green once described as the American coal mining life and miners' values."

article excerpt from:

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