Sunday, November 23, 2008

"Sixteen Tons" - Merle Travis, 1946 (country)

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"

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

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

"Sixteen Tons" by Merle Travis is a song for the working man in one of the world's most deadly and miserable, but necessary, occupations: coal mining.

Anyone's who's family has ever worked in the mid-20th century mining industry can attest to the difficulty of such work. It wasn't just that the hours were long. It wasn't that the working conditions were unsafe. It wasn't that the work was back breaking and thankless. Probably the single greatest complaint from the coal miners was their earnings. There isn't a coal mining or coal-mining-reminiscent song around that doesn't mention the mean wages given for such a hefty work performance. What's more, they all describe the meager lifestyle of the workers and their families. In this song, Travis sings,

"You load sixteen tons what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt..."

This line is allegedly one that Travis' father (a coalminer, himself) used to say quite frequently. Coal mining didn't pay much. In fact, it paid so little that though one went to work, his wages were barely enough to cover his expenses. let alone any new debt he incurred or old debt that he fell behind on. If you didn't work, you didn't get paid, so there was no such thing as a sick day, personal day, or vacation. This normally would seem to not be a problem; however, considering the unhealthy working conditions (mild to severe) if you were a miner, you worked through the pain no matter what.

Many hazards assailed mine workers. Sometimes even the miners' own fatigue was to blame. Since OSHA didn't exist yet to govern the operations, very few precautions were taken around equipment, machinery, or electricity. There were many equipment and equipment related accidents, not to mention that the earth, itself, had some surprises. Mine shafts and roofs collapsed. The threat of suffocation from lack of oxygen far below the surface was real as was gas poisoning from undectable noxious subterranean fumes. The gas, however, was not always silent and deadly; sometimes it made quite an explosion. It also wasn't uncommon for a person to walk into a mine perfectly fine but walk out missing a limb or paralyzed.

External dangers weren't the only hazards that threatened the lives and limbs of the workers. Besides the usual back, joint, and muscle complaints, biological disorders also arose. Skin disorders in the form of many types of dermatitis from bacteria plagued workers' bodies, including feet, because of the serious lack of ventilation. Of course, pneumoconiosis (black lung disease) was fairly common and actually lead to a reduced life expectancy for the infected miner.

If you thought low wages and long hours for back breaking work was bad, wait until you hear how low, exactly, those wages were.

St. Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go.
I owe my soul to the company store.

This line is a reference to the payment system often used by early mining companies. Workers were not paid a regular wage with a regular check or cash handout. In fact, may of them weren't even paid with anything that was even considered valuable! Owing one's soul to the company store refers to the truck system and debt bondage.

In the truck system, employees are paid in commodities rather than actual money. This severely limits their ability to choose how their wages are to be spent. A common element was for miners to be paid with what was called a "scrip", which was merely an unexchangeable credit voucher for the company store. At the company-run store is where workers and families of workers had to purchase their various necessities. This form of exploitation became a routine business practice in the 18th and 19th centuries as industrialization left many without a means to support themselves and their families. Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the truck system was that it, by its very operation, made it impossible for workers to have any cash savings.

Many workers and their families incurred more debt to the company than their weekly truck wages could cover. Families and workers often lived in company-run dormitories or apartment buildings. Rent (and heat) was deducted from the miner's wages as if he was being paid in cash. The mining companies, themselves, were highly entrapreneurial. The cost of living was exaggerated so as to turn a profit, which left less voucher funds for the purchase of drug and sundry goods at the company store. Of course, even the prices of those consumables from the company store were highly inflated. However, since the miners didn't actually receive cash for their labor, what the voucher didn't cover could be bought on credit. The miner would owe the company more labor service to pay for his credit line. This became a viscious downward spiral. Miners were rarely paid enough to make ends meet, let alone enough to make ends meet and cover a credit line. It was a hole they could never dig themselves out of. Debtors and their families were bound to a life of servitude until the debt was paid.

In short, it took a special person to work in the filth and misery of historical mines. It was dirty. It was intense work. The days were always long and the mines were always dark. One had to possess physical resilience and muscular strength to even put up with the working conditions. Stories are even told of miners who have returned home from a day in the shaft, sat on their front porch, and fallen asleep for the night without even changing their clothes or cleaning up. Miners were a tough and salty sort. They had to be just to survive.

Luckily today, mining in modern countries has changed dramatically. There are extensive work condition rules that require compliance by law, and the overall external and biological dangers have been brought to a minimum, thanks to modern technology. While the work is still hard, labor regulations are also in place to protect workers. But perhaps most importantly, the truck system and debt bondage system have been views by modern civilizations as utterly unacceptable and is now illegal (although, sadly, it is still implemented in places).

"Sixteen Tons" - Merle Travis, 1946 (folk)
This recording is the later, chart-topping version sung by 'Tennessee' Ernie Ford, 1955

~tons of information mined from lots of places around the internet

1 comment:

Dave said...

I wrote a comment earlier to the Billy Joel - 'Allentown' entry regarding my opinion that unions were partly to blame for the closing of Bethlehem Steel but was careful to state I was highly in favor of what early unions did to fight what I termed "economic slavery". Now I read this post to find it's exactly about that very subject.

Brings to mind "I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night" - but that's another song.