Thursday, May 18, 2017

Is this classic song the REAL National Anthem of American Workers?

"Sixteen Tons" tells an old story----The arduous plight of the exploited manual laborer, or "Company Worker", with no Labor Union or leverage to balance the power of their rapacious employers.

VIDEO (Tennessee Ernie Ford version): 

 VIDEO (Johnny Cash version):

                                               Merle Travis, the writer of "Sixteen Tons"

Written by Merle Travis

Some people say a man is made out of mud
A poor man's made out of muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that's weak and a back that's strong

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
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, and 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
Raised in the Canebrake by an old mama lion
Ain't no a high-toned woman make me walk the line

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
I owe my soul to the company store

If you see me comin', better step aside
A lot of men didn't, and a lot of men died
With one fist of iron, and the other of steel
If the right one don't get you then the left one will

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
I owe my soul to the company store

----Sixteen Tons Lyrics | MetroLyrics----

"Sixteen Tons" is possibly the best song ever written 
about the exploitation-oppression by distant, unreachable, wealthy 
corporate ownership, and the rough plight of the worker 
under an exploitive capitalist-corporate system. 

The song is not a self-conscious, academic/didactic work, 
but a huge, "evergreen" hit on the popular charts -- its original recorded version holding the #1 spot for months, and since performed 
by countless artists down though the years.

Right from the start, the song clearly resonated with Americans, and
with people all around the world. It is a classic by any standard.

This simple song's relevance is timeless, and it stands up 
beautifully to any detailed analysis.

Written by Merle Travis, "Sixteen Tons" is based on the life of coal-miners living in a rural area "company town".

The ownership looks for workers, with "A mind that's weak 
and a back that's strong", who will work a hard, dangerous job,
to produce wealth for them, while not having the will, 
or depth of understanding, to know much about, or question 
the system that exploits them.

The worker in the song has produced, with his strength and effort, 
in a dirty, scary, risk-filled environment, for his employers,
the wealth of "sixteen tons" of coal, which will presumably 
be sold for far more profit than the miner's meagre wages.

Certainly, the employers are pleased with the production ("boss 
said 'Well, a-bless my soul'").

But Ownership has all the leverage, and can pay what it wants, and impose other extractive policies as well. 

This worker's wages are not sufficient to keep him out of serious debt.

The debt is so large for this hard-working man, that it seems 
it could even extend to the afterlife ("Saint Peter don't you call me...").

However, although this working man makes this single reference to a traditional Christian image, he rejects the more poetic/mystical vision of the world (man "made out of mud"). He sees the world as a very material place, where life is brutish, and for some, short ("Poor man's made out of muscle and blood"). And the load he carries is more than 
just his arduous labor, for relatively low pay.

This is a physically-powerful and productive, but simple man.

The worker's debts are magnified further by the fact that he is 
forced to buy essential goods and supplies from the same 
people who employ him, and at presumably very high 
(i.e. gouging) prices, that clearly eat-up the miner's 
small paycheck before he has even paid all his bills.

This hard, risk-filled work in the mine has made the miner 
physically strong and very tough. Due to the routine perils of 
his workplace, he is accustomed to danger.

Also, he was born into hardship, and raised to be strong and tough by others (mother) who had rough lives as well.

As a result, he also has a tendency to become angry and fight, 
perhaps more often than necessary ("Fightin' and trouble 
are my middle name"), and it is apparent he has a tendency to 
express his dissatisfaction with his life--not against his exploitive employers, but against other people on a similar societal level as himselfwhom he can directly challenge in a physical fight.

If he challenges his employers, he could lose his job, or worse, 
so that is not even considered an option. He may never even have 
met the mine-owners, who presumably live far away.

He has much strength and ability to fight ("With one fist of iron...the left one will), maximized by his hard labor, but will probably 
never fight anyone who is not in a peer situation. 

As it is, he tends to fight, often devastatingly ("a lot of men died") over issues such as not being respected ("step aside")
by a relative peer who likely suffers from the same exploitation.

Ownership seems utterly safe and distant from his feelings of aggression/frustration, as well as his ability to fight and defeat others.

This man will eventually wear-out and be replaced by another, 
similar person, though younger and "fresher", like a used or worn-out part in a big machine is replaced with a new one.

And another person will then become the subject of the song, as a 
"new" cog in the big mechanism that grinds away the lives of some, while enriching, distant, unseen others.

To ponder: 
In an age dominated by corporate-Capitalism,
is "Sixteen Tons" actually the story of the TYPICAL 
American worker now, working hard for long hours and low-pay
to produce wealth for others, while the workers themselves 
stay poor, powerless and constantly owing money?

Maybe it should be our new American National Anthem?

It would seem apt, given the nature of the lives of many millions, 
and still-increasing numbers of Americans these days, 
stuck in low-wage jobs and crushed by varied forms of debt.

The gritty, timeless reality of "Sixteen Tons" beats the 
awkward, superficial, war-glorifying "Star-Spangled Banner" 
by a country mile, in the opinion of this writer.

Make that a "coal-country" mile.


Recent coal-mine disaster:
'Dear murderer': With a letter a day, West Virginian tried to remind coal executive of his role in 29 deaths

                     Dr. RD Wolff:  How the system has always worked ...

America, Land of Low Pay -- The Numbers Will Surprise You

The United States Leads in Low-Wage Work and the Lowest Wages for Low-Wage Workers

Overworked America: 12 Charts That Will Make Your Blood Boil

                                        (sample chart)

Low Wage Workers: “We Can’t Breathe”

                                   Great Book:
NICKEL and DIMED, By Barbara Ehrenreich


Regarding  debt  that leaves you "owing your soul to the company store" ...

A 21st-Century Form of Indentured Servitude Has Already Penetrated Deep into the American Heartland

WIKIPEDIA--"Sixteen Tons"

       Are companies like McDonald's, Amazon 
         and Walmart the new coal-mines?

                      (This post was inspired by the work of Dr. R D Wolff)


1 comment:

  1. But let's face it, folks.

    Following the pattern of American culture, the coal-miner in the song is fairly likely to be a Trump-voter.

    The Left has a lot of work to do.