Labor Day: Steyn on 16 Tons — UPDATED

If Mark Steyn were not such a brilliant social analyst (here’s my take on his latest book, After America) then I would wish him to be recognized as the pre-eminent scholar and appreciator of the American Songbook. As much as I value his political stuff, I love when Steyn writes about the arts, and most particularly when he writes about music, where he is knowledgeable, funny and infectiously enthusiastic.

For Labor Day, Steyn gives us two songs about labor, “Ol’ Man River” and “16 Tons,” but mostly the story behind the latter, and Tennessee Ernie Ford’s perfect little recording:

[Songwriter Merle] Travis had a facility for big memorable hooks, and so, asked to hustle up a handful of folk songs overnight, he figured why not? He said he remembered a letter his brother had sent him during the war, about the death of the great reporter Ernie Pyle in the Pacific. In the course of his musings, John Travis had sighed, “It’s like working in the coal mines… Another day older and deeper in debt.” Merle recalled, too, his father’s weary fatalistic shrug when asked how things were going: “I can’t afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store.”

Put those two lines together and you’ve got half the song:

You load Sixteen Tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
St Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store…

Travis was off and running:

Some people say a man is made out of mud
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…

And that line came from his childhood, too: the rueful acknowledgment of any one of a thousand long-suffering miners that he had a strong back but a weak mind.

[. . .] Ford’s record career had suffered from lack of attention. In September that year, Capitol sent him a formal letter warning him of a breach of contract suit unless he cut two sides for an instant single. So he hurried into the studio and did a lively country blues for the A side, “You Don’t Have To Be A Baby To Cry”, and, more or less as a filler, offered “Sixteen Tons” for the B side. Who knows what makes a hit? To set the tempo for his six-piece band, Ford, as he often did, began snapping his fingers. The producer Lee Gillette buzzed through from the control room: “Leave that in.” So they did. And maybe it was the finger-snaps or Ford’s voice or the plaintive instrumental echo of the final line after every chorus, or maybe it was the combination. But, for whatever reason, it’s one of those occasions where the record transforms the song; an ordinary pseudo-folk verse-and-chorus number had been enlarged into something big, bold and emblematic:

I was born one mornin’ it was drizzlin’ rain
Fightin’ an’ trouble are my middle name
I was raised in a cane-brake by an old mama lion
Can’t no high-toned woman make me walk no line…

Steyn’s book, A Song for the Season is already on my Christmas wish-list.

Do yourself a favor, get a nice cup of coffee or your prefered beverage and read the whole thing. And check out Ford singing it, here, with that great minimalist arrangement.

And then enjoy this much more involved piece

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From the Bishops: The Present Economy and the Dignity of Work

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Mary

    Thank you for a great Labor Day post!

  • Greta

    I will keep this short and sweet. In keeping with their call for shared sacrifice, I think every bishop should now insist that every Catholic Institution of any type from local parish schools to high schools and universities as well as hospitals should pay equal wages and benefits to all those employed. If there is a local parish school, the teachers should have a union called in to represent them and insure the employees have equal compensation to the local public sector employees. I would also hope that the policies in place for employees do nothing to take away their rights as detailed by this union which I would think would end things like finger printing to deal with the sex abuse by priests and cover up by bishops. And if they want to fire them, do so by union rules which would protect the employees seniority and rights.

    Oh you say that this would force closure of all the Catholic schools?? Well, you call for shared sacrifices and to me those writing this kind of letter should lead the way. After all, the same things they are supporting like open borders and no cuts in government spending for any of the social justice programs will just about bankrupt everyone who now employees people so they should be joined by those now working in Catholic institutions in the unemployment line. Of course the workers in those schools are most often not eligible for unemployment that is supported by the Catholic school.

    I find this offensive and have sent a letter to my local bishop as well as to the USCCB to let them know what I think of their hypocracy in this matter. Social justice does not require suicide on the part of the country or employers which no cuts in spending and open borders is rapidly forcing on all of us.

  • tad

    Why are bishops closing parishes? Where’s the shared sacrifice in having priests do more work?

  • Doc

    The great Iowahawk’s parody of 16 Tons must be shared:

  • Diane Korzeniewski

    Al Kresta interviewed Mark Steyn today. The audio is already uploaded.

    Here is the text explaining what they were discussing (Sept 6, 2011 – First Hour):

    Second Topic – After America: Get Ready for Armageddon

    In his giant New York Times bestseller, America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It, Mark Steyn predicted collapse for the rest of the Western World. Now, he adds, America has caught up with Europe on the great rush to self-destruction. It’s not just our looming financial collapse; it’s not just a culture that seems on a fast track to perdition, full of hapless, indulgent, childish people who think government has the answer for every problem; it’s not just America’s potential eclipse as a world power because of the drunken sailor policymaking in Washington-no, it’s all this and more that spells one word for America: Armageddon. He makes his case.

    Here is the audio link. It may start playing as soon as you get there, otherwise, just click the play button.

  • The Egyptian

    Gee Greta did some one pee in you cereal this morning

  • Doc

    Well, that’s a nasty thought, Egyptian. Greta is entirely right to be disappointed with this letter from our bishops. The Church leadership either fails to realize that the sole purpose of unions these days is to elect Democrats, or they are not bothered by that fact. I hope they are simply ignorant of the many thuggish acts the unions have committed against Tea Partiers and Republicans in the last couple of years. I hope this is a case of bishops being misinformed. If I am wrong and they are fully aware of the behavior and statements of union leadership and members, then I’m not sure how seriously one can treat these same bishops’ opposition to abortion, which is one of the few things over which Democrats and unions will go to the mat and on which they will refuse to bend.