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