Friday, February 27, 2015

Friday Tunes: Sixteen Tons

This week's installment of labour themes in popular culture is Tennesse Ernie Ford's 1955 version of Sixteen Tons. It's a song about coal mining, but the themes it tackles will be familiar to contemporary workers.

The songs starts out discussing the lack of choice that many workers have in their employment ("A mind that's a-weak and a back that's strong"), contrary to the personal choice narrative popular among neoliberal boosters.

It then talks about the cycle of poverty and debt, with the miner owing his soul to the company store and lamenting "You load sixteen tons, what do you get/Another day older and deeper in debt". The result is a spiral of despair and violence. Really, throw in a set of truck nutz and it could be about Alberta today.

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


-- Bob Barnetson

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