Political Songs | Power from plight

Sixteen Tons publicised the plight of mineworkers. It also caught the attention of the CIA, topped the charts and caused a public outcry when bastardised by General Electric.

Cold War securocrats in the United States had sharp noses for any whiff of subversion. A song that topped the charts in 1955 made them extremely uneasy when it was first released a few years earlier. Sixteen Tons is a song about worker exploitation written in the 1940s by country musician Merle Travis. It tells the story of a coal miner’s hard life and poverty, of how the American capitalist dream was actually a suffocating, impoverishing nightmare.

Travis used phrases in the song that he heard from his father and brother, who were miners. “I owe my soul to the company store” came from his dad. It refers to the exploitative system on the mines in which workers were paid in credit coupons rather than cash, which could only be exchanged for over priced goods at the mining company’s shop. 

Travis later recounted that his dad “never saw real money. He was constantly in debt to the coal company.”

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The song’s chorus derives directly from a letter Travis’s brother wrote to him: “You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.”

Sixteen Tons was included on Travis’s 1947 album, Folk Songs from the Hills. Instead of becoming a hit, the song attracted the attention of the deeply paranoid Cold Warriors of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The agency identified Travis as a “communist sympathiser” because of his pro-worker song and put pressure on radio stations not to playlist Sixteen Tons.

But in early 1955, the popular singer Tennessee Ernie Ford, whose grandfather and uncle worked on the mines, performed the song on television. He got an overwhelmingly positive response and recorded it as the B-side for a single. For some reason, radio DJs played Sixteen Tons instead of the A-side, Baby.

The response was phenomenal. Within 24 days of release, Capitol Records had sold 1 million copies. It became the label’s fastest-selling record ever, racing up to number one on the Billboard chart, where it remained for eight weeks.

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With its narrative nature and memorable, powerful lyrics, Sixteen Tons made the general public more aware of the plight of mineworkers:

I was born one morning 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 bless my soul!
You load sixteen tons, 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.

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In 2005, multinational conglomerate General Electric (GE) flighted a television ad in the US that was cynical and wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin. One could be forgiven for thinking it was a parody of advertising agencies.

It was a corporate ad focused on the brand and its reputation, rather than the products GE sells: washing machines, jet engines, nuclear weapon parts and light bulbs. The one-minute ad was intended to peddle GE’s image as a “green” company that provided clean coal. Yes, clean coal.

It gets worse.

The ad features a group of muscular male and sultry female underwear models pretending to be mineworkers working underground, complete with oiled-up muscles, hard hats, skimpy clothing, suggestive poses with mining tools, come-hither looks and all oozing what creepy ad agencies probably think constitutes sexiness. In fact, ad agency BBDO won an award or two for the production of the ad.

The worst was their choice of music: the Tennessee Ernie Ford version of Sixteen Tons plays over the “mining” visuals before fading to an enthusiastic voice intoning, “Thanks to emissions-reducing technology from GE energy harnessing, the power of coal is looking more beautiful every day.”

With their contemptuous, irony-free hijacking of the song, GE made a powerful, political song even more political.

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