You move sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older, and deeper in debt.


For one man to physically carry sixteen tons of coal out of a coal mine in a day requires not only exceptional physical strength, but a single-minded work ethic. Sixteen tons. Thirty-two thousand pounds. One-hundred-and-sixty individual episodes of carving a two-hundred pound block of coal out of the wall of a tunnel deep enough underground to stack an average city skyscraper, and then lugging that block up to the surface of the world -- ten times every hour for sixteen straight hours.

The song, "Sixteen Tons," communicates the essence of this life, the plight of the American coal miner. Country crooner Merle Travis recorded the song in 1946, the resonating timbre of his voice embedding in it the tales told him by his coal miner father, from whom the line -- "Another day older, and deeper in debt" -- is claimed to have come. Perhaps the most poignant lyric of the song is one which famously takes the measure of man:

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.


Another line in the song -- "I owe my soul to the company store" -- alludes to the invidious system whereby workers were required to live in company housing (to which rent was owed) and buy goods, including their own mining equipment, from the company store (often on credit extended in advance) -- but could never quite collect wages enough to pay the debt thereafter owed to the company. The conditions were in many instances akin to slavery, because contracts bound the worker to the land, prohibiting him from leaving without company permission while the debt remained pending (as it always did), with company 'security men' standing by to prevent the workers from fleeing the job. This system often led to violence, and it was ultimately violence which overcame it. One might imagine striking workers marching outside the mines with placards, but the real scene was more often one of pitched battles between striking men and company security men, with every underhanded tactic in the book vigorously pressed by both sides.

Naturally, the sort of work which once engendered such strife is modernly accomplished largely by machinery. Oh, men still mine, and in poor and unhealthful conditions, but only in places where it is obnoxious to use machinery, and those places are dwindling. And with the advent of modern technology, hauling sixteen tons in a single day is no longer so impressive of a feat.

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