but it's a lot older than that. the song was published in 1924 - music written by a guy called joseph lacalle (different guys wrote the spanish, italian, english, etc, lyrics) - and recorded for the first time in 1939 for a deanna durbin vehicle called, first love:
So horrific are the images conjured up by 'Strange Fruit' that Billie Holiday always performed it with her eyes closed. Caryl Phillips, who used the title for his first play, traces the song's dark history
Saturday August 18, 2007 The Guardian
Poetry in motion ... Billie Holiday. Photograph: Gjon Mili/Getty
In late 1979, I finished writing my first stage play, but long before I put the final full stop in place, I had decided that I was going to call it Strange Fruit. The drama concerns the relationship between a single mother and her two rebellious sons, both of whom are in danger of "going off the rails". The mother is understandably worried, and she begins to question the nature of her relationship with her children. I took the title of the play from the Billie Holiday song of the same name, but at the time I knew very little about the full history of "Strange Fruit". I understood that the name of the song made reference to racially motivated American violence, but "Strange Fruit" also seemed to me to be evocative of the puzzling situation that many parents unwittingly find themselves in with their children and, this being the case, it seemed to me to be an apt title.
The play premiered at the Sheffield Crucible Studio Theatre in October 1980, and a year or so later it was produced in London. I don't remember doing any press interviews, so no journalist ever asked me what I intended by the name of the play. Perhaps more surprisingly, neither the director nor any of the actors ever questioned me about the significance of the title. Accordingly, I just assumed that everybody understood that the play's title made reference to the dilemma of intergenerational communication, and, this being the case, I was perfectly content.
Two years later, in early 1983, I was in Alabama, being driven the 130 miles from Birmingham to Tuskegee by the father of one of the four girls who had been killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963. Chris McNair is a gregarious and charismatic man who, at the time, was running for political office; he was scheduled to make a speech at the famous all-black college, Tuskegee Institute. That morning, as he was driving through the Alabama countryside, he took the opportunity to quiz me about my life and nascent career as a writer. He asked me if I had published any books yet, and I said no. But I quickly corrected myself and sheepishly admitted that my first play had just been published. When I told him the title he turned and stared at me, then he looked back to the road. "So what do you know about lynching?" I swallowed deeply and looked through the car windshield as the southern trees flashed by. I knew full well that "Strange Fruit" meant something very different in the US; in fact, something disturbingly specific in the south, particularly to African Americans. A pleasant, free-flowing conversation with my host now appeared to be shipwrecked on the rocks of cultural appropriation.
I had always assumed that Billie Holiday composed the music and lyrics to "Strange Fruit". She did not. The song began life as a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a schoolteacher who was living in the Bronx and teaching English at the De Witt Clinton High School, where his students would have included the Academy award-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, the playwright Neil Simon, and the novelist and essayist James Baldwin. Meeropol was a trade union activist and a closet member of the Communist Party; his poem was first published in January 1937 as "Bitter Fruit", in a union magazine called the New York School Teacher. In common with many Jewish people in the US during this period, Meeropol was worried (with reason) about anti-semitism and chose to publish his poem under the pseudonym "Lewis Allan", the first names of his two stillborn children.
Meeropol was motivated to write the poem after seeing a photograph of two black teenagers, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, who had been lynched in Marion, Indiana on August 7 1930. Their bodies were hanging limply from a tree. The image greatly disturbed him, and his poem opens with the following lines:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Hoping to reach a wider audience, Meeropol set his poem to music, and the song "Strange Fruit" was first performed at a New York City Teachers Union meeting. It created an immediate stir. Meeropol sang it himself, but as "Strange Fruit" grew in popularity, his wife began to perform the song.
According to figures kept by Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, between 1889 and 1940, 3,833 people were lynched in the US - the overwhelming majority of the victims being in the southern states, and black. The brutality of this mob "justice" invariably went unpunished, and when Meeropol was asked, in 1971, why he wrote the song, he replied: "Because I hate lynching and I hate injustice and I hate the people who perpetuate it." Those who heard "Strange Fruit" in the late 30s were shocked, for the true barbarity of southern violence was generally only discussed in black newspapers. To be introduced to such realities by a song was unprecedented, and was considered by many, including leftwing supporters of Meeropol, to be in poor taste.
At this time, 24-year-old Billie Holiday was headlining at a recently opened Greenwich Village nightclub called Cafe Society. It was the only integrated nightclub in New York City, and a place that advertised itself as "the wrong place for the Right people". The manager of the club, Barney Josephson, introduced Billie Holiday to Meeropol and his new song, which had an immediate impact on her. She decided to sing it at Cafe Society, where it was received with perfect, haunting silence. Soon she was closing her shows with the song. It was understood that only when the waiters had stopped serving, and the lights dimmed to a single spotlight, would she begin singing, with her eyes closed. Once she had finished, she would walk off stage and never return to take a bow.
The song was revolutionary - not only because of the explicit nature of the lyrics, but because it effectively reversed the black singer's relationship with a white audience. Traditionally, singers such as Billie Holiday were expected to entertain and to "serve" their audiences. With this song, however, Holiday found a means by which she could demand that the audience stop and listen to her, and she was able to force them to take on board something with which they were not comfortable. She often used the song as a hammer with which to beat what she perceived to be ignorant audiences, and her insistence on singing the song with such gravitas meant that she was not always safe while performing "Strange Fruit". Some members of her audience did not fully appreciate her treating them to this particular song when they had stepped out for the evening to hear "Fine and Mellow" and other cocktail-lounge ditties.
Holiday was keen to record "Strange Fruit" on her label, Columbia, but her producer, John Hammond, was concerned that the song was too political and he refused to allow her to go into the studio with it. But the singer would not back down. In April 1939, she recorded "Strange Fruit" for a specialty label, Commodore Records. It became a bestseller and was thereafter forever associated with her.
When Josephson introduced her to Meeropol and his song, Holiday knew that she could sing this song like nobody else could, or would, ever sing it. She glimpsed truth in the song and that was enough. She, perhaps more than most artists, understood that if you live the truth, then you will pay a price, but without the truth there is no art. Whenever she performed the song, she could see the two teenagers, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, hanging from the tree - which is, of course, why she closed her eyes whenever she sang it.
Five years later, a southern writer published a novel called Strange Fruit. Lillian Smith was born in 1897 in Florida, the eighth of 10 children. Hers was a relatively comfortable, white, middle-class background, and her childhood was divided between Florida and a summerhouse in the mountains of Georgia, where her father ran a camp for girls called Laurel Falls. As a young woman, Smith travelled to Baltimore to study music, and she then spent a few years teaching in China. In 1925, she returned to the US and became principal of the Laurel Falls Camp, placing a great emphasis on the arts in the curriculum, and on music and drama in particular. In 1936, having grown increasingly aware of southern injustice and oppression, Smith founded a literary magazine, Pseudopodia, which the following year changed its name to the North Georgia Review, and in 1942 became South Today. Smith published writing by blacks and whites that agitated for social change in the south, and her politically progressive magazine quickly gained notoriety.
In 1944, she published Strange Fruit, which told the story of an interracial relationship in the south before the first world war. The narrative charts the mounting violence that eventually overtakes the relationship, and it thematically examines the same issues that inform Meeropol's lyrics. Despite being banned by many book stores, the novel was the nation's bestselling title in 1944 and sold over 1m copies. It was adapted for the Broadway stage, and by the time of Smith's death in 1966, it had sold 3m copies.
In the year of her death, while being honoured by the all-black Fisk University in Tennessee, Smith succinctly identified the enemy against which she had worked as both a teacher and a southern writer. "Segregation is evil," she declared. "There is no pattern of life which can dehumanise men as can the way of segregation." And segregation's natural corollary is, of course, violence.
On that hot southern morning, as Chris McNair drove us through the Alabama countryside, I knew little about the background to the Billie Holiday song, and I had never heard of Lillian Smith. After a few minutes of silence, McNair began to talk to me about the history of violence against African-American people in the southern states, particularly during the era of segregation. This was a painful conversation for a man who had lost his daughter to a Ku Klux Klan bomb. I had, by then, confessed to him that my play had nothing to do with the US, with African Americans, with racial violence, or even with Billie Holiday. And, being a generous man, he had nodded patiently, and then addressed himself to my education on these matters. However, I did have some knowledge of the realities of the south - not only from my reading, but from an incident a week earlier. While I was staying at a hotel in Atlanta, a young waiter had warned me against venturing out after dark because the Klan would be rallying on Stone Mountain that evening, and after their gathering they often came downtown for some "fun". However, as the Alabama countryside continued to flash by, I understood that this was not the time to do anything other than listen to McNair.
That afternoon, in a packed hall in Tuskegee Institute, McNair began what sounded to me like a typical campaign speech. He was preaching to the converted, and a light shower of applause began to punctuate his words as he hit his oratorical stride. But then he stopped abruptly, and he announced that today, for the first time, he was going to talk about his daughter. "I don't know why, because I've never done this before. But Denise is on my mind." He studiously avoided making eye contact with me, but, seated in the front row, I felt uneasily guilty. A hush fell over the audience. "You all know who my daughter is. Denise McNair. Today she would have been 31 years old." Indeed, strange fruit.
this is an article from jewish chronicle online. the jewish chronicle is the the north london jewish newspaper. sometimes you get a better article in a paper like this than in a national or purely music paper. they're looking for human interest rather than just repeating all the old cliches.
bolan had the rock & roll inside him even when he was doing his hippy folk stuff. check out this song from the first tyrannosaurus rex album:
Bolan, the star who made pop music fun 07/09/2007 By Paul Lester
On September 16, it will be 30 years since Marc Bolan, one of the greatest pop stars this country has ever produced, died in a car crash. The speeding purple Mini, driven by his partner Gloria Jones as they headed home from a drinking club in Berkeley Square, struck a tree after spinning out of control in Barnes, South-West London. He was two weeks away from his 30th birthday.
It was also one month to the day after Elvis Presley died. It could be argued that Bolan, born Mark Feld on September 30, 1947, the son of a Jewish van-driver, was, in terms of talent, fame and influence, the British Presley. Given the furious activity around the anniversary of his death — TV documentaries including ITV1’s Marc Bolan: 20th Century Boy, album releases — he seems to loom as large in the culture today as Elvis.
In that period between the demise of The Beatles and punk, Bolan, along with David Bowie and Roxy Music, was it. With his band T.Rex and hits such as 20th Century Boy, Metal Guru and Get It On, he ushered in the glam era and made the succinct three-minute pop single hip again. Small yet perfectly formed, with his corkscrew curls, satin trousers and eye glitter, he provided an androgynous alternative to all the burly, bearded geezers in jeans and flannel shirts then filling the charts.
“He was quite beautiful,” says Bolan’s old friend Cilla Black. “Girls would die for that pre-Raphaelite hair. And then those eyes — God, I would kill for those eyes. He was just extraordinary.”
But it was not just giddy females who fell under Bolan’s sway, nor was his impact — “T.Rextasy”, they called it, the most feverish response from a pop audience since Beatlemania — purely the result of his looks. Musicians seeking to ally an instantly memorable pop hook to a rock aesthetic — step forward the likes of Morrissey and Noel Gallagher — have been plundering his catalogue for decades.
“I rate Marc as a prolific writer,” says Gloria Jones, who enjoyed success as a singer herself with the original version of Northern Soul classic Tainted Love. “I rate him as a self-taught musician. And now in 2007 I can hear his riffs and his sounds everywhere, and I rate him as a genius.”
“Marc put the fun back into music,” decides Tony Visconti, producer of 160 Bolan tracks. “He showed people how to write simple groove- and riff-based songs with great lyrics. His legacy is everywhere; there’s a bit of T.Rex in every band.”
Bolan’s rise was slow but sure, and founded on talent with a highly original vision. His upbringing, first in post-war Hackney in North-East London and later in Wimbledon in the South-West, was resolutely working-class, but settled and happy.
“We had such a good life — there were no bad times,” Bolan’s brother, Harry Feld, says. “Our family was poor, but our mum and dad grafted to give us what they could afford. It’s just not true to say you need to suffer to be famous.”
According to his brother, Bolan knew from a very early age what he wanted to do with his life. “From nine onwards his idea was to be a pop star,” says Feld. “That was his one ambition, and he wouldn’t be put off; he’d just bounce back till he got there.”
Bolan was given his first guitar for his ninth birthday and formed a skiffle group soon after. His infatuation with the early rock’n’rollers — Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry, Billy Fury — meant that school had to take a back seat.
“He wasn’t interested in studying,” recalls Feld, although he denies his younger brother, with whom he used to share a bedroom, was expelled. “His mind used to go its own way. When he turned 15 — bang! He was out of there. Marc’s careers officer asked him what he wanted to be, and he said ‘a poet’.”
After a stab at modelling and a flirtation with mod-rock in a band called John’s Children, those “great things” started happening in 1967, when Bolan and John’s Children drummer Steve Peregrin Took created Tyrannosaurus Rex, a psychedelic folk duo. With Took’s percussive skills and Bolan’s flowery melodies,
JRR Tolkien-influenced lyrics and distinctive quavery voice, they soon became the darlings of London’s countercultural elite. But the mercurial Bolan had already set his sights above the hippie underground and in 1970 the band’s name was shortened to T.Rex to coincide with an increase to four members and shift from acoustic whimsy to sharp, electrified rock ’n’ roll.
“He reinvented himself, basically,” says his best friend from childhood, Jeff Dexter. “He turned himself into his own little extraterrestrial, mythical character.”
Number-one records, critical acclaim and the kind of fandemonium not witnessed since the heyday of The Beatles followed. “Of course, when you have that kind of adulation, it’s wonderful,” says Dexter. “But it’s also a bit dangerous, every day of your life, to have people following you and pulling out bits of your hair. He suddenly appeared on Top of the Pops as this beautiful figure, an incredible-looking man. That’s when it started to change: rather than serious musos coming to listen to Marc’s poetry, there were young girls screaming and fainting.”
For Harry Feld, this was the ultimate realisation of Bolan’s teenage ambitions. “Seeing him on Top Of The Pops wasn’t strange,” he says. “It gave me a lovely, warm, proud feeling because I knew he’d got what he wanted.”
For Tony Visconti, Bolan’s ascent had its downside as he became “the small, beautiful control freak. It took about a year to become corrupted. Life got a little sleazier; cocaine started to appear. I don’t know if he was spending £1,000 on it a week or £100. But he took enough to get a serious habit. Mentally it was propping him up. It was very sad.”
Bolan’s golden age was 1971-3, when he was ubiquitous. By 1974, drugs and drink had made him bloated, his ego was out of control, and his star was on the wane. Harry Feld does not believe his brother was addicted to narcotics; for Gloria Jones, they were a symptom, not the cause, of his problem.
“The problem,” she says, “was the truth. One day you’re a major star, and the next you’re told you’re nothing. That was the destruction, not the drugs and alcohol.”
Ironically, Bolan — helped by Jones who, according to Visconti, prevented him from drinking himself to death — regained his former svelte physique, a measure of his massive popularity and some credibility just before his death. He had his own TV show, Marc, on Granada, and was feted by the punk brigade. But that fateful crash on the eve of his 30th birthday ended it all. It seemed almost inevitable, as though it was part of his script.
“He did have premonitions of an early death,” says Harry Feld. “He even said it on television once, that he’d be dead by 30 in a car crash, not in a Rolls Royce but in a Mini. It’s weird. ”
Although only his father was Jewish and the Feld family “weren’t practising”, Bolan’s funeral was held at Golders Green Synagogue — “out of respect for our dad’s side of the family”. The atmosphere there was, he recalls, “electric”, with hundreds of mourners spilling on to the streets and celebrities including David Bowie and Rod Stewart paying their respects. “I can’t believe he died 30 years ago. It still seems like yesterday. He was 10 days short of his 30th birthday. It sounds so young now. But I’ll always remember him as the 29-year-old Marc.”
Marc Bolan: 20th Century Boy is on ITV1 tomorrow. Marc Bolan/T. Rex’s Greatest Hits is released by Universal on Monday
Snapshot: Marc Bolan
Born September 30, 1947; died September 16, 1977
Career: Bolan had hippie appeal with John’s Children in the mid-’60s before growing in popularity as one half of Tyrannosaurus Rex in the late ’60s and, finally, enjoying staggering success with T.Rex in the early ’70s. Following a mid-’70s slump, his career looked to be back on track before the 1977 car crash. Via cover versions by everyone from Guns’N’ Roses to The Fratellis, his music lives on
On being Jewish: Marc’s brother, Harry Feld, says: “Marc and I were very close. Our dad’s family was Jewish, but he married out so we grew up with the Old and New Testaments. My mum taught us to read the Bible, but we weren’t practising Jews, although Marc did refer to himself as Jewish, and his friends were all from Stamford Hill. We only went to synagogue for funerals, weddings or barmitzvahs. We were just taught to be law-abiding and believe in God. We came to our own conclusions”
Mark Steyn's Song of the Week Monday, 03 September 2007
SIXTEEN TONS by Merle Travis
I was born one mornin’ and the sun didn’t shine I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine I loaded 16 tons of number nine coal And the straw boss said, ‘Well bless my soul!’
For Labor Day, I thought it would be appropriate to have a song about labor – not just about work, a job, but a song you can feel the sweat and ache in. You can find plenty of working-nine-to-five-what-a-way-to-make-a-living numbers but not a lot in which you can feel the writer putting other folks’ muscle into it. There’s “Ol’ Man River”, of course:
You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain Body all achin’ an’ racked with pain Tote that barge, lif’ that bale Get a little drunk an’ you land in jail…
Technically, there's a little too much physical labor going on there. "I can never hear those words without feeling a fierce twinge of embarrassment," Richard Bissell, a licensed Mississippi River pilot apart from anything else, once said. "To 'tote' is to pick something up and carry it. A 'barge' is a large non-self-propelled boat used usually for the marine transport of bulk cargoes. Nobody in the long history of the Mississippi, including Mike Fink, has ever picked up and carried a barge." Ah, well. That aside, Kern and Hammerstein’s song is a masterpiece, but its place in the canon is so special – there’s so much more going on in there – that it seems reductive to use it as a song for Labor Day. Which leaves us with this, the work song that America at the height of the so-called white-bread picket-fence baby-booming middle-class Eisenhower era was cheerily singing along with:
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…
It was huge in its day, in a way that the fragmented and shriveled Hot One Hundred of today can barely imagine. Tennessee Ernie Ford’s version was released on October 17th 1955. Nine days later, it had sold 400,000 copies. By November 10th, it had sold another 600,000 to become the fastest-selling million-seller in pop history, a record it retains to this day. By December 15th, it had sold two million. It was Number One for seven weeks before being displaced by Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made Of This”. Who’d have thought there was so much gravy in a singalong about the unrelenting grinding misery of coal mining?
When something’s that big a hit, it’s easy to be dismissive, but, in fact, it’s very deftly done. There’s a whole world captured in that line about owing your soul to the company store. In many mining communities, workers lived in company-owned housing, the cost of which was docked from their wages, and what was left was paid in “scrip” – that’s to say, company-issued tokens or vouchers that could only be redeemed for goods at the company store. To the unions who fought and eventually defeated the system, it was a form of bondage in which it was impossible for workers to amass any cash savings: there was no future except the next paycheck to be spent on next week’s over-priced necessities at the company store. On the other hand, a couple of years back, The West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly took a more balanced view:
Pricing in the company stores was often higher than in surrounding non- company establishments. It is true that in the mining families, coal operators had captive purchasers for their goods. However, the availability of rail transportation, mail order products, and the proximity of other local merchants gave miners more choice than has been portrayed. The quality of company store goods was equal to that which could be bought in town. When the miner weighed the price of shipping his purchases from a mail order catalog or local merchant against the price of what could be purchased at the company store, very often, the store ended up being the better bargain… For the companies, scrip provided an easy way to pay the miners without the necessity of keeping large amounts of cash available. However, according to Crandall Shifflett in his study of coal towns in Southern Appalachia, there is no evidence that miners were ‘forced to draw their pay in scrip.’ On payday a miner could draw scrip or cash or both, the choice was his…
Miners drew scrip advances for many purposes. Should he run short and need food before the next payday, scrip credit was available. If a miner needed a piece of furniture and did not have the cash, scrip credit would take care of it. if a miner was sick or injured, companies would advance scrip pending receipt of his Workman’s Compensation checks. For the operators, this was a no lose situation. Companies had the ability to ‘virtually garnishee a worker's wages to collect on a debt.’ It would appear that with the availability of such easy credit, most miners would in fact ‘owe their souls’ to the company stores. However, studies cited by Shifflett seem to indicate that miners used this option judiciously.
Which sounds less like bondage and more like a primitive prototype of MasterCard. Whatever the reality, the line is a brilliant evocative distillation of what, in mid-20th century, was still an instantly recognizable way of life. Written almost a decade before Tennessee Ernie Ford struck gold with it, "Sixteen Tons" was the work of Merle Travis. He was a country singer and in the Forties found himself facing what would be a common predicament in a music industry coming to value “authenticity” over Tin Pan Alley professionalism. In the wake of Burl Irves’ success, Travis had been asked by Capitol Records to make an album of folk songs, but, as he told ’em, “Ives has already sung every folk song.” Unfazed, Capitol’s Cliffie Stone told Travis that in that case he should just write his own folk songs, but to go ahead and do it quickly because they wanted to go into the studio the next day. So, on one night in August 1946, Merle Travis sat down and wrote three “folk” songs about Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, where his father had worked in the mines. One of those songs was “Sixteen Tons”.
Travis had grown up among coal miners. His father played the banjo, Merle took to the guitar. Two other miners, Mose Rager and Ike Everly (father of the eponymous brothers Don and Phil) helped improve his technique, teaching him how to use his thumb for the bass strings. By 1935, he was with playing with the Tennessee Tomcats, then the Georgia Wildcats, and pretty soon he figured (as few had up to that point) that the guitar could be a lead instrument. He landed the Capitol contract and scored big with “Divorce Me COD” and “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed”. 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:
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.
There’s another story told about the birth of “Sixteen Tons” – that it’s nothing to do with Merle Travis or John Travis or Pa Travis. If you’d been around WKIZ in Hazard, Kentucky in the early Sixties, you’d have run into a fellow called George Davis who told folks that he’d written the song and that Travis had changed a couple lines and called it his. According to who he was telling and when, the song was originally called either “Twenty-One Tons” or “Nine To Ten Tons”. The second is ridiculous – you can’t get away with a ballpark figure, you need a precise explicit number to give you the sense of a backbreaking target racked up painfully pound by pound. As for “Twenty-One Tons”, that sounds more like the British singer Max Bygraves’ gleeful parody, “Seventeen Tons”. (There were a lot of those about at the time: Spike Jones did “Sixteen Tacos”.) In November 1966, someone at the radio station in Hazard recorded Davis’ version. There are a few chord changes which make the song more static, and the lines have a little less polish:
I loaded sixteen tons, I tried to get ahead, Got deeper and deeper in debt instead. Well they got what I made, and they wanted some more, And now I owe my soul at the company store.
It’s certainly inferior to Travis’ version. Does that mean it must be the original? Written, as Davis claimed, back in the Thirties and merely buffed a little in 1946? There’s no supporting evidence for the aggrieved man’s claim, though one notes that there’s a long tradition of rough’n’ready fragmentary vernacular work songs eventually being neatened and organized into a finished version by professional songwriters. (“John Brown's Body”, featured here a few months back, more or less falls into that category.) It’s possible that the same thing could have happened here, with Travis unaware that the original writer was still alive and well. Or it could be that, as composers and lyricists well know, failure is an orphan but success has a hundred fathers, and a successful song a hundred paternity suits. And there’s something a little too pat in a song about getting ripped off by the mining company itself getting ripped off by the record company.
Either way, in this instance, success was a long time a-comin’ – until one day in 1955, with nary a thought, Tennessee Ernie Ford sang it on his daily NBC daytime show. He’d heard it when he’d worked with Merle Travis on Cliffie Stone’s “Hometown Jamboree” show, and he’d always liked it. Within five days of his casual exhumation of the song, NBC had received 1,200 letters from viewers demanding to know what it was and where they could get it. A few weeks later, Tennessee Ernie sang it again, live at the Indiana State Fair, and 30,000 fairgoers roared their approval.
What with the daily TV show, 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…
There have been other versions since – by Johnny Cash and Tom Jones. There’s a cool slow jazzy take by Stan Ridgway that doesn’t quite come off, and not so long ago General Electric used it for a strange commercial featuring a lot of hunky Chippendale-like pec-flexing pick-axing mine-studs. For all I know, some fey flower-chick has reinvented it as a limpid hippy anthem. But the reason you can get away with that is because of what Tennessee Ernie Ford did with it. At the time, there was another version out by Johnny Desmond. I like Desmond’s voice but it’s too smooth and creamy. Ford’s big bass growl is just right, man enough to sound like a guy tough enough to work in a mine and thereby to underline the sense of diminishment, of a big man rendered small by his economic circumstance. It’s the same trick Paul Robeson’s big deep voice pulled off in “Ol’ Man River”. If Ford had never recorded the song, Desmond would have had a hit, and no one would have remembered it a decade later. A song about the anonymity of shift work depended on very particular individual talents.
Merle Travis certainly understood. In later years, he’d end the song this way:
here's an interesting story that came out of that hamburg book i mentioned the other day. apparently the local german musicians were all eager to copy the english beat sound and one or two of the groups became quite good at it eventually. the rattles were the best. and they kept going till finally they broke through in the late 60s in england (top 10) and even in america (hot 100 or something) with this song: