16 tons 'a kind of an anticapitalist masterpiece'
"Sixteen Tons" is a song about the life of a coal miner, first recorded in 1946 by American country singer Merle Travis and released on his box set album Folk Songs of the Hills the following year. A 1955 version recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford reached number one in the Billboard charts, while another version by Frankie Laine was released only in the United Kingdom, where it gave Ford's version competition.
According to Travis, the line from the chorus "another day older and deeper in debt" was a phrase often used by his father, a coal miner himself. This and the line "I owe my soul to the company store" is a reference to the truck system and to debt bondage. Under this scrip system, workers were not paid cash; rather they were paid with non-transferable credit vouchers which could be exchanged for only goods sold at the company store. This made it impossible for workers to store up cash savings. Workers also usually lived in company-owned dormitories or houses, the rent for which was automatically deducted from their pay. In the United States the truck system and associated debt bondage persisted until the strikes of the newly-formed United Mine Workers and affiliated unions forced an end to such practices.
Ümit Kıvanç used several versions of the song in his documentary 16 Tons - A movie about conscience and free market in 2011.
One of my close friends in Istanbul, Umit Kivanc, made a new experimental-documentary movie on coal mining and free-market economy. I think it's a kind of an anticapitalist masterpiece.
Now it has an English version, and it can be seen on Vimeo in full length (85 min). Here is the link:
I hope you enjoy.