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by Time Magazine
To the purists, it is not really a folk song if it gets "mechanical reiteration" instead of being passed by mouth from generation. But no American song in many a genera­tion has got as much reiteration in such a short time, mechanical or otherwise, as "Sixteen Tons." It is currently the No. 1 hit on almost every list. It has been called deeply American by some and dangerously radical by others. Where did it come from?
Along with its creator, Songwriter Merle Travis, it came out of Kentucky, still a stronghold of American folk song.
THE MINOR MODE. Not so long ago, when there was not much reading and writing in the Kentucky coal-mining mountains, let alone radio or TV, folk singing was one way to keep track of history. In the town of Dwarf (pop. 300), near Viper, in Perry County, there are folks who can still remember a blind fellow named Oakes singing about what was going on:
Over the land and over the sea
We are marching to set Cuba free;
In the midst of the battle, our watchword's the Maine
That was destroyed by the treachery of Spain.
Nowadays, such chanted songs are becoming ghosts, along with the company towns and the many mines that have been picked clean of coal. But sooty men still work the smaller mines; they still live in unpainted shacks with their families, and some still try to preserve the old songs. "Hand me my dulcy-more,,, 62-year-old "Aunt" Ellen Fields will chirp to a visitor at her house near Viper. "This thang hain't much good any more. Ah put in a new fret—just took a pin and bit the head offen h'it—but h'it still don't play too good." When she plays, she puts the three-stringed instrument across her lap, then strums out the tune on the
"Reprinted by permission from Time, Vol. 66, No. 25, December 19, Copyright 1955, Time Inc."