Ford did inspirational well

Published 11:59 pm Friday, November 13, 2009

Tennessee Ernie Ford was one of my favorite singers. I especially love to hear him sing hymns. His recording of “Were You There” always touches me deeply. Another favorite is “Take My Hand.” My husband and I looked forward to his folksy TV program and admired him for closing almost every one of them with a spiritual song or hymn. I read recently that he had the distinction of almost single-handedly bringing inspirational music into the mainstream of American entertainment. His first album of inspirational music remained on the top album charts more than 270 weeks.

My favorite of his secular recordings is definitely “Sixteen Tons.” Singer Merle Travis wrote that song and recorded it first in the 1940s, but it stirred some controversy. Because of it, he was accused of being a communist sympathizer. But when Ernie sang it in 1955, it was a different story. I recently listened to “Sixteen Tons” again. My opinion didn’t change. I still think it’s a classic. I never heard the Travis version, but, in my opinion, nobody, but nobody, could sing it like Tennessee Ernie. It is such a catchy tune and probably caught my attention even more because I knew about coal miners. No, I’m not a coal miner’s daughter, but my daddy worked for an Alabama coal mining company, mostly in commissaries. My mother also worked in commissaries for several years.

Merle Travis definitely knew all about coal miners because his daddy was one. He worked in Muhlenberg County, Ky., coal mines. Travis remembered that his brother had put his feelings in a letter to him about the famous Ernie Pyle, the well-known World War II journalist who died covering the war in the Pacific. Travis’ brother described what happened as similar to working in coal mines. The words, “You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt,” came from that letter. Travis took them for the chorus and combined them with a saying of his dad’s: “I owe my soul to the company store.”

I remember that the company daddy worked for issued clacker, which was coins of certain denominations, as well as paper currency for use in the commissary. As I listen to the song, I remember men with coal-smudged hands, faces, and clothing spilling off the bus that took them back and forth to the mine every day. They filed into the commissary to make various purchases, including carbide for the lamps on their caps.

I have a vivid memory of the day someone came to a classmate’s room to tell her that her father had died in a mining accident. I’ll never forget the horror I felt. When my daddy came home from work that night, I hugged him especially hard. I begged him to never work in a coal mine.

It’s a blessing that although Tennessee Ernie passed away in 1991, we still have access to many of both his secular and religious recordings.