Remembering the music of Ole Ern

Published 7:30 am Saturday, March 5, 2022

Tennessee Ernie Ford had the distinction of almost singlehandedly bringing inspirational music into the mainstream of American entertainment. He was one of my favorite singers. I especially loved to hear him sing hymns. His recording “Were You There?” always touches me deeply.

It is fascinating how a song from the past sometimes pops into one’s mind. That has happened to me with “Were You There?” several times over the years. Another of my favorites is “Take My Hand.” I so enjoyed his folksy TV program and admired him from closing almost every show with a spiritual song or hymn. His first album of inspirational music remained on the top album charts for over 270 weeks.

I recall how those two sings lingered in my memory for a while. Then they might not recur for several years. My voice is so bad, I only sing along with any songs when nobody is in the house or I am alone in my car.

“Sixteen Tons” is my favorite of his secular songs. Singer Merle Travis wrote it and recorded it first in the 1940s, but it stirred some controversy. Because of it, he was accused of being a communist sympathizer. Yet when Ernie sang it in 1955, it was a different story.

I recently listened to “Sixteen Tons” and it did not change my opinion. I have never heard the Travis version nobody but nobody, could sing it like Tennessee Ernie. It is such a catchy tune and probably caught my attention even more because I know about coal miners. No, I’m not a coal miner’s daughter, but my daddy worked for an Alabama mining company, mostly in commissaries. My mother also worked for the same company for several years.

Merle Travis definitely knew all about coal miners because his daddy was one. He worked in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky coal mines. Travis remembered his brother had put down his feelings in letter to him concerning Ernie Pyle, the World War II journalist who died covering the war in the Pacific. Travis’ brother described what happened over there as similar to coal mining. The words, “You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt,” came from the 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.” The company my daddy worked for issued coins of certain denominations called Clacker and paper currency to spend in the company commissaries.

As I listen to the song, I remember men with coal-smudged hands, faces and clothing spilling off the company buses that transported them from their homes and back to the mine every day. They filed into the commissaries to make various purchases, including carbide for their caps.

I still have a vivid memory of the day someone came to my classmate’s room and took her outside to break the news her daddy had been killed at his job in the mine. When my daddy came home from work that night, I hugged him especially hard and begged him to never work inside a mine.

I am thankful that although Ernie passed away in 1991, we have access to many of both his secular songs and hymns. Right now I am thinking of Ole’ Ern and remembering those songs he made famous.