A Little More About Western Swing
A Lot About Some Other Music
Seems like just the other day, me and a friend were hashing political views, one of the other things that occupy this writer's mind, when his mind isn't occupied with much else. Well, that is not a great subject to be 'hashin' over, because like Religion, Politics can cause a lot of rifts and downright fightin' and feudin' among the best of friends.
But, anyway, this isn't about politics or religion, but, then again, it is in a way, because what this is about is the fact that a lot of music, songs, or ballads would have never seen the light of day, if it had been up to some very big corporations and some very powerful politicians.
A simple fact is that a lot of Bob Wills' Western Swing style of music would have never been on the air, or even on records, if a former Texas Governor and Executive with Burris Mills had won his fight against Wills and his first band. This executive, Lee O'Daniel, had enough power, corporate and political, to put Bob Wills and his original band off the air in Texas. But, later Bob Wills changed the band name to 'Bob Wills And The Texas Playboys,' moved himself and them to Oklahoma, bought his own radio time, and advertised flour for General Mills. Of course, that big politician and Burris Mills exec tried, unsuccessfully, thank goodness, to ban Bob and the Playboys from Oklahoma too. But, since Bob was buying his own air time the station manager as much as told O'Daniel to shove it and get your butt back to Texas and go run for governor or something. So, that incident, which might have caused a big loss to Western Swing and all its fans, is probably in the forgotten past nowadays.
One of Bob Wills' hits "San Antonio Rose" was first recorded, in 1938 as an instrumental, with a lot of Bob's talented fiddling. By about 1940 Hollywood wanted to make a musical with Bing Crosby, with the title, "San Antonio Rose". Well they wanted to use Bob's composition as a sort of theme and even decided to put words to it which came from the great minds of Tin Pan Alley. And that went over great. But, now whose song was it? Of course any time there is something to argue about the legal eagles are right there to jump in. Legal fees are always fat in a fight. But, the fight didn't last long. The hit song made so much money for both Bob and Bing and the movie industry too, that really nobody cared who was going to get credit for words to a song. And of course, the legal eagles couldn't fight over something that everybody was very, very happy about. Both versions of 'San Antonio Rose' are still popular today.
But, what about all this other music that may have never seen the light of day? Well I hope to tell you a lot about that and the musicians and song writers who if things had gone just a tad different, you may have never heard about them.
Johnny Cash, a legend in his own time, whose career spanned over six decades, from the 50s into the new millennium, is a good example of a song writer and singer of ballads that made it, not always to the top, but make it they did. One that comes to mind immediately is the "Ballad of Ira Hayes". You may have heard it a few times, but maybe you haven't. Many station programmers resisted it as controversial because of its tale of an Indian who served his country in WWII and returned home to die tragically. And, guess who is pictured on the famous photo of the Flag Raising on Iwo Jima. One guess should be enough. It was the Indian, Ira Hayes. Well, that ballad never got too much plug time nor did it ever hit the top of the charts. Who gives a hoot in hell about a dead Indian? But, Johnny Cash was big time, so he had a lot of records and albums out, and that ballad got on a lot of them even if the station programmers didn't want to play it. If it had not been for Johnny Cash that song may have been buried on some forgotten album and never been dug up again.
Another is an eight minute long ballad about John Henry. "The Ballad of John Henry" was sung by many balladeers for many years from the time of the Civil War, when they began laying railroad track to the west, and on till the early 1900s. The story was about a legendary 'steel driver', a railroad track layer that spiked down the rails to the cross ties, who had to prove his worth to the crew boss by beating a new steam powered spike driver, and showing that man is just as necessary to whatever industry as is machinery that some industry thinks outperforms man. This of course is a popular big business idea, that machinery is more necessary than human labor, and over the years industry has made bigger and better machines that purport to outperform humans, but every time they make a bigger and better machine it still takes a human to take care of it. Most of the early renditions of 'John Henry' were just short tunes or verbal recitations. A few name singers and bands did it, but again most of that was an afterthought tune to fill up the space, or to show off the skill of a particular musician, fiddler, steel player, or vocalist But, Johnny Cash took that old worn out ballad and made an 8 minute long story about John Henry and how he beat the steam powered track-layer.
You, may never hear that long a song on many music stations, they just don't have that kind of time to devote to one selection. But Johnny and wife, June Carter, made sure it got on a few of their best selling albums. Big name recognition did it. Another you may not hear often is the story about the Caddy plant worker who stole his Cadillac "One Piece At A Time". Seems as if the first rendition was not too popular with General Motors, who of course would not tolerate a worker walking off the plant site with a piece of Caddy every day. But, then it was such a comedy hit that even General Motors thought it was great publicity.
In 1968, about the time of Richard Nixon's crusade for "Law and Order", Johnny Cash made it his mission to remember those behind bars, not too popular an idea of the times, demanding a prisoner's right to a measure of dignity and understanding. But, he did get his act into Folsom and San Quentin Prisons where he recorded five albums; most were released in '68 and '69, a lot of them dealing with much of downtrodden humanity. One live single release from those sessions, a joke, with the title of "A Boy Named Sue" made it to the #2 spot on the charts.
Johnny Cash himself, may have never made it in the country music genre. His first recordings at Sun Records stripped country music of its usual ornaments. There was no steel guitar, no background singers, no honky tonk piano, no fiddle, and not even a drum, just a couple of old guitars slightly out of tune, and one voice. But, then that one voice was everything.
Song writer Merle Travis recorded "16 Tons" in 1947 and never had a hit with it. Merle Travis was from Kentucky and in Appalachia, 'company stores' .and owing your 'soul' to one, was not a subject that either miners or mine owners wanted to hear. Miners didn't like the idea that they actually did owe their paychecks to the 'company store', a thoughtful bit of industry added to the mining company's holdings, which extended credit to the miners between paychecks. Merle wrote a lot about such company antics that kept most workers in virtual slavery. Most miners in Appalachia made little more than minimum wages at the time. It was John L. Lewis who brought these injustices to the light of day and organized the United Mine Workers Union, which brought much better conditions to miners in general and congress outlawed such things as 'company stores' . However that came about later than 1947.
Meanwhile, Travis' songs about Appalachian injustices were mostly forgotten until 1956. In the spring of that year, Tennessee Ernie Ford had been too busy to make any new recordings and in the meantime Capitol had run out of material. The result of that was hurry up sessions to record two songs to put on a single disk. One of those songs was "16 Tons", which the Ol' Pea Picker put over with phenomenal success. In Ernie's style it became a song of humor rather than a song of misfortune as intended by Travis. Without that hurry up session and without the humorous styling of Tennessee Ernie Ford, probably no one would have ever heard about "16 Tons".
And here is another by Merle Travis, written in the late 40s, and it was recorded by him with
"16 Tons" at that time. Another working man's song, "Nine Pound Hammer", and "16 Tons" went nowhere in 1947. But after the phenomenal success of the single "16 Tons", Ernie recorded an Album titled This Lusty Land and "Nine Pound Hammer" was included in it.
Here is a bit of additional history about "16 Tons" and other Travis compositions. Back in August 1946, Cliffie Stone, then a talent scout for Capitol, called Merle Travis. Travis was one of the hit makers for Capitol at the time. Capitol wanted to record a 78rpm album, an album of at least four 78 rpm records which were common at the time. Burl Ives had been a big success with an album of Folk Music, and Capitol wanted its own Folk Song album. Merle told Cliffie that he figured 'Burl already recorded every folk song' but Cliffie suggested that Travis write some of his own. He did just that. He used "Nine Pound Hammer", and wrote three others about life in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. "16 Tons" and "Dark As A Dungeon" were two others for the album. The song's chorus came from a letter written by his brother, who was complaining about working conditions. "It's like working in the mines," he said, "you load 16 tons and what do you get? Just another day older and deeper in debt." Merle also recalled a comment by his father when asked about his health. "Hell, I can't afford to die, I owe my ass to the company store." The song at the time was not a single but one of 4 on a poor selling album Folk Songs Of The Hills.
This album caused Merle Travis other problems. In the McCarthy era he was labeled a Communist . Some in Government thought of songs and 'other propaganda' dealing with workers woes, and of folk music lovers as potential subversives. (Gee, I wonder where I heard that one before?). A veteran Capitol Records producer, Ken Nelson, who worked at a Chicago radio station during the late 40s, recalled in a 1992 interview, that FBI agents had warned the station not to play Travis' music, because 'he is a communist'. Of course that was far from the truth.
Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded that song on several occasions, and one of the best recordings was done on the B side of a disk. The A side recording was "You Don't Have To Be A Baby To Cry". When he recorded the B side, Ernie began snapping his fingers to count off the tempo and the finger snapping stayed on the recording. That recording was the best. It sold over 2 million copies by the end of the year. You can still find it today.
Merle Travis, not only was a composer, but he was recognized as a guitar innovator. He was amused at the reception of his song, and the meanings others read into the words of the song. Nevertheless "16 Tons" immortalized both Merle Travis and Tennessee Ernie Ford. In later years when performing the song, Travis changed the words in the final stanza to 'I owe my soul … to Tennessee Ernie Ford'.
In 1956 Travis returned to his home town of Ebenezer, Kentucky to unveil a granite monument the town erected in his honor. Merle Travis died in 1983 and his ashes are buried beneath that monument. It is quite an honor to compose a song that got nowhere at all for almost 10 years until somebody else had to use it as a fill in. And, then it became one of the biggest hits in recorded history. Bands and singers are still recording and singing "16 Tons" today.
Leo C. Helmer
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