GE is using the protest song “Sixteen Tons” for an ad about coal energy.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen something so disrespectful in my life.

“Sixteen Tons” was made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford, but it was written by Merle Travis, who was the son of a Kentucky coal miner. It’s not really difficult to work out that it’s about how much it sucked to be a coal miner, specifically in the time before the UMW (United Mine Workers).

You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go,
l owe my soul to the company store.

Now, some people say a man’s made out of mud,
But a poor man’s made out of muscle and blood,
Muscle and blood, skin and bones,
A mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong.

Well, I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine.
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mines.
I loaded sixteen tons of Number Nine coal,
And the straw-boss hollered, “Well, bless my soul.”

Well, I was born one mornin’, it was drizzlin’ rain.
Fightin’ and trouble is my middle name.
I was raised in the bottoms by a mama hound.
I’m mean as a dog, but I’m as gentle as a lamb.

WeIl, if you see me a-comin’ you better step aside.
A lotta men didn’t and a lotta men died.
I got a fist of iron, and a fist of steel.
If the right one don’t get you, then the left one will.

I’ve always thought of the last two lines as pretty direct metaphors for the two industries coal mining hugely influenced in the US: the railroads and the steel industry.

You can read a little more about why miners and their families hated the company store if you can’t work it out, and check out other songs about life in the coal mines at this ‘History in Song’ site.

I know I shouldn’t be surprised. I just wonder if there’s anything that can be respected. I wonder if GE has any idea that miners are still killed and injured in coal mines around the world on a regular basis. On Tuesday, a mine flooded in China and 13 of the miners are still missing as I’m writing this.

Here’s an article about the same ad, in Slate.

(And if you’re wondering why on earth I’m blogging about coal mining at all, that’s simple: my grandmother’s family were Anthracite miners in PA at the turn of the century, and the history of the mines, the miners’ unions, and all things coal have been interests of mine for a long time. I was one of the few kids who did actually get coal in my Christmas stocking to remind me I wasn’t always an angel.)

3 Replies to “GE”

  1. For those of you who think this is all ancient history, take a look at a documentary called Harlan County USA, which was released in 1976, about a mining strike here in the US. It’s stomach churning.

  2. I almost did a sitcom style spit take when I first saw that commercial. Amazing how a song about utter hopelessness can be used to promote “clean coal”.

    Hmmm, wondering about GE/Visa and the Bankruptcy here…but worried about a black hole of irony appearing and sucking us all in. Then again, maybe that happened already. That might explain a few things.

    I do wonder…can you get heroin on a Carnival Cruise?

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