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Mining Review 10/10: 16 Tons (1957)


Main image of Mining Review 10/10: 16 Tons (1957)
Mining Review 10th Year No. 10: Songs of the Coalfields 3: '16 Tons'
35mm, black and white, 2 mins
Production CompanyData Film Productions
SponsorNational Coal Board

A mining ballad from West Virginia.

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The tangled roots of coalmining culture and the vernacular music of the white, protestant, working class of the southeastern United States (whose origins lie in the British Isles) ran deep and grew tall. Think Loretta Lynn and 'Coal Miner's Daughter'.

'16 Tons', likewise, was a song borne of that background, straddling boundaries between 'authentic' folklore and crafted commercial music - always blurrier than dogma would have us believe. With such cultural crossroads in mind, it's an apt addition to the 'Songs of the Coalfields' released (initially) as Mining Review stories, although the only one foreign in derivation. In the hands of DATA's technicians and a splendidly game cast of British miners, the universality of its lament for the exploited is clear, yet translated by Ewan MacColl's Anglo-Scottish inflections into the same local idiom brought to the other five 'Songs'.

Indeed, alongside Bert Lloyd, whose field research into UK mining songs was the initial prompt for the six films, one of MacColl's great 1950s influences was the American Alan Lomax. The towering American musicologist-in-exile had done more than anyone to legitimise the folk music of the South, black and white. His Library of Congress research, in the Appalachians and the Mississippi Delta alike, was a project bearing striking similarities to Lloyd's. And with MacColl and his American partner Peggy Seeger, Lomax sporadically pursued another project, dubbed "Ballads and Blues", exploring the transatlantic affinities between such musics.

However MacColl and Lomax, more than Lloyd, have been justly accused of excessive, self-contradictory purism. 16 Tons, the film, demonstrates its pitfalls - while proving they don't matter. The song is billed as a recently revived 19th Century West Virginia piece, but was penned in the California of the 1940s, by a songwriter from Kentucky (not W.V.) coal country. Merle Travis had been asked to produce an Appalachian style ballad. It took off when covered by Tennessee Ernie Ford, in a slicker pop-country version which justly became a classic. Numerous versions made the UK charts, including a skiffle one by Lonnie Donegan, and a folkier effort by... Ewan MacColl. It's since been covered by everyone from Johnny Cash to Tom Jones to Eels.

And? It's a simple, great song about hardship, rooted in indigenous culture, shifting tone as it's passed from voice to voice, from country to country, from commodity to folklore and back. Translated to cinema by Mining Review's own self-effacing craftsmanship, it's done proud.

Patrick Russell

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Video Clips
Complete item (2:07)
Complete newsreel (10:06)
Mining Review: 10th Year (1956-57)
Songs of the Coalfields