Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: Like most everyone who ever listened to popular music, I have heard “Tennessee” Ernie Ford's “Sixteen Tons” countless times.

But not until my recent purchase of a Kingston Trio LP, “Time to Think” (Capitol ST-2011), did I realize there is a reference in “Sixteen Tons” I have never understand. Along with the hook line, which I do relate to, “another day older and you're deeper in debt,” Ford also sings “I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal.”

On the Kingston Trio album, in “Coal Tattoo,” lead singer John Stewart sings about “a blue tattoo on the side of my head left by the number nine coal.”

If more than one song mentions number nine coal, and not any other number coal, there must be a reason. Why is number nine more special than other numbered coal?

Before writing you, I tried many internet searches, not a one of which even begins to answer my question. Complicating searches more is a Rock group whose name is Number Nine Coal
—Denise Giamonti, Evansville, Ind.

DEAR DENISE: It may be “Coal Tattoo” that made you curious, though a much more famous song, “Nine Pound Hammer,” could have done the same. Coincidentally, that one is also written by “Sixteen Tons” composer, the legendary Merle Travis.

In “Nine Pound Hammer,” Merle writes: “when I'm long gone, you can make my tombstone out of number nine coal.”

Among the many stars, besides Travis, to record “Nine Pound Hammer” are: Beau Brummels; Brothers Four; Johnny Cash; Sanford Clark; Bill Monroe; Ralph Stanley; and Hank Thompson.

“Sixteen Tons” and “Nine Pound Hammer,” along with two more coal mine songs, “Dark As a Dungeon” and “Over By Number Nine” (there's that number again), all first appeared on “Folk Songs of the Hills,” a 78 rpm album by Merle Travis. This four-disc set, recorded in August 1946, came out the following year (Capitol AD-50).

Travis wrote songs with meaningful lyrics, usually about topics he knew well. As the son of a coal miner in eastern Kentucky, Merle understood the working conditions the men faced.

On “Folk Songs of the Hills,” Merle talks a bit about his inspiration for “Sixteen Tons”:

“There is many a Kentucky coal miner that nearly does owe his soul to the company store. He gets so deep in debt to the coal company he's a-working for, that he goes on for years without bein' paid one red cent in real honest-to-goodness money.

“But he can always go to the company store and draw flickers, or scrip. That's little brass coins that you can't spend nowhere but at the company store. So they add that against his account, and every day he gets a little deeper in debt.”

As for numbered coal, the designation assigned to a coal seam, or coal bed, is also used to describe the coal from that particular seam. Thus number nine coal is mined from the number nine seam.

In the western Kentucky mines, for example, the two most common coal numbers are nine and 11.

Other regions of the country have their own coal labels, which include many different numbers as well as names without numbers, or both. Kentucky mines also refer to their number nine coal as Springfield coal.

Writers of poems and songs probably find the alliteration and rhyming opportunities better with number nine than, say, number 11.

For the record, neither John Lennon's “Number Nine Dream,” nor any songs by Nat or Natalie Coal, have anything to do with mining.

Mr. Music could not have become Mr. Miner today without valuable assistance from John Hiett, PG, of the Office of Mine Safety & Licensing, in Frankfort, Ky.

Hiett is also the co-author (with Charles L. Rick) of “Revised Correlation Chart of Coal Beds, Coal Zones, and Key Stratigraphic Units in the Pennsylvanian Rocks of Eastern Kentucky” (1994, published by the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior).

DEAR JERRY: Is it true a new marketing plan is coming and the big labels will return to making vinyl albums? I am told they might include an MP3 with the record, for computers and other digital players?
—Matthew Corning, Lancaster, Pa.

DEAR MATTHEW: Many companies are already doing this, with more expected to join the vinyl resurgence faction this year.

Lots of new LPs now come with a coupon good for an online download of the same music, though others make having the digital counterpart even easier by packaging a CD with the record album.

Retailers of record players, record cleaners, needles, cartridges, and other vinyl accessories say they expect 2008 to be their best year since the '80s when it was a $20 to $30 billion industry. Woo-Hoo!

IZ ZAT SO? It seems the return to vinyl reaches a new peak every few months, but the movement has been brewing for a couple of years.

The Recording Industry Association of America, and other industry sources, report vinyl LP shipments increased nearly 40% in 2007 to over 1.3 million more units than in 2006.

During that same period, compact disc sales dipped about 18%, or roughly 511 million units.

In terms of which direction each is headed, the graph for 2008, tracking both formats, is expected to mirror that of 2007.

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