16 Tons and What Do You Get?

As I write this I think I’m listening to Tennessee Ernie Ford’s version of “16 Tons” for about the sixth time in a row. It’s after midnight. I should probably be sleeping, but I just poured another Revolution Anti-Hero and hit refresh.

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This is the definitive, Library of Congress version of the song. It’s also one of those gems of American folk music that’s spawned about a million different versions. Modern technology has allowed us to see most of them.

Let’s start with a version that’s near and dear to my heart even though I literally did not know it existed until about an hour ago.

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Tom Morello is one of the greatest guitarists of his generation. He made it possible for Zach de la Rocha to do his thing with Rage Against the Machine and then went on to do some brilliant work with Chris Cornell in Audioslave before that band collapsed under the collection of egos that come from Chris Cornell fronting the musicians that made Rage Against the Machine possible.[1]

Right around the time I learned about Audioslave I also learned that Tom Morello was doing solo work under the name The Nightwatchman. I got a copy of One Man Revolution because, hey, why the fuck not? I didn’t know what to expect.

What I got was an unapologetic polemic in favor of the working man. I have respected the hell out of Tom Morello ever since then. I also didn’t really give the whole Nightwatchman thing much thought after that because, y’know, life.

Tom Morello shows up at Union demonstrations and plays songs that say, “Fuck you,” to the powers that be. He does so in a way that pays tribute to the American folk tradition. We need to give the man a medal.

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In order to properly understand what it is to be from Chicago you must understand what it is to be a worker. Chicago is often described as a “blue-collar” town, but that doesn’t take it nearly far enough. I used to be able to leave my office and walk a mile down to Haymarket. It was Haymarket where the riots started that gave us May Day, the International Worker’s Holiday. It was Packingtown in Chicago that inspired Upton Sinclair to write The Jungle.

In order to properly understand what it is to be from Chicago it’s necessary to realize that the rest of America told Chicago to fuck off. America rejected May Day and created Memorial Day as a sort of second Fourth of July, then moved the worker’s holiday off to September and called it Labor Day. America was so afraid of what was happening in Chicago that they turned it into something different.

Some of us still remember. That’s why it’s possible to leave the glittering palaces of corporate America and walk down Randolph Street to the Haymarket Pub and order a beer from Revolution Brewing. The bartender will pull back the tap that’s formed in the shape of a raised fist and pull an amazing beer.

America should be a continual revolution. No less an American light than Thomas Jefferson said that the tree of liberty needs to be watered with the blood of tyrants. When push comes to shove, though, America pushes the revolutionaries aside.

The one thing that cannot be quashed, though, is the American folk tradition. It keeps popping up.

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America should be a place of continual revolution. I’m not much given to American exceptionalism. The talk we get from politicians about how America is the greatest nation on Earth always rings hollow to me. As a historian I know that dozens of other nations throughout history were as important if not more important than America. As a historian I know that America did some terrible things in its history, from slavery and the treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII to the mistreatment of Central and South American nations under the guise of the Monroe Doctrine to the whole, “Fuck you, we’ll do what we want,” swagger America has adopted since the end of World War II.

I think that the most important thing America has to offer to the ages is art. We gave the world jazz and the blues. We gave the world rock & roll. We gave the world punk. We gave the world a language of the repressed. We gave the world raised fists. We gave the world the solidarity of the oppressed masses.

We gave the world Tennessee William Ford. We gave the world Tom Morello. We gave the world Jeff Beck and ZZ Top. We gave the world Johnny Cash. We gave the world Johnny fucking Cash.

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America should be a continual revolution but it’s not. The reason for that is because…well, let’s move beyond Tennessee Ernie Ford for a moment.

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We’re all defanged and declawed. We’re creature comforted. Don’t need anything. We all get what we want.

Because we’ve sold our souls to the company store.

The leap from Tennessee Ernie Ford to Local H is more of a step. It’s a short one at that.

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[1]I feel like I should be more angry at Chris Cornell about what happened to Audioslave, but when Chris Cornell stood up and said, “Hey, I should get more money than these guys because I’m Chris Cornell and they’re just the Rage Against the Machine guys,” we eventually ended up getting Soundgarden back. Like, I didn’t need another birthday or Christmas present ever again. And for me going against Chris Cornell is kinda like going against Scott Lucas or Roger Clyne or my dad. Yeah, I can probably do it but not for long.

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