As I write, Al is playing the piano. After a few bars, I recognize the tune, “Sixteen Tons,” which was written, I discover with a quick Internet search, by Merle Travis about life in Kentucky coal mines and first released by Capital Records in 1947.
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.
I owe my soul to the company store.
The song was made famous, though, by Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955, the year I turned one. Five years later, for my first grade play created by our teacher, Miss Kelly, we mimed and acted out a set of popular tunes. The Tennessee Ernie Ford version of “Sixteen Tons” was one of them, and we pretended to be shoveling coal over our shoulders.
Another song was “Whistle a Happy Tune,” from the Rogers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, which was popularized in a film in 1956 starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. For that one, we had partners, and one sat on the floor facing the other, who pretended to whistle. We were first graders, after all. My partner wore glasses and sported suspenders and a bow tie. Everyone thought we were adorable.
Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect,
and whistle a happy tune, so no one will suspect
It’s one of the strange things about memory, how songs can truly bring you back. That, and the fact that I can still recall those lyrics as well as the nervous excitement of being on stage in front of all the other students and our parents. I can still see the beige backdrop curtain and the little boy who was my partner, pretending to whistle as he rocked side to side in time to the song.
And it’s odd, too, how those two songs, the only ones I recall from the play, resonate with our current moment. The world feels heavy, the news drags us down, and for so many it’s truly a struggle to pay down debt and stay afloat. And we need to find ways to stay brave, dig deep for courage to face the challenges, when every day seems to bring another “unprecedented” outrage.
Make believe you’re brave, and the truth will take you far.
You may be as brave as you make believe you are.
To that end, I share this blog post by Angel Chernoff, “5 Painfully Obvious Truths We Tend to Forget in Hard Times.” It gave me some needed perspective last week. I hope it does for you, too.