Written by Merle Travis a decade earlier and already a gold record, it was Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 1955 rendition of “Sixteen Tons” that took the song to number one on the Billboard charts. With his classic bass vocals, Ford describes the life of a coal miner in Kentucky in the only song on this countdown that I’ve performed on stage in a musical.
The song laments the hardships of the poor, working class, singing, “You load sixteen tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” As a matter a fact, according to the song, the vocalist can’t even afford to go to heaven when they die, exclaiming, “Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store.” Though these lyrics were a direct reference to the process in which coal miners were paid with currency only accept at “The Company Store,” and so, while they earned barely enough to purchase the necessary goods for their family, their economic worth was considerably less outside of the coal-mining community.
Jesus had a lot to say about debts in the Gospel. As a matter of fact, it is his most famous prayer from Matthew 6:12 where he teaches his disciples, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who are indebted to us.” As Christians living in the world, there very well may be times where we find ourselves indebted financially, but our “soul” can never belong to anyone or anything other than God. More importantly, Christ calls for a way of living free from financial debt and graceful practices who those who may find themselves in difficult financial positions. Best of all, Christ promises a “kingdom on earth as it already is in heaven,” where no person suffers under the pain of debt, and all are free to serve only our true master, our lord and savior, Jesus Christ.
Gracious Lord, teach us financial practices that enable us to be responsible stewards of the resources you have given. Train us to be forgiving and graceful with others, as you always are with us, and keep us ever mindful that we serve you, and you alone. Amen.