Around Amistad lots of songs can be heard from the radio, over laptops or smartphones, or being hummed by people as they work. Protest songs are another variety of music that are often sung and/or composed at the house. Greg Williams (Amistad intern and Yale Divinity Student) is currently working on some protest songs concerning the New Haven Green. When Mark Colville is not at a protest, he is often found blasting his tunes in the kitchen as he makes his famous rice and beans. One of the many songs on Mark’s playlist is the song, “Against Th’ Law,” words by Woodie Guthrie and music by Billy Bragg. Now I too have my own “greatest hits” that I play when prepping for lunch in the kitchen, and one of my favorites is the song “Sixteen Tons,” attributed to Merle Travis (1946) because he recorded it – although there was a version of the song by George S. Davis written in the 1930’s, and so Davis is most likely the author.
It just so happens that with all the music that wafts through the halls at Amistad, at any given moment you might have a song stuck in your head that plays itself on a loop until another song gets stuck there. Last night at 3 o’clock in the morning I woke up suddenly with not one, but TWO songs stuck in my head, the aforementioned “Sixteen Tons”, and “Against Th’ Law.” A few lines of one would play, and then a couple of lines of the other, then one song would start and would dovetail right into the other song. This mixing of songs is called a “mash-up.” But, “Why these two songs?” I wondered. They are as different as can be, right? The more I thought about the songs the more I realized that they are more similar than we might think.
“Against Th’ Law” is a song about the restrictive laws in Winston Salem that criminalize almost anything, but also laws that are disproportionately enforced if one appears to have no money and/or live out on the street. “Sixteen Tons” is a classic song about Kentucky coal miners before there were unions who were preyed upon by the companies they worked for. Not given living wages, many ended up in debt to the company they worked for and essentially became indentured servants. What occurred to me is that together these songs speak to an insidious oppression when municipalities and companies use their power and influence to control a vulnerable population, a population without a union, without advocates, and without money. The method of control varies, in “Sixteen Tons” it is predatory lending while in “Against Th’ Law” it is fascistic legislation that leads to police harassment, fines, and ultimately jail. So whether one is a Kentucky coal miner or a person who lives on the street, the desperate need to own one’s own body and labor is clear in both songs. There are perhaps even more ways that these songs relate that I am too sleep deprived to fully articulate so I will simply leave you with my mash-up of these two great songs to allow you to find more connections for yourself.
The “Owning Yourself and Your Labor” Blues, a mashup by Sarah Raven