Since I can’t seem to find the album I’d intended to post today, here’s a consolation prize: A very rare 1956 single comprising Japanese and phonetic English versions of Sixteen Tons and Wagon Master. It’s by Kazuya Kosaka and the Wagon Masters, who are best known for inaugurating Japan’s rock ‘n’ roll era with a cover of “Heartbreak Hotel.”
After World War II — that great battle for racial and cultural purity — the Japanese and the Germans became fascinated with American country and folk music, which they adapted to their own culture much as oysters turn grains of sand into pearls. The cover of this single offers gorgeous visual evidence of this process.
“Sixteen Tons” may’ve already had a certain amount of resonance with Japanese audiences, thanks to the rather skeletal arrangement of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 1955 version, and the popularity of Tanko Bushi (“Coal-Miner’s Song”), an inescapable folk standard that deals with life and love in the famous Miike coal mine, on the southern island of Kyushu.
The history of the Miike mine suggests that there was plenty of room for cross-cultural understanding:
Work conditions were brutal, wages low–or nonexistent for convicts–and any tendencies toward unionism were stamped out with the help of such ultra-nationalist organizations as the Black Ocean Society, which put its thugs at the disposal of large employers in return for payoffs and political clout.Richard B. Mellon, who said in 1937 that “you can’t mine coal without machine guns,” would surely have approved.
The Miike mine was essential to the Japanese war effort, and American POWs at the Fukuoka 17 camp were accordingly forced into the pits as slave labor. Survivors who returned to America were soon able to hear Merle Travis’s 1946 version of “Sixteen Tons,” the chorus of which incorporates quotes from a letter Travis received in 1945 from his brother John, which compared fighting in the Pacific to working in a coal mine. The song’s insufficiently respectful portrayal of the mining industry reportedly caused the FBI to investigate Travis as a communist sympathizer. (Oddly enough, the tune did eventually become very popular in the USSR!)
All of which makes Kosaka’s seemingly ludicrous Ernie Ford knock-off an inexhaustible object for meditation, in my opinion.
Since we’re on the subject, I’d better include this fine version of Tanko Bushi, which comes from a 1978 single released by Columbia. If you want to do the coal-mining dance that goes along with it, you can learn the steps here.
Although it’s slightly off-topic, I’ll throw in this classic version of Tokyo Ondo from the same record. The song was written in 1933 by Shinpei Nakayama, who was one of the first composers to “Westernize” Japanese popular songs, and reportedly learned music by playing along with military marches during the the Sino-Japanese war. Nowadays, fans of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows sing it when their team scores a run.