Three weeks out of prison
He drives the cold Missouri night
Strip malls and abandoned mines
Out on the left and the right
He drives into Mt. Olive and
the Becker Funeral Home
Where his daddy's lyin' with a cold hard stare,
Black lung and broken bones…
Ed Becker owns a funeral parlor in Mt. Olive, Illinois. Mt. Olive is a coal mining town with heart failure, north of St. Louis. The mines have closed down and the graveyard is filling up with old men who died with creased hands, dark bloody coughs, and hard, smoke-seared Midwestern eyes. Coal miner eyes. There used to be a bar on Main Street called: "Pee Wee's House of Knowledge;" beer was fifty cents a glass and the juke box played Tennessee Ernie Ford's version of "Sixteen Tons." Over and over. The Mother Road, Route 66, runs through town, and the oldest operating Gas Station on that pot-holed chunk of historic asphalt sits on the east side. I believe it's a Texaco. Mother Jones is buried in the cemetery on the edge of Mt. Olive. She was a tough, fist-swinging, guardian angel for union miners in the days when hired thugs and scabs were shooting up demonstrations. There's a monument on Mother' Jones grave in the cemetery; weeds and wild flowers are curling 'round the chipped gray cement. Ed Becker, who keeps and eye on the cemetery, has been trying to raise money to maintain the graveyard and Mother Jones monument. He asked a bunch of folks to write a song about miners and Mother Jones and such. He gave me a book about Mother Jones: "The Most Dangerous Woman in America." I liked the title. Didn't read the book. (The trouble with history is - it was written by historians. Dry humorless vultures with no sense of style, story, or humor.) I took the title; wrote the song. Mood-wise it's akin to Springsteen's "Nebraska," with a dose of Woody Guthrie and Merle Travis. Movie-esque. An ex con is driving across the bleak, frozen landscape in winter. Going home to bury his dad. The sky is gunshot gray; patches of amphetamine red. The old man is being buried, whilst the son shoots-up heroin on the kitchen floor of an abandoned farm. Pronto the sirens scream and bullets shatter the plate glass of a discount liquor store. Ed Becker will bury more bodies; the streets of Mt. Olive will be two tongues quieter. Fade to an oil painting of retired miners staring down at their shoes in the VFW lounge. Around the corner, at Turner Hall, the last pin boy in America is setting up the bowling pins on Saturday afternoon, and the crack of the ball hitting the pins is not the shot heard round the world. It's the shot piercing the heart of what's left of rural, coal miner, family-farm America. Let us now praise famous and forgotten men. And women. The most dangerous kind.
Some people say a man is made out of mud…
A poor man's made out of muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bone….
A mind that's weak and a back that's strong…."
"Sixteen Tons," Merle Travis
(This is #8 in a series of sketches on songs off the coming record: Blood and Candle Smoke.)