Category Archives: Sixteen Tons

The Perfume of a Rose

“The Factory” (listen below!) is a strange song. There, I said it, so you don’t have to. Perhaps its strangeness comes from the fact that it was inspired, in equal parts, by (1) an abandoned brick factory, (2) the song “Sixteen Tons,” (3) the Romantic poet Lord Byron, and (4) the musical Hadestown.

brick factory

Why an abandoned brick factory?

Ruins are hauntingly cool.

Last November, I saw a photo of an old brick factory located in the Hudson River Valley of New York. At the end of the 19th century, this region was the largest brick manufacturer in the world. In the photo, the factory’s front wall (made of brick, naturally) was overgrown by trees, plants, and vines. It had no idea it was about to become a metaphor in a strange song.

Merle Travis

Why the song “Sixteen Tons”?

It’s gritty and refers to arduous manual labor.

When I thought about the back-breaking business of brickmaking, Merle Travis’s 1947 folk classic about a coal miner came to mind. I was familiar with a modern cover of the song, which appears in the opening credits of one of my favorite movies, Joe Versus the Volcano. I wrote my song to the melody of “Sixteen Tons,” interjecting my own melody later.

Lord Byron

Why the Romantic poet Lord Byron?

I was an English major.

In the song’s third verse, “Way back in eighty-eight” refers to 1788, the year in which Lord Byron was born—not to the ’88 in which padded-shoulder power suits were popular.


Why the musical Hadestown?

It depicts the underworld as a machine shop.

As the mood for “The Factory” developed, I thought, “Why does this feel familiar?” I realized my supremely unique creation was reminiscent of Hadestown, the Tony-winning musical that retells two Greek myths related to the underworld. The orchestra in the Broadway production I saw several years ago had included seven musicians, playing piano, violin, cello, guitar, trombone, glockenspiel, double bass, and percussion. So, that’s exactly the instrumentation you will find in “The Factory”—with the addition of regular old bass guitar.

What? No Shakespeare?

“The Factory” contains references to The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado about Nothing, and Julius Caesar.

What? No sound effects?

“The Factory” contains four sound effects, from

The Factory


“The Factory”



An abandoned brick factory, “Sixteen Tons,” Lord Byron, Hadestown

A minor

What I imagine a brick might say:

  • “I can guarantee you not one brick was consulted in the making of this song.”
  • “The ‘bricky’ sound effects in the bridge are just insulting.”
  • “I resent the use of bricks as a metaphor. Much prefer a nice brick fireplace. Or even mailbox stand.”
  • “‘Pile of bricks’? Pile of s#*t.”


The way you double-cross me got me tied up in knots
Your mama was a leopard, get a look at those spots
You never did a thing—but to bring me pain
Your mercy don’t come like a summer rain

There’s a pile of bricks (oh) this side of your heart
Pump them out just to keep us apart
Ain’t glad to report from what I can see
It’s business as usual at the factory

You squeezed my little fingers as you planted your horns
The perfume of a rose though you were only the thorns
You judge me guilty of—keeping love from you
And, oh, did your maker forsake you, too?

There’s a pile of bricks (oh) this side of your heart
Pump them out just to keep us apart
Ain’t glad to report from what I can see
It’s business as usual at the factory

It’s like talking to a wall
Will it take a ton of bricks to fall?
Are you hearing me at all?

Way back in eighty-eight the Fates made merry your birth
A wanderlust would carry you all over God’s earth
Before you wore a beard you got yourself some fame
But mine’s the rhyme that got you to a household name
A Hero and a Brutus—got to look the same
Cuz, Lord, I’m Judas in your book of blame

There’s a pile of bricks (oh) this side of your heart
Pump them out just to keep us apart
Ain’t glad to report from what I can see
It’s business as usual—

There’s a pile of dust (oh) that used to be bricks
Wonder how you’re gonna get your kicks
I’m sad to report from where I can see
Ain’t nothing no more of your factory

Christmas in July

I don’t have a new song to share (just a snippet), but I thought I would report on some compositions that have a chance of being recorded on my living room couch sometime soon.

I get ideas for songs all the time. Most of them offer a moment of amusement as they float in and out of my mind. The ones that stick get a working title and a file on my computer. A few of these continue to claim my attention as I go about trying to be a productive citizen. Typically, there’s an initial burst of inspiration, resulting in some rough lyrics—followed by the hard work (and pure joy) of fleshing out the “story,” hammering out the meter and rhyme scheme, and puzzling out the words. Sometimes, a tune that naturally undergirded the lyrics as they formed becomes the final melody. Otherwise, I listen. And wait.

Here are some song ideas that have stuck, in various stages of being realized. (All titles are working titles.)

“The Factory”

Current form:
Partial recording

An abandoned brick factory in the Hudson River Valley, the song “Sixteen Tons,” the Romantic poet Lord Byron, the musical Hadestown

Sample lyric:
Your mama was a leopard, get a look at those spots

Intrigued by a photo of the ruins of an old brick factory, I began writing the lyrics for “The Factory” in New Orleans last November—to the melody of “Sixteen Tons.” Merle Travis’s 1947 folk classic about a coal miner evoked a vibe that felt apropos for a song about a brick factory. My lyrics were largely intact within three weeks. Then came the excruciating task of extracting the iconic “Sixteen Tons” melody and replacing it with my far, far, far lesser one. I am in the midst of recording “The Factory,” but you can listen to the preliminary bridge here.

Preliminary Bridge for “The Factory”

“Ma Belle”

Current form:
Preliminary lyrics

The sights and sounds of Paris

Sample lyric:
When you were learning how to spell
Did you ride this carousel?

I penned the lyrics for “Ma Belle” (French for “my beautiful”) about six weeks ago, in Paris and on the flight home. So far, every line either repeats or rhymes with belle. The song contains a complete sentence in French, and I don’t speak French at all, so I’m preparing myself for total humiliation. (I might have done better with a song inspired by Madrid. Or London.) “Ma Belle” is presently sans mélodie.

“The Christmas After This”

Current form:
Partial lyrics

Christmas, the play Love’s Labour’s Lost

Sample lyric:
Next Christmas
We’ll reminisce this

About two weeks ago, I started writing a Christmas song! I have hardly kept my fondness for Christmas music a secret from this blog. (See Christmix Tape and Please Have Snow and Mistletoe.) I am thrilled by the idea of contributing to this timeless canon, even if only a few people will ever hear “The Christmas After This”—which is based on a monologue from one of Shakespeare’s early comedies. The best part is that I have almost half a year to finish it!

Isaiah’s Bucket List

Current form:
A few notes jotted down

An Uber driver in Dallas

Isaiah gave me a ride from a hotel in downtown Dallas to DFW. He told me that before retiring, he had driven a bus for thirty years—winning a trip to Jamaica as bus driver of the year (twice). Isaiah wants to visit three places before his time on earth is up: Alaska (because he’s amazed that people can live where it’s so cold), New York City (because you can get a pizza there at three in the morning), and Hawaii (because the air smells like flowers). Isaiah has a wife and two grown children. He thinks the big houses on the highway are too close together. His voice is like molasses.

Finally, a few songs that are just working titles at this point:

“The Day We Never Met”

“Turn Your Back”

“R Kid”

Stay tuned!