If you’ve looked at the banjos I’ve made, you’ve probably noticed the coins that are embedded into many of them. They are all remnants of a very old form of currency called coal scrip.

The use of coal scrip dates back to the late 1800s, when many coal companies looked for ways to keep miners in a never ending cycle of work, repayment and debt. Rather than receiving compensation in US currency, many miners received payment entirely in scrip, which could be used only at the company store. This eliminated any hope for workers and their families to break free or to acquire any form of wealth.

Merle Travis captured the sentiment of the common laborer of these times in the song Sixteen Tons with the chorus, “another day older and deeper in debt,” and the line, “I owe my soul to the company store.”

These coal mines took root in the same regions where folk music thrived. Places like North Carolina, Kentucky and West Virginia. And the people who worked in those mines were the same people who would have picked up and played simple folk instruments like fiddle and banjo.

By adding coal scrip to my banjos, I am embedding a small portion of these peoples’ stories — knowing that these coins passed through many different hands through the years. For me, it’s a meaningful way to keep their memory alive.