This was written in 1947 by the Country & Western guitarist and songwriter Merle Travis. It is based on his coal miner father, whose favorite saying, "Another day older and deeper in debt," became part of the chorus.
According to the book 1000 UK #1 Hits by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh, Tennessee Ernie Ford was so busy with a 5-day-a-week daytime show that he fell behind with his recording commitments for Capitol Records. He recalled, "Capitol told me I'd be in breach of contract if I didn't record soon, but I was always thumbing through songbooks looking for music. I liked Merle Travis' songbook. He'd lived in the coal mining community, and my grandfather and my uncle had mined coal. I showed Sixteen Tons to my conductor as I liked it very much. Capitol kept telling me to get over there so we went with Sixteen Tons and You Don't Have To Be A Baby To Cry and we recorded them with a six-piece band. Lee Gillette (the producer) said from the control, "What tempo do you want it in?" and I snapped my fingers to show him. He said "Leave that in," and that snapping on Sixteen Tons is me."
At the time, this was the fastest-selling single in the history of Capitol Records - impressive when you consider they had Frank Sinatra on their roster.
General Electric used this in a commercial television advertisement campaign. (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
Some of the many artists who covered this song include Eddy Arnold, Big Bill Broonzy, Eric Burdon, Johnny Cash, Jimmy Dean, Charlie Daniels, Joe Cocker, The Platters, Leon Russell, Johnnie Taylor and The Weavers. When Diddley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955, he was asked to play this, but performed his hit Bo Diddley instead, defying the host and getting himself banned from the program.