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Sixteen Tons

by

Tennessee Ernie Ford



Songfacts®:  You can leave comments about the song at the bottom of the page.

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.
Tennessee Ernie Ford
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Comments (8):

I recall seeing him do this song on TV, some time in the 50's - might have been on "Your Hit Parade," or on his own show, a bit later. Heck, it could've been both!
Looks like the YouTube vid here has Dinah Shore (in the 60's?) intro'ing an older video of him singing it in 1956.
- Fred, Laurel, MD
I used the song as a cadence while marching. It has a good beat
- albert, OCEANPORT, NJ
I remember my grandpa playing this song on his big stereo when I was a kid. Granted, that was in the 90's. But still, this song is great.
- Marissa, Akron, OH
Gritty song and a gritty, deep vocal by Tennessee
Ernie...cool!
- steve dotstar, los angeles, CA
I think Bo Diddley version of this song is the best. You can find it on the "Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger" album. Man, he rocks the hell out of it...
- Alejandro, Raleigh, NC
The song has been adopted as a kind of anthem for the American miner, who endured atrocious working conditions for a relative pittance of pay in the early 20th century. Mine safety was lacking prior to formation of the miner's union, hours were long and pay was low. Miners were paid in script, not real money. Mining companies operated company-owned stores that would sell miners the necessities of life, and since regular stores would not accept their script for payment, workers had to use the company store, purchasing items at often greatly inflated prices. When they ran out of money, the store would run a tab for the workers, which would indebt them to the store. Hence the line, "owe my soul to the company store". Mining companies often owned the housing that miners lived in. Living in these conditions often led men to become cynical, bitter, and hopeless, which is reflected in the lyrics of the song. Thankfully, today, while still dangerous, conditions have improved, and at least workers are paid in cash for their labors.
- Joseph, Columbus, OH
Rupert Holmes has cited this song as being part of the inspiration for the infamous cannibalism ballad "Timothy" that he wrote for the Buoys.
- Joshua, Twin Cities, MN
One of the first storysongs of the rock era. Tennessee Ernie Ford gave a more powerful rendition than Merle Travis' original.
- Howard, St. Louis Park, MN
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