Sixteen Tons

Album: Sixteen Tons (1955)
Charted: 1 1
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Songfacts®:

  • This was written in 1947 by the Country & Western guitarist and songwriter Merle Travis. It is based on the experiences of his coal-mining family. His brother, John Travis, wrote him a letter about the death of Ernie Pyle, a war correspondent who had just been killed covering combat. John likened Pyle's job to that of a coal miner, writing: "It's like working in the coal mines. You load 16 tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt." Merle incorporated his brother's words into the chorus.

    Merle also remembered something his father once said about the practice of paying miners in "scrip," credit vouchers that could only be used at the company-owned general store. He told a neighbor, "I can't afford to die. I owe my soul to the general store," inspiring the lyrics:

    Saint Peter don't you call me, 'cause I can't go
    I owe my soul to the company store
  • According to the book 1000 UK #1 Hits by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh, Tennessee Ernie Ford was so busy with a five-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. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    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.
  • A Kentucky man named George Davis claimed that he originally wrote the song back in the 1930s, long before Travis and Ford made it into a hit. In 1966, the radio station WKIZ in Hazard, Kentucky, recorded Davis's version that featured slightly different lyrics and chord changes. However, there was no hard evidence to prove that Davis was the original author.
  • Before he recorded the song, Ford sang it on his TV show and was flooded with more than 1,200 requests to sing it again.
  • According to Archie Green, author of Only A Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs, the title refers to an old practice of initiating new miners by having them haul 16 tons, compared to the typical 8 to 10, on their first day.
  • Ford's version was used on the TV shows The Simpsons, Mad Men, and Chuck. The Platters' cover was featured on The Blacklist, and The Nighthawks' rendition was used on The Wire. Jim Parsons also sang it on The Big Bang Theory in the 2009 episode "The Work Song Nanocluster."
  • Using the same music, folk singer Earl Robinson rewrote this as "42 Kids" to address problems in the public school system in the late '50s. Pete Seeger covered it on his 1958 album Gazette, Vol 1.
  • Though he never recorded it, Elvis Presley sang this at some of his concerts in the '50s.
  • For some, this song stayed relevant into the digital age, with big tech now the "company store." East Bay Ray, the guitarist for the Dead Kennedys, covered it with his band Killer Smiles in 2020. "I like that song because it relates to nowadays because people are kind of tools of Facebook and tools of Uber and tools of Amazon," he told Songfacts. "You've got to play by their rules, and they're basically psychopathic capitalist corporations. Their whole job is to suppress labor."

Comments: 13

  • Kaycee from MissouriThis song came to mind watching THE MOLLY MAGUIRES. Sean Connery and Richard Harris. Good history of coal mining
  • Fat Gorgo Cat from Swedento Marissa from Akron, Oh: I guess I could be your grandpa because in the 60's when I was about 12 years old I played this record over and over... and over again. Finally my mom shouted from the nearby kitchen; Stop it! Stop it! Enough! By I loved the song and the deep voice of Ford.
  • Mark Andrew White from Conyers,georgiaA great classic.Though many recorded the song,Ernie Ford's version is the definitive one.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn July 4th 1967, Tom Jones appeared on the premier episode of the CBS-TV program 'Spotlight'*...
    One month later on August 6th, 1967 his covered version of "Sixteen Tons" entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart at position #87; it stayed on the chart for 4 weeks, peaking at #68...
    *'Spotlight' ran for nine episodes, it was a summer replacement for 'The Red Skelton Hour'.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn April 18th 1976, "Sixteen Tons" by the Don Harrison Band entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart at position #90; and on June 6th it peaked at #47 and spent 9 weeks on the Top 100...
    The band's bassist, Stu Cook, and drummer, Doug Clifford, were former members of Creedence Clearwater Revival...
    As stated above; many artists have covered it, with two of these versions making the Top 100. In 1955 Johnny Desmond took it to #17 and Tom Jones reached #68 with his version in 1967...
    Doug Clifford will celebrate his 69th birthday in six days on April 24th, and one day later, on April 25th, Stu Cook will be celebrating his 69th birthday.
  • Fred from Laurel, MdI 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.
  • Albert from Oceanport, NjI used the song as a cadence while marching. It has a good beat
  • Marissa from Akron, OhI 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.
  • Steve Dotstar from Los Angeles, CaGritty song and a gritty, deep vocal by Tennessee
    Ernie...cool!
  • Alejandro from Raleigh, NcI 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...
  • Joseph from Columbus, OhThe 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.
  • Joshua from Twin Cities, MnRupert Holmes has cited this song as being part of the inspiration for the infamous cannibalism ballad "Timothy" that he wrote for the Buoys.
  • Howard from St. Louis Park, MnOne of the first storysongs of the rock era. Tennessee Ernie Ford gave a more powerful rendition than Merle Travis' original.
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