Sixteen Tons

Sixteen Tons

"Sixteen Tons" is a song about the misery of coal mining, first recorded in 1946 by U.S. country singer Merle Travis and released on his box set album "Folk Songs of the Hills" the following year. A 1955 version recorded by 'Tennessee' Ernie Ford was on the b-side of his cover of the Moon Mullican standard, "You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry". However, it was Ford's "Sixteen Tons" that reached number one in the Billboard charts, besting the performance of the competing version by Johnny Desmond. Another competing version by Frankie Laine was released only in the U.K. where it gave Ford's version some stiff competition on the charts. On October 17, it was released and, by October 28, it sold 400,000 copies. On November 10, a million copies had been sold. The record had sold two million copies by December 15.

The well-known chorus runs::You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?:Another day older and deeper in debt.:Saint Peter, don't you call me, 'cause I can't go;:I owe my soul to the company store...

According to Travis, the line from the chorus "another day older and deeper in debt" was a phrase often used by his father, a coalminer himself.Fact|date=June 2007

This and the line "I owe my soul to the company store" is a reference to the truck system and to debt bondage. Under this system workers were not paid cash; rather they were paid with unexchangeable credit vouchers for goods at the company store (usually referred to as scrip). This made it impossible for workers to store up cash savings. Workers also usually lived in company-owned dormitories or apartment buildings, the rent for which was automatically deducted from their pay.

In the U.S. the truck system and associated debt bondage persisted until the strikes of the newly-formed United Mine Workers and affiliated unions forced an end to such practices.

The song has been covered by a wide variety of musicians. In 1955 it was recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford and hit Billboard's Country Music charts in November and held the #1 position for ten weeks, then crossed over and held the #1 position on the pop music charts for eight weeks. [cite book
last= Collins
year= 1996
title= The Stories Behind Country Music's All-time Greatest: 100 Songs
publisher= The Berkeley Publishing Group
location=New York
pages= pp 91-93
id=ISBN 1-57297-072-3
] In the United Kingdom, Ford's version competed with versions by Edmund Hockridge and Frankie Laine; for some reason, Laine's version was not released in the United States but only in the UK. Other examples include a rock version released by Eels on their live album "Sixteen Tons (10 Songs)" (2005), a country version released by Johnny Cash on his album "Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town" (1987), a version with a rock edge by Tom Jones that became a hit in 1967, a blues-rock version recorded in 1972 by CCS, a slow, jazzy version released by Stan Ridgway on the album Anatomy (1999), a cumbia version by nuclear polka band Brave Combo, and a traditional roots country version released by Corb Lund on the album Modern Pain (1995). A folk-punk version was also performed by This Bike is a Pipe Bomb. Swedish doom metal band Memento Mori recorded a version of this song as a hidden track on their 1993 debut album Rhymes of Lunacy. The song can be found if the listener allows the CD to remain playing several minutes after the final listed song ends. Serbian hard rock band Riblja Čorba recorded a cover version called "16 noći" (Trans. "16 nights"), which appeared on their 1999 album "Nojeva barka". It was also featured as a secret track on progressive thrash metal band Confessor's 1991 release, Condemned.

The 1990 rendition of the song by Eric Burdon was used for the memorable opening to the comedy "Joe Versus the Volcano". The song is also sung in the undersea horror movie "Leviathan".

Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich's rendition of the song on January 8, 2007 received fairly widespread media play on a variety of television stations and on the popular website YouTube.

In Russia, Moscow's venue [ "Sixteen Tons"] is named after the song by Merle Travis. "Sixteen Tons" track is a house song and can be heard before each concert held in the club.

In Russia this song has been famous since the Soviet era, but in the Platters' version. The song was so influential, that in the USSR several cover versions were made in Russian. In one of the Russian versions the words in the chorus were about US plans to attack the USSR with 16 tons bombs::Sixteen tons, the the heavy load:Planes are flying to bomb the Soviet Union:The planes are flying to the East:To bomb a simple Soviet village

A controversy surrounds the authorship of "Sixteen Tons". It is generally attributed to Merle Travis, to whom it is credited on his 1947 recording. However, Kentucky ex-coalminer and singer/songwriter George S. Davis (1904-1992), when recorded by John Cohen for Folkways in 1966, claimed to have written this song in the 1930s. [John Cohen, liner notes to the album"George Davis: When Kentucky Had No Mining Men" (Folkways FA 2343, 1967)] . Davis' 1966 recording of his version of the song is preserved on the albums "George Davis: When Kentucky Had No Union Men" (Folkways FA 2343, 1967) and "Classic Mountain Songs from Smithsonian" (Folkways Recordings ASIN B000S9DIHK, 2002).

In 2005, General Electric ran a series of ads for its new "clean coal" campaign featuring the song.


* "The Billboard Book of Number One Hits" (fifth edition)
* In Brazil, Noriel Vilela recorded a Portuguese version of "Sixteen Tons" with his Louis Armstrong-like voice and a "Samba" feel.

External links

* [ Sixteen Tons - the history behind the legend]
*"West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly", Volume 15, Nos. 2 and 3, "Coal Miners and Their Communities in Southern Appalachia, 1925-1941" by Rhonda Janney Coleman. :Part 1: 2:
* [ Moscow club "Sixteen Tons"]
* [ GE advertizement.]
* [ Article describing GE campaign.]
* Page about 16 Tons, George Davis and the history of the Company Store

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