“Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford
The United States is a country which, rightfully so, serves as a shining example of workers’ rights to many other parts of the world. But things weren’t always like this. Those of us familiar with US labor history know that in some industries employees went through hell, even into the 20th century, until their employers were forced to initiate more-humane conditions.
And arguably no such lot has been as vociferous and influential in affecting such change as coal miners. The reason this is being brought up is not only because these lyrics reflect the toils of said profession circa the early-20th century. But it is such that, as harmless as “Sixteen Tons” may read to us in the here and now, at the time it was dropped, the US government itself considered it and Tennessee Ernie Ford a threat due to the fact that, most simply put, it effectively enlightened the masses to just how unfairly the indispensable coal-mining industry treated its laborers.
The initial inspiration behind the lyrics wasn’t necessarily the plight of coal miners per se but the fact that the writer’s brother compared their job to one as dangerous and thankless as being a war correspondent.
In doing so, he mentioned the “16 tons”, which is a reference to the amount of coal new miners were forced to haul during their first day of work. And beyond that, said writer, Merle Travis, actually grew up in a part of Kentucky where coal-mining was the norm.
So whereas it doesn’t seem that he ever engaged in such a profession himself, he was very much familiar with its intricacies, as clearly was his brother.
And as for Tennessee Ford, he also had a couple of older members who mined coal for a profession. So that may be why he was able to get the thesis sentiment of this piece across so clearly, as in personally understanding where it came from. And what said sentiment revolves around is depicting such individuals as a cursed lot, even from birth.
In other words, it’s as if their destiny is to engage in hard, dehumanizing labor – one in which, as inferred by the chorus, they are intentionally cast into a cycle of ever-increasing debt by their own employers. And if you’re saying to yourself that this sounds a bit like what some of us are going through to this day, as in always working yet at the same time perpetually being in debt, well to note, the only direct reference to coal is made in the second verse. So it can be said that Tennessee is speaking of the heavy-burdened, unfairly-paid everyman in general.
A Social Issue
Indeed as the song progresses into the fourth and final verse, the vocalist changes his perspective from being employment-based into a social one. And what he does is proceed to depict himself as the type of individual who, if you cross him the wrong way, can end up putting you in the grave.
And no, this doesn’t necessarily read like the type of similarly-worded machismo we come across via some musicians of today. Instead, Ernie’s deadly weapon is his hard fists, not a gun. And what is being inferred is that they’ve been hardened by the aforementioned labor, as has his soul itself, which is why he’s so internally hostile.
Going back to the government’s beef with this song, it’s intriguing to think that at one time they actually considered this piece a threat.
Implying that you may randomly beat someone dead is of course an ear-catching sentiment. But the song itself is not threatening yet rather indicative of the reality that people were actually burdened so and thus tempered accordingly.
And the fact that govvie got its panties in a bunch as a result of these lyrics is basically an indirect confirmation that yes, at the time workers being exploited like this, in America, was a norm.
So at the end of the day we actually owe Tennessee Ernie Ford a shoutout as, via his rendition of “Sixteen Tons”, he made his own contribution, a significant one actually, to the furthering of labor rights.
Who wrote “Sixteen Tons”?
“Sixteen Tons” was written by one Merle Travis (1917-1983), who was also the first singer to drop a version, doing so in 1947.
Covers of “Sixteen Tons”
Throughout the years, even into the 2020s, a number of artists have covered this tune, including the likes of the following:
- Elvis Presley (1950s)
- B.B. King (1955)
- Bo Diddley (1960)
- Stevie Wonder (1966)
- Tom Jones (1967)
- Johnny Cash (1987)
- Tom Morello (2011)
- Robbie Williams (2013)
Other covers worth mentioning include:
- The Platters (1957)
- José Guardiola (1960)
- Gunnar Wiklund (1970)
- Geoff Castellucci (2021)
But the most famous rendition of all is considered to be that of Tennessee Ernie Ford (1919-1991). Ford also got up on the song early, i.e. his cover coming out on 17 October 1955 and later being featured on his album “Ford Favorites”.
Success of Tennessee Ford’s Version
In fact Ford’s cover has actually made it into the National Recording Registry via the Library of Congress, having been inducted in 2014.
Tennessee Ford’s rendition of “Sixteen Tons” topped the Billboard Hot 100, as well as Billboard’s Hot Country Songs list and the UK Singles Chart.
With that type of showing, “Sixteen Tons” proved to be Ernie Ford’s most successful song and one of his signature tunes, alongside 1950’s “The Shotgun Boogie”. And his version actually came out as a B-side, with its A-side being the much-less renowned “You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry”.
Some More Interesting Facts
Tennessee Ford put this song out through Capitol Records. Capitol is the same label that backed Merle Travis’s original. In fact this track broke Capitol sales’ records at the time. Furthermore, it was a major hit right off the bat.
Ford was inspired to record this song in part because he had a couple of family members who were coal miners themselves.
Secondly, he was also a successful radio and television personality – so much so that Capitol had to force him to honor his recording contract. In fact it was after reciting “Sixteen Tons” and the response it received as a result that Capitol agreed to let him record. This was even despite the fact that, as noted earlier, some powerful entities had issues with the lyrics, to the point where Merle Travis was even placed on a government watch list.
Ford’s version of “Sixteen Tons” was produced by a regular collaborator of his, the late Jack Fascinato (1915-1994).
Aside from being covered by countless artists, both in English and foreign languages, “Sixteen Tons” was also featured in many a movie and TV Show. Some notable appearances include:
- 1985 American science fiction movie, “Back to the Future”. Marty (Michael J. Fox) sees the advertisement for Tennessee Ernie Ford’s records at the front of a record store in 1955.
- In the 7th episode of the third season of American drama series, “Mad Men”.
- Episode 14, Season 4 of 2010 American spy-comedy series, “Chuck”. The song is featured during the scene when Roan (John Larroquette) starts work at Buy More.
- Pilot of 2017 American comedy-drama series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”.
- 2018 online action video game “Fallout 76” featured the track as one of the songs played in the in-game radio stations.
- Season 22, episode 9 of American animated sitcom “South Park” makes use of this song. It is played when Stephen goes through a work-home-work cycle. The episode aired on 5th December, 2018.
- Episode 7 of 2020 American historical drama series, “The Right Stuff”. The medical team sings along to “Sixteen Tons”.