SONG: Sixteen Tons
ARTIST: Tennessee Ernie Ford
Listen to it here:
“Sixteen Tons” was written by Merle Travis in 1946 and tells of a Kentucky coal miner working under the truck system (a scrip system that saw wages paid via house or other living expense credit so that the worker sees no actual cash and is unable to accumulate savings). The song was covered countless times in many different languages, but the most successful version was that of Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Ernest Jennings Ford was born February 13, 1919 in Bristol, Tennessee (surprise!). In high school Ford started showing interest in radio and started working at a local station, taking a brief 2 year break to study classical music at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, returning to the mic in Atlanta and Knoxville. He joined the US Army Air Corps during WWII and flew missions over Japan, and returned to radio in southern California. He hosted an early morning country music shows and created a hillbilly persona called “Tennessee Ernie”. He became popular in the area and started doing tours. After several years of successful tours and a popular radio show, Ford was signed to Capitol Records in 1949, released 50 country songs, produced 15 minute radio vignettes of ‘The Tennessee Ernie Show’ and would appear on local TV. Ford’s popularity grew and he left the radio show to take over as the host of College of Musical Knowledge on NBC and have as few cameo appearances on I Love Lucy.
In 1955 Ford had an unexpected hit with Sixteen Tons, a cover of the Merle Travis original. An interesting arrangement of Ford’s deep voice, snapping fingers and clarinet accompaniment, the song spent ten weeks at number one on the country charts and sold over 20 million copies. Ford hosted his own variety program The Ford Show for 5 years in the late 50s and continued to tour, record and make appearances. Privately, he and his wife Betty battled alcoholism which affected his voice and appearance and ultimately led to liver failure and Ford passed on October 17, 1991, aged 72.
The line ‘you load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt’ came from a letter written by Merle Travis’ brother John.
Way to kick the door open with…clarinets. I joke. But seriously Ernie has a GREAT voice, nice and deep and bass-y and resonant. You really hear it on the cadenza with his powerful “I OOOOOOOWWWWWWE…” It’s a shame he didn’t really have any other mainstream hits or try something not super country. I think his voice would have sounded awesome in some Broadway shows of the time because it definitely lends itself to that aesthetic. Anyhow, I’m trying to figure out the instrumental arrangement and I hear drums, maybe bass, clarinet and trombones? So weird! But it works for a song like this. I’m also surprised that more people weren’t kind of outraged by this song? Were people aware of this system that keeps workers poor like this, having arrangements where they don’t actually make any capital and can’t save money? Seems illegal. Anyway. I like this song, but not enough to own it.
Well, I’ve never heard of this song, or of Tennessee Ernie. Apparently it was a #1 hit! From the opening lick this sounds like some kind of novelty song, but Tennessee Ernie actually has a really warm, pleasing voice. I bet with a different song he could sound really great! Unfortunately, this song did not do it for me. From the weird accordion thingy that opens the tune, to the Route 66 vibes that this song gives off, to the fact that the melody sounds like it’s been recycled a bunch of times, I just can’t see myself listening to this song again! Just not my thing, and I’m not sure it’s ever been particularly groundbreaking in any way. Sorry Tennessee Ernie, but I’m going to pass on collecting this one!
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
Johnny Cash in a very dramatic music video and questionable facial hair:
Some long-haired acapella singer with a very deep voice an a version I don’t hate:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: