Sixteen Tons: Wikis


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"Sixteen Tons" is a song about the life of a coal miner, first recorded in 1946 by American 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 reached number one in the Billboard charts, while another version by Frankie Laine was released only in the United Kingdom, where it gave Ford's version some stiff competition.

Travis claimed authorship of the song, but a competing claim was made by George S. Davis.



Sixteen Tons - Chorus - Ernie Ford.ogg
The chorus sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford.

The chorus of "Sixteen Tons" is:

You load sixteen tons, 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 coal miner himself.[citation needed] 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 houses, the rent for which was automatically deducted from their pay. In the United States 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.

However, "Sixteen Tons" is not simply sociology. While the choruses refer to the difficulties of life in coal camps, the verses depict a mythos of toughness in the face of adversity.


A dispute exists regarding the authorship of "Sixteen Tons". While the song is generally attributed to Merle Travis, to whom it is credited on his 1947 recording, George S. Davis, a folk singer and songwriter who had been a coal miner in Kentucky, claimed when he was recorded for Folkways in 1966 to have written the song as "Nine-to-ten tons" in the 1930s.[1] Davis' recording of his version of the song appears on the albums George Davis: When Kentucky Had No Union Men[2] and Classic Mountain Songs from Smithsonian.[3]

Cover versions

In 1955 Sixteen Tons was recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford as the b-side of his cover of the Moon Mullican standard, "You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry". It 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,[4] besting the competing version by Johnny Desmond. In the United Kingdom, Ford's version competed with versions by Edmund Hockridge and Frankie Laine. Laine's version was not released in the United States, but sold well in the U.K.: it was released on October 17 and by October 28 had sold 400,000 copies. On November 10, a million copies had been sold; two million were sold by December 15. Another early cover was the one recorded by The Platters in 1957.

The song has been covered by a wide variety of musicians:

  • 1961: The song was released in Mexico by the singer Alberto Vazquez.
  • 1966: Stevie Wonder recorded a version influenced by Motown and soul music.
  • 1967: Tom Jones's version with a rock edge, which became a minor hit
  • 1972: A blues-rock version was recorded by CCS
  • 1976: A country rock version by the Don Harrison Band made the lower reaches of the charts in Australia.
  • 1987: Johnny Cash released a country version on his album Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town
  • 1990: A rendition of the song by Eric Burdon was used for the opening to the comedy film Joe Versus the Volcano. Recorded in the early 1980s, it was not released until 1998 on the album Nightwinds Dying. In 1992 he recorded another version, which was released as the only studio track on the live album "Access All Areas" in 1993.
  • 1991: It was featured as a secret track on progressive thrash metal band Confessor's release, Condemned.
  • 1993: The Swedish doom metal band Memento Mori recorded a version of this song as a hidden track on their debut album Rhymes of Lunacy.
  • 1995: A traditional roots country version was released by Corb Lund on the album Modern Pain
  • 1999: Serbian hard rock band Riblja Čorba recorded a cover version called "16 noći" (Trans. "16 nights") on their album Nojeva barka.
  • 1999: A slow, jazzy version by Stan Ridgway appeared on the album Anatomy
  • 2000: In Brazil, Noriel Vilela's Portuguese version with a samba feel experienced renewed popularity after being included in the Franco-Brazilian compilation Favela Chic.
  • 2005: A rock version released by Eels was on their live album "Sixteen Tons (10 Songs)
  • 2007: Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich's rendition of the song on January 8 received fairly widespread TV coverage, and appeared on YouTube.
  • 2007: Lawrence "Lipbone" Redding covered the song on his album, Hop The Fence


In popular culture

  • The Clash used Tennessee Ernie Ford's version as their intro music for their 1980 US tour, called "The 16 Tons Tour".
  • Rock band Faith No More covered a snippet of the song as an intro to "Let's Lynch the Landlord" (another cover) at live concerts in the early 90's.
  • Ed Sullivan suggested Bo Diddley sing a version of the song for his 1955 appearance on Sullivan's television show. Instead, Diddley sang a rendition of his own song, "Bo Diddley," angering Sullivan.
  • The expression "16 Tons" was a recurring feature in Monty Python's Flying Circus - usually as a label on a large fake weight that would drop out of the sky onto one of the players.
  • The song appeared in season 5 of The Simpsons episode "Bart Gets an Elephant".
  • In the South Park episode "Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset," Butters sings a variation of "Sixteen Tons" while mining for coal to avoid being sold to Paris Hilton. Dressed as a bear, he is seen digging outside singing: "Ya work 18 hours whadaya get? Parents sell ya to Paris Hilton".
  • The song was played by the band The Nighthawks in season two of the crime drama The Wire. It was played in the bar that was frequented by the Stevedore's union. It was also featured on the soundtrack.
  • The song was played during the closing credits of the "Seven Twenty Three" episode of the television show Mad Men (Season 3, Episode 7), in which the show's lead character was strong-armed into signing a three-year employment contract.
  • In the American sitcom The Big Bang Theory Sheldon Cooper sings a line of the song in the Season 2 episode "The Work Song Nanocluster".
  • In 2005, General Electric ran a series of ads for its new "clean coal" campaign featuring the song.
  • In the "Last Train to Oblivion" episode of the cartoon The Real Ghostbusters, Peter Venkman sings this song as he shovels coal into the train furnace.
  • "Sixteen Tons" is one of the many songs featured in the show Forever Plaid, which premiered in 1992.
Parodies and inspirations
  • John Denver performed his golf-themed parody called 18 Holes in 1997.[6]
  • The song inspired the Hungarian rock band Republic to write the song "16 tonna feketeszén".
In Russia
  • In Russia, the Moscow concert venue Sixteen Tons[7] is named after the song, which is played before each concert held in the club. The song has been famous in Russia since the Soviet era, but in the Platters' version. It was so influential that in the USSR several cover versions were made in Russian, as well as innumerable parodies in which "sixteen tons" referred to the weight of a bomb carried by some pilots to be dropped on a target country. There were versions with Americans about to bomb USSR, Russians about to bomb America, and also Russians about to bomb China. Lyrics tended to vary by performer.


  1. ^ John Cohen, liner notes to the album George Davis: When Kentucky Had No Mining Men (Folkways FA 2343, 1967).
  2. ^ Folkways FA 2343, 1967
  3. ^ Folkways Recordings ASIN B000S9DIHK, 2002
  4. ^ Collins, Ace (1996). The Stories Behind Country Music's All-time Greatest: 100 Songs. New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group. pp. 91–93. ISBN 1-57297-072-3. 
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ [

External links

Part 1:
Part 2:
Preceded by
"Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" by The Four Aces
Billboard Top 100 number one single
(Tennessee Ernie version)

December 3, 1955 (6 weeks)
Succeeded by
"Memories Are Made of This" by Dean Martin
Preceded by
"Love Love Love" by Webb Pierce
Billboard Hot Country Singles
number one single by Tennessee Ernie Ford

December 17, 1955 - February 4, 1956
(ten weeks)
Succeeded by
"Why Baby Why" by Red Sovine and Webb Pierce

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