"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 Western Europe, where it gave Ford's version competition.
While the song is usually attributed to Merle Travis, to whom it is credited on his 1946 recording, George S. Davis, a folk singer and songwriter who had been a Kentucky coal miner, claimed on a 1966 recording for Folkways Records to have written the song as "Nine-to-ten tons" in the 1930s. Davis' recording of his version of the song appears on the albums George Davis: When Kentucky Had No Union Men and Classic Mountain Songs from Smithsonian.
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. 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 scrip system, workers were not paid cash; rather they were paid with non-transferable credit vouchers which could be exchanged only for goods sold at the company store. 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.
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Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded "Sixteen Tons" in 1955 as the B-side of his cover of the Moon Mullican standard, "You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry". With Ford's snapping fingers and a unique clarinet-driven pop arrangement, it quickly became a million seller. It hit Billboards country music chart in November and held the No. 1 position for ten weeks, then crossed over and held the number 1 position on the pop music chart for eight weeks, besting the competing version by Johnny Desmond. In the United Kingdom, Ford's version competed with versions by Edmund Hockridge and Frankie Laine. Nevertheless Ford's version was the more successful, spending four weeks at number 1 in the UK Singles Chart in January and February 1956.
Laine's version was not released in the United States but sold well in the UK: it was released on 17 October and by 28 October had sold 400,000 copies. On 10 November, a million copies had been sold; two million were sold by 15 December.
The song has been covered by a wide variety of musicians:
- 1955: Sung live by Elvis Presley in his early 1950s concerts, but never recorded.
- 1955: The Weavers performed the song on their concert album The Weavers at Carnegie Hall.
- 1956: Ewan MacColl with Brian Daly :2 recorded on Topic Records
- 1957: The Platters recorded the song, released on the Mercury label.
- 1958: Freddy Quinn, an Austrian singer, released a version in german called "Sie hiess Mary-Ann" on his album "Freddy" recorded on Polydor
- 1960: Bo Diddley released a version on his album Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger.
- 1960: The song was released in Spanish by the Catalan singer José Guardiola
- 1961: Jimmy Dean recorded a cover on his Big Bad John and Other Fabulous Songs and Tales album
- 1963: Alberto Vazquez, Mexican bass-baritone singer, covered this song for the market in Mexico.
- 1964: Louis Neefs, Belgian singer, played and recorded the song live in Belgium
- 1965: Lorne Greene version recorded in the album The Man
- 1966: Stevie Wonder recorded a version influenced by Motown and soul music on his Down to Earth album.
- 1967: Tom Jones's version with a rock edge, on his album Green, Green Grass of Home
- 1972: A blues-rock version was recorded by CCS
- 1973: Jerry Reed recorded a version for his Hot A' Mighty! album
- 1976: A country rock version by the Don Harrison Band made the lower reaches of the charts in Australia
- 1984: Covered by the Montreal band Deja Voodoo on their 1984 album Cemetery
- 1986: A version by English punk band The Redskins on their 1986 album Neither Washington Nor Moscow
- 1986: Anna Domino covered the song on her eponymous 1986 album
- 1987: Johnny Cash released a country version on his album Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town
- 1987: Melbourne hip hop duo Mighty Big Crime released a hip-hop version.
- 1987: Frank Tovey performed the song on his album Tyranny & the Hired Hand.
- 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 album 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: Tuff, a hard rock band, released a cover version on their album Religious Fix
- 1995: A traditional roots country version was released by Corb Lund on the album Modern Pain
- 1996: Western Flyer did a live comical cover version for their album Back in America (1996)
- 1998: Chicago band Hello Dave did a rendition on their 16 Tons album.
- 1999: A slow, jazzy version by Stan Ridgway appeared on the album Anatomy
- 2005: A rock version released by Eels was on their live album "Sixteen Tons (10 Songs)
- 2005: Punk band This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb included a cover version on their album Dance Party With...
- 2007: Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich's rendition of the song on 8 January received fairly widespread TV coverage, and appeared on YouTube
- 2007: Lawrence "Lipbone" Redding covered the song on his album, Hop The Fence
- 2010: Lance Guest, portraying Johnny Cash, on the original Broadway cast recording of Million Dollar Quartet
- 2011: Tom Morello, political activist and guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and The Nightwatchman; on the EP "Union Town", released by NewWest Records
- 2012: The Dandy Warhols, released a cover on their 2012 album, This Machine.
- 2012: Hank Green, known as one of the founders of the YouTube channel Vlogbrothers, covered it on his channel Hankschannel
- 2012: LeAnn Rimes was performing the song as part of her live show as of 2012.
- 2012: Tim Armstrong recorded a version as a part of his Tim Timebomb and Friends project 
- 2013: Robbie Williams covered the song on the deluxe edition of his Swings Both Ways album
- 2013: Adam Nyerere Bahner aka Tay Zonday covered the song on his YouTube channel 
- Brave Combo recorded a cumbia version
- Rehab covered it on the independently released album Cuz We Can
- Rockapella recorded an a cappella version
- Sung on a weekly basis for the last 25 years by the Mobil Lounge Softball Team & Beer Swillers Club (aka MLST&BSC). Up-to-date team win/loss stats were substituted for the "lotta men died" section. Lyrics modified to include "Chucky", "P" (aka Mr. P), and "A Barber Named Mo".
- ZZ Top is performing the song on their 2014 tour with Jeff Beck. 
Foreign language versions
- Armand Mestral released a version with French lyrics under the title "Seize Tonnes" in 1956.
- A German version of the song did not translate the original lyrics, but rather rewrote them entirely, under the title "Sie hieß Mary-Ann". This was released in several versions on German record labels in 1956 and 1957, most notably by Freddy Quinn and Ralf Bendix.
- Brazilian composer Roberto Neves wrote the Portuguese version "Dezesseis Toneladas", first recorded by Noriel Vilela in 1971.
- Adriano Celentano released an Italian-language version, "L'Ascensore", in 1986.
- A version called "靜心等" (Jìng Xin Deng, "Wait patiently") is a well-known hit in Taïwan, interpreted by Chinese singer 張露 (Chang Loo or Zhang Lu) and by Teresa Teng (鄧麗君, Deng Lijun).
- Serbian hard rock band Riblja Čorba recorded a cover version in 1999 called "16 noći" (Trans. "16 nights") on their album Nojeva barka.
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 90s.
- Champaign-Urbana based "Plowpunk" band Sixteen Tons performed from 1988 to the present.
- 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 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 Tennessee Ernie Ford version of the song was played during the closing credits of the "Seven Twenty Three" episode of the television show Mad Men (Season 3, Episode 7, aired 2009), 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.
- The American show Chuck (TV series) played this song during the episode Chuck Versus the Seduction Impossible (Episode no. Season 4 Episode 14 February 7, 2011).
- The song appeared during the opening credits of Joe Versus the Volcano.
- It was also used in the undersea horror movie Leviathan.
- It appeared in the Taiwan movie The Wayward Cloud by Tsai Ming Liang in 2005.
- Ümit Kıvanç used several versions of the song in his online movie 16 Tons - A movie about conscience and free market in 2011.
- "Sixteen Tons" is one of the many songs featured in the show Forever Plaid, which premiered in 1992.
- "Sixteen Tons" was sung by Lance Guest, portraying Johnny Cash, in medley with "My Babe" sung by Robert Britton Lyons, portraying Carl Perkins, in the Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet, which opened in on Broadway in April, 2010.
Parodies and inspirations
- Mickey Katz recorded a parody entitled Sixteen Tons on his album Greatest Shticks in the 1950s.
- John Denver performed his golf-themed parody called 18 Holes in 1997.
- The song inspired the Hungarian rock band Republic to write the song "16 tonna feketeszén".
- July 2013, in Ukraine, the song was recently covered by musical comedy group "OT VINTA".
- Homer and Jethro recorded a parody entitled Sixteen Tons, a version of which appears on their live album, At the Country Club
- The parody band Big Daddy used the song as the basis for their adaptation of Money for Nothing by Dire Straits.
- In Russia, the Moscow concert venue Sixteen Tons 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.
- Merle Travis & Ernie Ford interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969)
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- "Full List of Inductees". Country Music Hall of Fame. Retrieved 2014-03-25.
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- Rice, Jo (1982). The Guinness Book of 500 Number One Hits (1st ed.). Enfield, Middlesex: Guinness Superlatives Ltd. p. 23. ISBN 0-85112-250-7.
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"Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" by The Four Aces
|Billboard Top 100 number one single
(Tennessee Ernie version)
3 December 1955 (6 weeks)
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"Love Love Love" by Webb Pierce
|Billboard Hot Country Singles
number one single by Tennessee Ernie Ford
17 December 1955 - 4 February 1956
"Why Baby Why" by Red Sovine and Webb Pierce