Sixteen Tons

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Tennessee Ernie Ford's version of "Sixteen Tons" was a number one hit in the United States
The chorus sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford.

"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,[1] while another version by Frankie Laine was released only in Western Europe, where it gave Ford's version competition.

On March 25, 2015 it was announced that Ford's version of the song will be inducted into the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry.[2]


While the song is usually attributed to Merle Travis,[1] 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.[3] Davis' recording of his version of the song appears on the albums George Davis: When Kentucky Had No Union Men[4] and Classic Mountain Songs from Smithsonian.[5]

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.[6] 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.

Cover versions[edit]

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.[1] It hit Billboard's 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,[7] 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.[8][9]

Laine's version was not released in the United States but sold well in the UK. Ford's version 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.[10]

Child coal miners in West Virginia, 1908

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


  • 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.[18]

Foreign-language versions[edit]

  • 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.[19][20]
  • 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).
  • Hungarian rock band Republic recorded a cover version in 1998 called "Tizenhat tonna feketeszén" ("16 tons black coal") on their album Üzenet (Message).[21][22]
  • Serbian hard rock band Riblja Čorba recorded a cover version in 1999 called "16 noći" (Trans. "16 nights") on their album Nojeva barka.
  • July 2013, in Ukraine, the song was recently covered[23] by ukrabilly (Ukrainian folk) group "Ot Vinta!".[24]

In popular culture[edit]


  • 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 1990s.
  • 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).




Parodies and inspirations[edit]

  • Mickey Katz recorded a parody entitled Sixteen Tons on his album Greatest Shticks in the 1950s.[30]
  • John Denver performed his golf-themed parody called 18 Holes in 1997.[31]
  • The song inspired the Hungarian rock band Republic to write the song "16 tonna feketeszén".
  • 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[32] 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. ^ a b c Merle Travis & Ernie Ford interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969)
  2. ^ "National Recording Registry To “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”". the Library of Congress. 25 March 2015. Retrieved 25 March 2015. 
  3. ^ John Cohen, liner notes to the album George Davis: When Kentucky Had No Mining Men (Folkways FA 2343, 1967).
  4. ^ Folkways FA 2343, 1967
  5. ^ Folkways Recordings ASIN B000S9DIHK, 2002
  6. ^ "Full List of Inductees". Country Music Hall of Fame. Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  7. ^ 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. 
  8. ^ 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. 
  9. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. pp. 54–5. ISBN 1-904994-10-5. 
  10. ^ The origins of "Sixteen Tons"
  11. ^ Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 18 - Blowin' in the Wind: Pop discovers folk music. [Part 1]" (AUDIO). Pop Chronicles. 
  12. ^ Three Score and Ten Boxed Set Accompanying Topic Records Catalogue and CD 6
  13. ^ "Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger: Music". Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  14. ^ "Dance Party With This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb". 2006-06-07. Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  15. ^ MDQ Merchandising LLC (2010). "Song List" and "Performing Credits". In Million Dollar Quartet (p. 5) [CD booklet]. New York City: Avatar Studios; and Chicago: Chicago Recording Company
  16. ^ "Home - Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman". 2013-05-01. Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  17. ^ "Sixteen Tons : Tim Timebomb and Friends". 2012-11-23. Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  18. ^
  19. ^ Mugnaini Jr.. Enciclopédia das músicas sertanejas (2001, ISBN 8575270044), p. 42
  20. ^ "16 Toneladas (Sixteen Tons) - Noriel Vilela - Details". Musical Taste. 2003-03-31. Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  21. ^ "Allmusic Hungary a magyar zene adatbázisa". Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  22. ^ Video on YouTube
  23. ^ Video on YouTube
  24. ^ "Ot Vinta. Офіційний сайт". Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  25. ^ Video on YouTube
  26. ^ "About conscience and free market". Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  27. ^ MDQ Merchandising LLC (2010). "Song List" and "Performing Credits".In Million Dollar Quartet (p. 5) [CD booklet]. New York City: Avatar Studios; and Chicago: Chicago Recording Company.
  28. ^ "Photo Coverage: MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET Opens on Broadway". Retrieved 2014-04-03. 
  29. ^ "Heineken: Not Just One Man". Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  30. ^ "Kidding on the Square: Mickey Katz and the Barton Brothers Go Berserk", accessed 2014-06-23
  31. ^ Video on YouTube
  32. ^ "Клуб "16 Тонн" / 16 Tons Club Moscow". Retrieved 2014-03-25. 

External links[edit]

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

3 December 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

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