Sixteen Tons

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"Sixteen Tons"
Song by Merle Travis
from the album Folk Songs of the Hills
B-side"Dark as a Dungeon"
ReleasedJune 1947 (1947-06)
RecordedAugust 8, 1946 (1946-08-08)
StudioRadio Recorders, Los Angeles
LabelCapitol Americana 48001[1]
Songwriter(s)Merle Travis
Producer(s)Lee Gillette
Official audio
"Sixteen Tons" by Tennessee Ernie Ford on YouTube

"Sixteen Tons" is a song written by Merle Travis about a coal miner, based on life in the mines of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky.[2] Travis first recorded the song at the Radio Recorders Studio B in Hollywood, California, on August 8, 1946. Cliffie Stone played bass on the recording.[3] It was first released in July 1947 by Capitol on Travis's album Folk Songs of the Hills.[4] The song became a gold record.

The line "You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt" came from a letter written by Travis's brother John.[2] Another line came from their father, a coal miner, who would say: "I can't afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store."[5]

Tennessee Ernie Ford version[edit]

Tennessee Ernie Ford's version of "Sixteen Tons" was a number-one hit in the United States.

The best known version was recorded in 1955 by American singer Tennessee Ernie Ford reached number one in the Billboard charts,[6] while another version, by Frankie Laine in 1956, was released only in Western Europe, where it gave Ford's version competition.

On March 25, 2015, Ford's version of the song was inducted into the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry.[7]


The sole authorship of "Sixteen Tons" is attributed to Merle Travis on all recordings[6] beginning with Travis's own 1946 record and is registered with BMI as a Merle Travis composition. 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;[8] he also at different times claimed to have written the song as "Twenty-One Tons". There is no supporting evidence for Davis's claim.[9] Davis's 1966 recording of his version of the song (with some slightly different lyrics and tune, but titled "Sixteen Tons") appears on the albums George Davis: When Kentucky Had No Union Men[10] and Classic Mountain Songs from Smithsonian.[11]

The line "another day older and deeper in debt" from the chorus came from a letter written by Travis's brother John.[2] This and the line "I owe my soul to the company store" are 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 that 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.

Other versions[edit]

"Sixteen Tons"
Single by Tennessee Ernie Ford
from the album Ford Favorites
A-side"You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry"
ReleasedOctober 1955
GenreCountry, traditional pop
Songwriter(s)Merle Travis
Producer(s)Jack Fascinato
Tennessee Ernie Ford singles chronology
"His Hands"
"Sixteen Tons"
"That's All"
The chorus sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford

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.[6] 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,[12] 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 most successful, spending four weeks at number 1 in the UK Singles Chart in January and February 1956.[13][14]

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.[15]

Child coal miners in West Virginia, 1908

The song has been recorded or performed in concert by a wide variety of musicians:

Foreign-language versions[edit]

  • Armand Mestral released a version with French lyrics under the title "Seize Tonnes" in 1956.
  • Olavi Virta with Triola Orchestra released a version with Finnish lyrics by Reino Helismaa under the title "Päivän työ" in 1956 (Triola, T 4249), for the 1972 album Olavi Virran Parhaat 3. (Sävel, SÄLP 717).
  • 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 Ralf Bendix, and Freddy Quinn on his album "Freddy" recorded on Polydor.
  • Spanish version "16 Toneladas" was recorded by the Spanish singer José Guardiola and became a hit in Spain and Latin America in 1960.[32]
  • 16 tons (Neapolitan version) by Italian American singer Lou Monte recorded in 1961 with both English and Italian verses
  • Italian version recorded by I Giganti, on the B-side of a 45 RPM vinyl record in 1968.
  • Brazilian composer Roberto Neves wrote the Portuguese version "Dezesseis Toneladas", first recorded by Noriel Vilela in 1971, this version is a samba with happy lyrics unrelated to the subject of the original.[33][34]
  • Adriano Celentano released an Italian-language version "L'Ascensore" in 1986.
  • Polish version, called Szesnaście ton has become popular among the local sea shanty bands. Because of that the song is mistakenly treated as sea shanty classic in Poland.[citation needed]
  • A Chinese version called "靜心等" (Jìng Xin Deng, "Wait patiently") is a well-known hit in Taiwan, interpreted by Chinese singer 張露 (Chang Loo or Zhang Lu) and by Teresa Teng (鄧麗君, Deng Lijun).
  • Hungarian punk band Hétköznapi Csalódások recorded a cover version in 1994 called "16 000 kg=1 600 000dkg" on their album Nyaljátok ki (Kiss my).[citation needed]
  • Hungarian rock band Republic recorded a cover version in 1998 called "Tizenhat tonna feketeszén" ("16 tons black coal") on their album Üzenet (Message).[35][36] Republic's lyrics uses lines from a Hungarian campfire song, a more literal translation of the original ballad.[37]
  • Hungarian music composer and singer Breitner János recorded and released a cover version in 1960 called "Húsz tonna" on 7 inch record EP. The lyrics is translated from the original, but for the number of syllables the 16 tons is changed to 20 (húsz) tonna.
  • A slow, jazzy version by Finnish Turo's Hevi Gee appeared on the 1999 album Ei se mitn! as "Velkavankilaulu".
  • Serbian hard rock band Riblja Čorba recorded a cover version in 1999 called "16 noći" ("16 nights") on their album Nojeva barka.
  • July 2013, in Ukraine, the song was recorded[38] by ukrabilly (Ukrainian folk) group "Ot Vinta!".[39]
  • A Mexican group Hermanos Barron from Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico recorded the song in the 1980s as "16 Toneladas".[40]
  • A Swedish version ("Sexton ton") was recorded 1956 by Cacka Israelsson and released as a B-side on the single "Tro och Kärlek". It was adapted into Swedish by Ingrid Reuterskiöld.
  • Another Swedish version ("Sexton ton") was recorded in 1970 by Gunnar Wiklund. The song is about a truckdriver who drives 16 tons of wooden crates over the border.
  • Alex To version in his 2014 concert. He sang both the original version and his mom's (Chang Loo) version.[41]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Disney animated the Ford version in a short D-TV music video with footage from Donald's Gold Mine and the Roustabout song from Dumbo.
  • In the season 22 South Park episode "Unfulfilled", Ford's version of "Sixteen Tons" plays in the background of a montage of an Amazon fulfillment center.
  • In The Simpsons episode "Bart Gets an Elephant", "Sixteen Tons" is being played on the radio as Bart is forced by Marge to do housework.
  • In the pilot of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the first band shown in the comedy club the Gaslight is playing "Sixteen Tons".
  • In the game Fallout 76, set in a post-apocalyptic West Virginia, the song can be heard on one of the in-game radio stations.
  • In the game Deep Rock Galactic, a cosmetic item called Sixpence references the song in its description.
  • In Season 2 of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon sings a verse.
  • Eric Burdon's version of "Sixteen Tons" is used as the opening song of the Tom Hanks film Joe Versus the Volcano.
  • Dwight Schultz sings a verse of the song in the first episode of the fifth season of The A-Team TV series.
  • Morecambe and Wise danced with other dancers in a comedy parody beat music style routine, using this song as the backing track, on black and white TV in the UK in the 1960s.
  • A reference to the song is made in the show Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode 912 "The Screaming Skull". The reference is made early during the Gumby short “Robot Rumpus” by Tom Servo.
  • In season 3 episode 7 of Mad Men the song can be heard during the credits.
  • In the movie Back to the Future, Marty (Michael J. Fox) is seen in front of the record store in 1955 with a sign on the sidewalk that is advertising the Tennessee Ernie Ford records "The Ballad Of Davy Crockett" and "Sixteen Tons".
  • Songwriter Rupert Holmes has cited "Sixteen Tons", in conjunction with the TV cooking program The Galloping Gourmet, as an inspiration for his song "Timothy", about a pair of miners who are implied to have cannibalized their fellow miner when the three are trapped following a mine collapse.
  • The Rock-afire Explosion performed the song during their "Country Night" show.



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