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"Sixteen Tons" is a song about a coal miner, based on life in coal mines in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. It was written and first recorded by Merle Travis at the Radio Recorders Studio B in Hollywood, California on August 8, 1946. Cliffie Stone played bass on the recording. It was first released by Capitol on the album Folk Songs of the Hills (July 1947). 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' brother John. 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."
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.
The song is usually attributed to Merle Travis, who 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.
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 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, 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. 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.
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.
- 1955: Red Sovine recorded the song, released on the Brunswick label
- 1955: B.B. King & His Orchestra recorded on RPM Records
- 1955: Larry Cross recorded on the Embassy label
- 1956: Ewan MacColl with Brian Daly :2 recorded on Topic Records
- 1956: Michael Holliday recorded the song on the Columbia
- 1956: Eddy Arnold version released on the compilation album Dozen Hits, RCA Victor
- 1957: The Platters recorded the song, released on the Mercury Records.
- 1960: Bo Diddley released a version on his album Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger.
- 1961: Jimmy Dean recorded a cover on his Big Bad John and Other Fabulous Songs and Tales album
- 1963: Alberto Vazquez (singer), 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
- 1971: Mylon LeFevre version recorded on the album Mylon with Holy Smoke
- 1972: A blues-rock version was recorded by CCS
- 1973: Jerry Reed recorded a version for his Hot A' Mighty! album
- 1974: Steve Goodman played it live at Columbia studios.
- 1976: A country rock version by the The Don Harrison Band peaked at #47 on the Billboard Hot 100 in June 1976. It also 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: 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
- 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: 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
- 2014: Gary Clail released a break-beat/dub version on his comeback album Nail It To The Mast.
- Brave Combo recorded a cumbia version
- Rehab covered it on the independently released album Cuz We Can
- Rockapella recorded an a cappella version
- ZZ Top performed the song on their 2014 tour with Jeff Beck.
- 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 Ralf Bendix, and Freddy Quinn on his album "Freddy" recorded on Polydor.
- Spanish version "16 Toneladas" was recorded by the Catalan singer José Guardiola and became a hit in Spain and Latin America in 1960.
- 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.
- 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). Republic's lyrics uses lines from a Hungarian campfire song, a more literal translation of the original ballad.
- 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" (Trans. "16 nights") on their album Nojeva barka.
- July 2013, in Ukraine, the song was recently covered by ukrabilly (Ukrainian folk) group "Ot Vinta!".
- A Mexican group, Hermanos Barron from Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico covered the song in the 1980s as "16 Toneladas".
In popular culture
- John Denver performed his golf-themed parody called "18 Holes" in 1997.
- Mickey Katz recorded a parody entitled "Sixteen Tons" on his album Greatest Shticks in the 1950s.
- In Russia, the Moscow concert venue Sixteen Tons is named after the song, which is played before each concert held in the club.
- "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.
- An episode of The Big Bang Theory, "The Work Song Cluster", had a sleep-deprived Sheldon sing a line of this song instead of She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain.
- The movie Joe Versus the Volcano opens with a version by Eric Burdon.
- "Sixteen Tons". Ernieford.com. 1956-07-29. Retrieved 2016-08-07.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on May 19, 2015. Retrieved 2015-05-06.
- "Advance Record Releases". Billboard. June 28, 1947. p. 119.
- "You Load 16 Tons... Coal Mine Song Is a Gold Mine". LIFE. December 5, 1955. p. 183.
- Merle Travis & Ernie Ford interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969)
- "National Recording Registry To "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive"". the Library of Congress. 25 March 2015. Retrieved 25 March 2015.
- John Cohen, liner notes to the album George Davis: When Kentucky Had No Mining Men (Folkways FA 2343, 1967).
- Folkways FA 2343, 1967
- Folkways Recordings ASIN B000S9DIHK, 2002
- "Full List of Inductees". Country Music Hall of Fame. Retrieved 2014-03-25.
- 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.
- 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.
- Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. pp. 54–5. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.
- J.D. (2008-10-06). "River of No Return". The Pop History Dig. Retrieved 2016-08-07.
- Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 18 - Blowin' in the Wind: Pop discovers folk music. [Part 1]" (audio). Pop Chronicles. Digital.library.unt.edu.
- "Three Score & Ten". Topic Records. Retrieved 2016-08-07.
- "Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger: Music". Amazon.com. Retrieved 2014-03-25.
- "Music: Top 100 Songs | Billboard Hot 100 Chart". Billboard. Retrieved 2016-04-28.
- "Dance Party With This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb". Amazon.com. 2006-06-07. Retrieved 2014-03-25.
- 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
- "Home - Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman". Nightwatchmanmusic.com. 2013-05-01. Retrieved 2014-03-25.
- "Sixteen Tons : Tim Timebomb and Friends". Timtimebomb.com. 2012-11-23. Retrieved 2014-03-25.
- "ZZ Top Concert Setlists". Setlist.fm. Retrieved 2016-08-07.
- Salaverri, Fernando (September 2005). Sólo éxitos: año a año, 1959–2002 (1st ed.). Spain: Fundación Autor-SGAE. ISBN 84-8048-639-2.
- Mugnaini Jr.. Enciclopédia das músicas sertanejas (2001, ISBN 8575270044), p. 42
- "16 Toneladas (Sixteen Tons) - Noriel Vilela - Details". Musical Taste. 2003-03-31. Retrieved 2014-03-25.
- "Allmusic Hungary a magyar zene adatbázisa". Allmusic.hu. Retrieved 2014-03-25.
- Video on YouTube
- "Tábortüz - 16 Tonna lyrics - Musixmatch".
- Video on YouTube
- "Ot Vinta. Офіційний сайт". Ot-vinta.com. Retrieved 2014-03-25.
- "Los Hermanos Barron-16 Toneladas". YouTube. 2008-08-04. Retrieved 2016-08-07.
- Video on YouTube
- "Kidding on the Square: Mickey Katz and the Barton Brothers Go Berserk, by George Robinson, from". the KlezmerShack. Retrieved 2016-08-07.
- "Клуб "16 Тонн" / 16 Tons Club Moscow". 16tons.ru. Retrieved 2014-03-25.
- 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.
- "Photo Coverage: MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET Opens on Broadway". Broadwayworld.com. Retrieved 2014-04-03.
- Sheldon High on Coffee. Event occurs at 00:20.
- Coleman, Rhonda Janney (April 2001). "Coal Miners and Their Communities in Southern Appalachia, 1925–1941, Part 1". West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly. XV (2). Retrieved 2014-04-03.
- Coleman, Rhonda Janney (July 2001). "Coal Miners and Their Communities in Southern Appalachia, 1925–1941, Part 2". West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly. XV (3). Retrieved 2014-04-03.
- "Heineken - The Odyssey Film (16 Toneladas / 16 Tons)" (in Portuguese). YouTube. Wieden + Kennedy (Amsterdam, Netherlands). February 5, 2014.
- O'Connor, L. H. (28 May 2011). "Merle Haggard, He's Not". Roothog Radio. Retrieved 2014-04-03.
"Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" by The Four Aces
|Billboard Top 100 number one single
(Tennessee Ernie version)
3 December 1955 (6 weeks)
"Memories Are Made of This" by Dean Martin
"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