Sixteen Tons Information

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"Sixteen Tons"
Song by Merle Travis
from the album Folk Songs of the Hills
ReleasedJuly 1947 (1947-07)
RecordedAugust 8, 1946
Genre Folk
Label Capitol
Songwriter(s) Merle Travis
Producer(s) Lee Gillette
The chorus sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford
Tennessee Ernie Ford's version of "Sixteen Tons" was a number-one hit in the United States.

"Sixteen Tons" is a song written by Merle Travis about a coal miner, based on life in coal mines in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. [1] 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. [2] It was first released in July 1947 by Capitol on Travis's album Folk Songs of the Hills. [3] 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. [1] 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." [4]

A 1955 version recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford reached number one in the Billboard charts, [5] while another version by Frankie Laine 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. [6]


The sole authorship of "Sixteen Tons" is attributed to Merle Travis on all recordings [5] 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; [7] he also at different times claimed to have written the song as "Twenty-One Tons". There is no supporting evidence for Davis's claim. [8] 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 [9] and Classic Mountain Songs from Smithsonian. [10]

According to Travis, the line "another day older and deeper in debt" from the chorus was a phrase often used by his father, a coal miner himself. [11] 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

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. [5] 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 more 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

  • 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. [28]
  • 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. [29] [30]
  • 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 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).
  • Hungarian rock band Republic recorded a cover version in 1998 called "Tizenhat tonna feketeszén" ("16 tons black coal") on their album Üzenet (Message). [31] [32] Republic's lyrics uses lines from a Hungarian campfire song, a more literal translation of the original ballad. [33]
  • 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 [34] by ukrabilly (Ukrainian folk) group "Ot Vinta!". [35]
  • A Mexican group Hermanos Barron from Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico recorded the song in the 1980s as "16 Toneladas". [36]
  • 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. [37]

In popular culture

  • In the season 22 South Park episode " Unfulfilled", "Sixteen Tons" plays in the background of a montage of an Amazon Fulfillment Center.
  • In The Simpsons episode Bart Gets an Elephant, 'Sixteen Tons' was being played on the radio as Bart was 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 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.


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  2. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on May 19, 2015. Retrieved 2015-05-06.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title ( link)
  3. ^ "Advance Record Releases". Billboard. June 28, 1947. p. 119.
  4. ^ "You Load 16 Tons... Coal Mine Song Is a Gold Mine". LIFE. December 5, 1955. p. 183.
  5. ^ a b c Merle Travis & Ernie Ford interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969)
  6. ^ "National Recording Registry To "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive"". the Library of Congress. March 25, 2015. Retrieved March 25, 2015.
  7. ^ John Cohen, liner notes to the album George Davis: When Kentucky Had No Mining Men (Folkways FA 2343, 1967)
  8. ^ Steyn, Mark. "SIXTEEN TONS".
  9. ^ Folkways FA 2343, 1967
  10. ^ Folkways Recordings ASIN B000S9DIHK, 2002
  11. ^ "Full List of Inductees". Country Music Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on November 6, 2013. Retrieved March 25, 2014.
  12. ^ 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.
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  14. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. pp. 54–5. ISBN  1-904994-10-5.
  15. ^ J.D. (October 6, 2008). "River of No Return". The Pop History Dig. Retrieved August 7, 2016.
  16. ^ Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 18 – Blowin' in the Wind: Pop discovers folk music. [Part 1]" (audio). Pop Chronicles. University of North Texas Libraries.
  17. ^ "Tip Top [Richmond, Va.] 78 RPM - Label Discography - USA - 78 RPM". Retrieved July 21, 2019.
  18. ^ "Three Score & Ten". Topic Records. Retrieved August 7, 2016.
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  20. ^ "Dave Dudley - Songs About The Working Man at Discogs". Retrieved January 11, 2018.
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  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ "Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman". May 1, 2013. Retrieved March 25, 2014.
  26. ^ "Sixteen Tons : Tim Timebomb and Friends". November 23, 2012. Retrieved March 25, 2014.
  27. ^ "ZZ Top Concert Setlists". Retrieved August 7, 2016.
  28. ^ Salaverri, Fernando (September 2005). Sólo éxitos: año a año, 1959–2002 (1st ed.). Spain: Fundación Autor-SGAE. ISBN  84-8048-639-2.
  29. ^ Mugnaini Jr. Enciclopédia das músicas sertanejas (2001, ISBN  8575270044), p. 42.
  30. ^ "16 Toneladas (Sixteen Tons) – Noriel Vilela – Details". Musical Taste. March 31, 2003. Retrieved March 25, 2014.
  31. ^ "Allmusic Hungary a magyar zene adatbázisa". Retrieved March 25, 2014.
  32. ^ Video on YouTube.
  33. ^ "Tábortüz – 16 Tonna lyrics". Musixmatch.
  34. ^ Video on YouTube.
  35. ^ "Ot Vinta. Офіційний сайт". Retrieved March 25, 2014.
  36. ^ "Los Hermanos Barron-16 Toneladas". YouTube. August 4, 2008. Retrieved August 7, 2016.
  37. ^ "杜德偉 Alex To – Sixteen tons+靜心等 Official MV – 演唱會 Live 版". YouTube. December 31, 2014. Retrieved October 13, 2017.

Works cited