Saturday, November 26, 2005

50 years ago: Tennessee Ernie Ford “Sixteen Tons” hit #1 on the pop charts

Sixteen Tons

Tennessee Ernie Ford

Writer(s): Merle Travis (see lyrics here)

Released: October 17, 1955

First Charted: October 24, 1955

Peak: 18 US, 15HP, 17 CB, 17 HR, 110 CW, 14 UK, 16 AU, 6 DF (Click for codes to singles charts.)

Sales (in millions): 2.0 US

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): 3.0 radio, 12.8 video, 45.0 streaming


Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

Merle Travis was born in Rosewood, Kentucky, as the son of a mine worker in coal country. He was able to get out of that life by forming a band and playing music, even while serving in the marines. By 1946, he was recording for Capitol Records. His biggest hit was “Divorce Me C.O.D.,” which spent 14 weeks atop the country charts.

A&R man Cliffie Stone thought Travis had pop potential and encouraged him to write original folk ballads instead of modern versions of old folk songs. Travis wrote several “working-type songs” AC but told Stone “these songs are nothing more than a lot of junk.” AC

In 1949, Stone signed “Tennessee” Ernie Ford to a record deal. He achieved major crossover success with “Sixteen Tons,” a song about a Kentucky coal miner which came Merle’s “junk” pool. The chorus was based on a letter from his brother John, a coal miner, who wrote, “You load 16 tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” SS Merle also remembered his father, Rob, saying, “I can’t afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store.” SS The lines made it into the song, which Travis said “wasn’t really written to be serious,” noting “no man could load a ton of coal in a day” and mocking his own line, “Who could pick up a shovel the day they were born?” AC

However, while millions of listeners had never been anywhere close to a coal mine, they could feel “ a miner’s pain and frustrations.” AC The song “also began to reveal the power of country music to effect social change.” AC The song also brought attention to how coal companies had taken advantage of their workers and brought light to issues such as black lung disease and unsafe working conditions.


  • DMDB encyclopedia entry for Tennessee Ernie Ford
  • AC Ace Collins (1996). The Stories Behind Country Music’s All-Time Greatest 100 Songs. New York, NY; The Berkley Publishing Group. Pages 91-3.
  • SS Steve Sullivan (2013). Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings (Volumes I & II). Scarecrow Press: Lanham, Maryland. Pages 78-80.
  • WK Wikipedia

First posted 8/26/2022.

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