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April 12

The Sad Story Behind “The Ballad of the Forty Dollars”

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Released on his 1968 album of the same name, “Ballad of Forty Dollars” by Tom T. Hall is a classic country song that is truly a moving poem. The song was Hall’s first top 10 on the U.S. country singles chart, reaching the fourth spot on both the U.S. chart and the Canadian country singles chart. Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash also had a share of the song’s success. From the Heroes album released in 1986, their version of “Ballad of Forty Dollars” peaked at number 13 on the Country album charts.

The Sad Story Behind "The Ballad of the Forty Dollars" 1

Ballad of Forty Dollars, The Inspiration

As many of his hits, Tom T. Hall took this song from experience. The first job he ever had was working with his aunt, who was head of the cemetery committee. He is paid for mowing grass up in Olive Hill, Kentucky. Of course, when they had funerals, Tom had to shut down the mower. That is when he begins to observe many funerals and the people coming.

One time upon shutting down the mower, he heard a guy talking about the dead person who owed him forty dollars. He has heard many ironies when someone dies. The rest of the world may more or less forgive the dead person’s sins. They would probably say nice praises to them like “he was a wonderful guy, a good person”. The next thing you know, the people digging the graves have conversations about the bargain of dying. They talk about who is going to get the belongings left by the dead. Worst, when the dead owes someone money. You certainly would not want to go to the widow and collect it. So, you give up and say it is lost. Tom described them as the ironies of philosophy. A philosophy he enjoyed one day and quickly turned it into a song.

A cemetery caretaker tells the song. He observes the funeral of a man and the people coming to send him off. “The Ballad of Forty Dollars” features the preacher, the great-uncle’s limousine, his grieving wife, the military taps, and the chatter about his lands.

“….I hope he rests in peace, the trouble is
The fellow owes me forty bucks.”

Enjoy Cash and Jennings’ version of “The Ballad of Forty Dollars”, the sadness, and the humor in it.


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Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings


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