American country and western singer, songwriter and guitarist Merle Travis is fond of writing songs about the lives and exploitation of American coal miners. This is very evident in one of his compositions entitled “Sixteen Tons.” Basically, the tune discusses the life of a coal miner in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. “You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt” go the opening lines of the chorus. These lines clearly tell us how difficult life must be in the coal mine. Aside from the exhaustive nature of the job, it’s very risky too. But what makes it even more difficult for the workers in the system governing the mining company. Abuse is apparently observed from the system as what the song’s text says.
Going beyond the theme of the song, there are enthralling facts associated with it. Let’s have a closer look at this gem before rendering our ears to the tune.
Some Interesting Facts About the Song
Foremost, Travis first recorded the song in 1946 for his album Folk Songs of the Hills. After its release in 1947, the song became a gold record. Secondly, the first two lines of the chorus as quoted above originated from Travis’ brother John. Moreover, the line “I can’t afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store” was his father’s contribution. When Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded his version of the song in 1955, it topped the US Hot Country Songs chart. After spending ten weeks on top of the country chart, the song found another glory on the pop music chart. It stayed at No. 1 for eight weeks besting its competitor, a version by Johnny Desmond. The song had other competing versions by other artists from the UK but Ford’s cover was the most successful. No wonder, after 60 years, Ford’s version became part of the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.
Because of the song’s considerable success from Ford’s recording alone, many various artists have since covered and performed it live in concerts. As a matter of fact, more or less 50 recordings and performances of the song were recorded to date. In addition, the tune has interpretations in at least 10 foreign languages.
Wait, There’s More…
In popular culture, the song was also used as a reference in various ways by several famous artists as well as ordinary people. There’s a song called “42 Kids” which employed music similar to “Sixteen Tons.” John Denver and Mickey Katz performed their own parody of the song with different themes. In Russia, the Moscow concert venue Sixteen Tons got its name from the song. Additionally, an episode of The Big Bang Theory, one character sang a line of this song instead of another song. Likewise, Mad Men’s Season 3 plays the song over the end credits of the seventh episode. Lastly, in 1984, Walt Disney Productions made the song into a music video on D-TV, set to footage of Donald Duck cartoon Donald’s Gold Mine and the roustabout segment from Dumbo.
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John Denver, Johnny Desmond, Merle Travis, Mickey Katz, sixteen tons, Tennessee Ernie Ford