Huge 1955 hit by Tennessee Ernie Ford
HISTORY OF "SIXTEEN TONS"
(This article from Wikipedia)
"Sixteen Tons" is a song about the misery of coal mining. Although generally credited as being written in 1947 by U.S. country singer Merle Travis, it has also been claimed that the Travis version was actually a rip-off of an earlier song called "Nine-to-ten tons", written by a singer called George S. Davis in the 1930s. A 1955 version recorded by 'Tennessee' Ernie Ford was on the b-side of his cover of the Moon Mullican standard, "YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE A BABY TO CRY". However, it was Ford's "SIXTEEN TONS" that reached number one in the Billboard charts, besting the performance of the competing version by Johnny Desmond. Another competing version by Frankie Laine was released only in the UK where it gave Ford's version some stiff competition on the charts. On October 17, it was released and, by October 28, it sold 400,0 copies. On November 10, a million copies had been sold. The record had sold two million copies by December 15.
The well-known chorus runs:
You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don't you call me, 'cause I can't go;
I owe my soul to the company store.
The line from the chorus "another day older and deeper in debt" was a phrase often used by Travis's 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 system workers were not paid cash; rather they were paid with unexchangeable credit vouchers for goods at the company store (usually referred to as scrip). This made it impossible for workers to store up cash savings. Workers also usually lived in company-owned dormitories or apartment buildings, the rent for which was automatically deducted from their pay.
In the U.S. 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.
The song has been covered by a wide variety of musicians. In 1955 it was recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford and hit Billboard's Country Music charts in November and held the #1 position for ten weeks, then crossed over and held the #1 position on the pop music charts for eight weeks. Other examples include a rock version released by Eels on their live album "Sixteen Tons (10 Songs)" (2005), a country version released by Johnny Cash on his live album "The Best of Johnny Cash in Concert" (1995), a version with a rock edge by Tom Jones that became a hit in 1967, a blues-rock version recorded in 1972 by CCS, a slow, jazzy version released by Stan Ridgway on the album Anatomy (19), a cumbia version by nuclear polka band Brave Combo, and a traditional roots country version released by Corb Lund on the album Modern Pain (1995). A folk-punk version was also performed by This Bike is a Pipe Bomb. Swedish doom metal band Memento Mori recorded a version of this song as a hidden track on their 1993 debut album Rhymes of Lunacy. The song can be found if the listener allows the CD to remain playing several minutes after the final listed song ends. Serbian hard rock band Riblja Čorba recorded a cover version called "16 noći" (Trans. "16 nights"), which appeared on their 19 album Nojeva barka.
The 1990 rendition of the song by Eric Burdon was used for the memorable opening to the comedy JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO. The song is also sung in the undersea horror movie LEVANIATHAN.
Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich's rendition of the song on January 8, 2007 received fairly widespread media play on a variety of television stations and on the popular website YouTube.
In Russia, Moscow's venue "Sixteen Tons" is named after the song by Merle Travis. "Sixteen Tons" track is a house song and can be heard before each concert held in the club.
In Russia this song has been famous since the Soviet times, but in the Platters' version. The song was so influential, that in the USSR several cover versions were made in Russian. In one of the Russian versions the words in the chorus were about US plans to attack the USSR with 16 ton bombs:
Sixteen tons, the heavy load Planes are flying to bomb the Soviet Union
The planes are flying to the East
To bomb a simple soviet village
In 2005, General Electric ran a series of ads for its new "clean coal" campaign. With clear disregard for the message of "Sixteen tons," they used it to sell coal and the coal industry.