Thursday, February 16, 2012

Tennessee Ernie Ford -- "Sixteen Tons" (1955)

You load sixteen tons
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

For some of you, this song will seem absolutely prehistoric -- for others, it will be a vivid childhood memory.

"Sixteen Tons" was written by Merle Travis, a country singer who grew up in a Kentucky coal-mining county.  Travis recorded the song in 1946 and released it the next year on an album titled Folk Songs of the Hills.

Tennessee Ernie Ford was born in 1919 in Bristol, Tennessee -- the Tennessee-Virginia state line cuts the town in half -- and was a B-29 bombadier in World War II.  After the war, he became a popular disc jockey in Southern California and a moderately successful country-western recording artist.  He became a household after appearing in three episodes of I Love Lucy as "Cousin Ernie," a country bumpkin who came to visit Lucy and Ricky and then wouldn't leave.

His cover of "Sixteen Tons" -- which featured a clarinet, and didn't really sound like a country-western song -- became a huge crossover hit in 1955.  It was #1 on the country charts for 10 weeks and #1 on the pop charts for eight weeks.  "Sixteen Tons" was so popular that NBC gave Ford a prime-time variety show, which aired from 1956 until 1961.

Ford always closed his show with a sacred song:

The lines quoted at the beginning of the post constitute the chorus of "Sixteen Tons," and refer to the peculair economic system that prevailed in many coal-mining towns back when the song was written.  The miners weren't paid in cash, but in "scrip."  Scrip was not legal tender, but could only be spent by the miners and their families at company stores -- the coal companies operated the general stores in mining towns -- or to pay the rent for the company-owned housing where they lived.  

Miners were essentially unable to save any money under this system -- the goods sold at company stores were not bargains, and scrip couldn't be spent anywhere else.  So this system made miners very dependent on the mining companies.

Coal miners at company store (1938)
Illness or injury often resulted in the miners falling into debt.  The singer of "Sixteen Tons" is so deeply in debt to the company store that he can't even afford to die. 

The life of a coal miner and his family in the 1940s is impossible to fathom.  This song's music will send a shiver down your spine, but the story behind the song is even more soul-chilling. 

Here's "Sixteen Tons":

Here's Ford's "go-go" version of the song -- as my mother says when she's is trying to be polite about something she doesn't really like, "It's different."

Here's a link you can use to order "Sixteen Tons" from Amazon:

1 comment:

  1. Remember him and his songs well. Mom also had several if his gospel and spiritual albums when I was a kid. Learned the words to a whole bunch of old songs and they were a lot more fun and inspirational than the dreary, dragging songs we sang at our (Catholic) church. Matter of fact, two years ago at my mothers funeral we had Ford!s upbeat recording of "I Want To Be Ready (To Walk In Jerusalem Just Like John)" played.
    In the mid-80's I was"tickled plum to death" when Ford was introduced to sing the national anthem at a 49er's football game. His voice wasn't quite as good as it had been but clearly recognizable - brought tears to my eyes.