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"Sixteen Tons" is a song about the realities of coal mining, first recorded in 1946 by U.S.marker country singer Merle Travis and released on his box set album Folk Songs of the Hills the following year. A 1955 version recorded by 'Tennessee' Ernie Ford appeared on the b-side of his cover of the Moon Mullican standard, "You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry". Ford's "Sixteen Tons" reached number one in the Billboard charts, besting the competing version by Johnny Desmond. Another version by Frankie Laine was released only in the U.K.marker, where it gave Ford's version some stiff competition on the charts. On October 17, it was released and, by October 28, it sold 400,000 copies. On November 10, a million copies had been sold. The record had sold two million copies by December 15.


The chorus sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford.
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...

According to Travis, the line from the chorus "another day older and deeper in debt" was a phrase often used by his father, a coalminer 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 houses, the rent for which was automatically deducted from their pay.

In the U.S.marker 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.

But "Sixteen Tons" is not simple sociology. While the choruses indeed refer to the difficulties of life in coal camps, the verses proudly depict a mythos of toughness in the face of such adversity.

Cover versions

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. In the United Kingdommarker, Ford's version competed with versions by Edmund Hockridge and Frankie Laine; for some reason, Laine's version was not released in the United States but only in the UK. The song was released in Mexico in 1961 by the singer alberto Vazquez. Other examples include a cover by The Platters in 1957; 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 country version released by Johnny Cash on his album "Johnny Cash Is Coming to Town" (1987); a traditional roots country version released by Corb Lund on the album Modern Pain (1995); a slow, jazzy version released by Stan Ridgway on the album Anatomy (1999); a rock version released by Eels on their live album "Sixteen Tons (10 Songs)" (2005); and even a cumbia version by nuclear polka band Brave Combo. 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 1999 album Nojeva barka. A Country rock version by the Don Harrison band meIt was also featured as a secret track on progressive thrash metal band Confessor's 1991 release, Condemned.Rock band Faith No More covered a snippet of the song as an intro to "Let's Lynch the Landlord" (another cover) at live concerts in the early 90's. A contry rock version by the Don Harrison Band made the lower reaches of the charts in Australia in 1976.This song also inspired the Hungarian rock band Republic to write the song "16 tonna feketeszén".

The 1990 rendition of the song by Eric Burdon was used for the memorable opening to the comedy Joe Versus the Volcano. He recorded it before in the early 1980s but decided to not release it until 1998 on the album "Nightwinds Dying". In 1992 he recorded another different version. It was released as the only studio track on the live album "Access All Areas" in 1993.

This is one of the many songs featured in the show Forever Plaid, which premiered in 1992.

The song is also sung in the undersea horror movie Leviathan.

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. Also it was redone by the a cappella group Rockapella.

In Russiamarker, Moscowmarker'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 Sovietmarker era, but in the Platters' version. The song was so influential, that in the USSRmarker several cover versions were made in Russian, as well as innumerable parodies in which "sixteen tons" referred to the weight of a bomb carried by some pilots to be dropped on a target country. There were versions with Americans about to bomb USSR, Russians about to bomb America, and also Russians about to bomb China. Lyrics tended to vary by performer. Here are the first verses of one of the more common parody versions:

Сидим мы в баре как-то раз
И вдруг от шефа дан приказ:
Летите, мальчики, на восток,
Ну что ж, по машинам - ведь путь далек!

Прощайте бабы, прощай притон!
Ведь в каждой бомбе - 16 тонн!
В каждой машине предельный груз
Летят те мальчики бомбить Союз

This one time we sat in a bar
And suddenly, an order comes down from the CO:
Fly eastward, boys,
Well! time to man the machines, then - the way is long.

Good-bye to our girls and our favorite dive
Each bomb weighs 16 tons
Each plane is loaded to the max
The boys are flying to bomb the USSR.

In 2005, General Electric ran a series of ads for its new "clean coal" campaign featuring the song. However, the commercial was removed due to the underlying meaning of the song.

In 2005, in Taiwan movie The Wayward Cloud by Tsai Ming Liang the song is performed in a very unusual way.

In 1997, John Denver performed his golf-themed parody called 18 Holes.

In 2007, Lawrence "Lipbone" Redding did covered the song on his album, Hop The Fence.

In 2007, the band Rehab covered this song on the independently released album Cuz We Can.


A controversy surrounds the authorship of "Sixteen Tons". It is generally attributed to Merle Travis, to whom it is credited on his 1947 recording. However, Kentucky ex-coalminer and singer/songwriter George S. Davis (1904–1992), when recorded by John Cohen for Folkways in 1966, claimed to have written this song in the 1930s. Davis' 1966 recording of his version of the song is preserved on the albums George Davis: When Kentucky Had No Union Men (Folkways FA 2343, 1967) and Classic Mountain Songs from Smithsonian (Folkways Recordings ASIN B000S9DIHK, 2002).

In popular culture

  • The Clash used Tennessee Ernie Ford's version as their intro music for their 1980 US tour (the tour was in fact called "The 16 Tons Tour").
  • The Billboard Book of Number One Hits (fifth edition)
  • In Brazilmarker, Noriel Vilela recorded a Portuguese version of "Sixteen Tons" with his Louis Armstrong-like voice and a "Samba" feel.
  • A clip was played in season 5 of The Simpsons episode Bart Gets an Elephant.
  • Played during the opening credits of Joe Versus the Volcano.
  • Ed Sullivan suggested Bo Diddley sing a version of the song for his 1955 appearance on Sullivan's television show. Instead, Diddley sang a rendition of his own song, "Bo Diddley," angering Sullivan.
  • In the South Park episode "Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset," Butters sings a variation of "Sixteen Tons" while mining for coal to avoid being sold to Paris Hilton. Dressed as a bear, he is seen digging outside singing: "Ya work 18 hours whadaya get? Parents sell ya to Paris Hilton".
  • The song was played during the closing credits of the television show Mad Men, Season 3, Episode 7, "Seven Twenty Three," an episode which featured the show's lead character, Don Draper, strong-armed into signing a three-year employment contract with his employer that he did not want to sign, after Draper landed a substantial contract with hotel magnate Conrad Hilton.
  • The song was played by the band The Nighthawks in season two of the crime drama The Wire. It was played in the bar that was frequented by the Stevedore's union. It was also featured on the soundtrack.


  3. John Cohen, liner notes to the album George Davis: When Kentucky Had No Mining Men (Folkways FA 2343, 1967).

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