Sixteen Tons  

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"I owe my soul to the company store."--"Sixteen Tons" (1946) by Merle Travis

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

"Sixteen Tons" is a song about the life of a coal miner, first recorded in 1946 by American 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 reached number one in the Billboard charts, while another version by Frankie Laine was released only in the United Kingdom, where it gave Ford's version some stiff competition.

Travis claimed authorship of the song, but a competing claim was made by George S. Davis.



The chorus of "Sixteen Tons" is:

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.

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


A dispute exists regarding the authorship of "Sixteen Tons". While the song is generally attributed to Merle Travis, to whom it is credited on his 1947 recording, George S. Davis, a folk singer and songwriter who had been a coal miner in Kentucky, claimed when he was recorded for Folkways Records in 1966 to have written the song as "Nine-to-ten tons" in the 1930s. Davis' recording of his version of the song appears on the albums George Davis: When Kentucky Had No Union Men

Cover versions

In 1955 Sixteen Tons was recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford as the b-side of his cover of the Moon Mullican standard, "You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry". It 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, besting the competing version by Johnny Desmond. In the United Kingdom, Ford's version competed with versions by Edmund Hockridge and Frankie Laine. Laine's version was not released in the United States, but sold well in the U.K.: it was released on October 17 and by October 28 had sold 400,000 copies. On November 10, a million copies had been sold; two million were sold by December 15. Another early cover was the one recorded by The Platters in 1957.

The song has been covered by a wide variety of musicians:


[[File:Child coal miners (1908) crop.jpg|thumb|right|350px|Child coal miners in West Virginia, 1908]]

In popular culture

  • The Clash used Tennessee Ernie Ford's version as their intro music for their 1980 US tour, called "The 16 Tons Tour".
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The expression "16 Tons" was a recurring feature in Monty Python's Flying Circus - usually as a label on a large fake weight that would drop out of the sky onto one of the players.
  • The song appeared in season 5 of The Simpsons episode "Bart Gets an Elephant".
  • 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 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.
  • The Tennessee Ernie Ford version of the song was played during the closing credits of the "Seven Twenty Three" episode of the television show Mad Men (Season 3, Episode 7, aired 2009), in which the show's lead character was strong-armed into signing a three-year employment contract.
  • In the American sitcom The Big Bang Theory Sheldon Cooper sings a line of the song in the Season 2 episode "The Work Song Nanocluster".
  • In 2005, General Electric ran a series of ads for its new "clean coal" campaign featuring the song.
  • In the "Last Train to Oblivion" episode of the cartoon The Real Ghostbusters, Peter Venkman sings this song as he shovels coal into the train furnace.
  • "Sixteen Tons" is one of the many songs featured in the show Forever Plaid, which premiered in 1992.
  • "Sixteen Tons" was sung by Lance Guest, portraying Johnny Cash, in medley with "My Babe" sung by Robert Britton Lyons, portraying Carl Perkins, in the Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet, which opened in on Broadway in April, 2010.
Parodies and inspirations
  • John Denver performed his golf-themed parody called 18 Holes in 1997.
  • The song inspired the Hungarian rock band Republic to write the song "16 tonna feketeszén".
In Russia
  • In Russia, the Moscow concert venue Sixteen Tons is named after the song, which is played before each concert held in the club. The song has been famous in Russia since the Soviet era, but in the Platters' version. It was so influential that in the USSR 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.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Sixteen Tons" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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