Sixteen Tons

"Sixteen Tons" is a song written by Merle Travis about a coal miner, based on life in the mines of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky.[2] Travis first recorded the song at the Radio Recorders Studio B in Hollywood, California, on August 8, 1946. Cliffie Stone played bass on the recording. It was first released in July 1947 by Capitol on Travis's album Folk Songs of the Hills.[3] The song became a gold record.

"Sixteen Tons"
Song by Merle Travis
from the album Folk Songs of the Hills
B-side"Dark as a Dungeon"
ReleasedJune 1947 (1947-06)
RecordedAugust 8, 1946
StudioRadio Recorders, Los Angeles
LabelCapitol Americana[1]
Songwriter(s)Merle Travis
Producer(s)Lee Gillette
Official audio
"Sixteen Tons" on YouTube


The sole authorship of "Sixteen Tons" is attributed to Merle Travis on all recordings[4] beginning with Travis's own 1946 record and is registered with BMI as a Merle Travis composition. George S. Davis, a folk singer and songwriter who had been a Kentucky coal miner, claimed on a 1966 recording for Folkways Records to have written the song as "Nine-to-ten tons" in the 1930s;[5] he also at different times claimed to have written the song as "Twenty-One Tons". There is no supporting evidence for Davis's claim. Davis's 1966 recording of his version of the song (with some slightly different lyrics and tune, but titled "Sixteen Tons") appears on the albums George Davis: When Kentucky Had No Union Men[6] and Classic Mountain Songs from Smithsonian.[7]

The line "another day older and deeper in debt" from the chorus came from a letter written by Travis's brother John.[2] This and the line "I owe my soul to the company store" are a reference to the truck system and to debt bondage. Under this scrip system, workers were not paid cash; rather they were paid with non-transferable credit vouchers that could be exchanged only for goods sold at the company store. 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.

The titular "sixteen tons" refers to a practice of initiating new miners. In the mid-1920s, a miner tended to haul eight to ten tons per day, whereas for new miners, other miners would slack off so the new miner could "make sixteen tons on [their] very first day."[8]

Tennessee Ernie Ford versionEdit

"Sixteen Tons"
Single by Tennessee Ernie Ford
from the album Ford Favorites
A-side"You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry"
ReleasedOctober 1955
RecordedSeptember 20, 1955
GenreCountry, traditional pop
Songwriter(s)Merle Travis
Producer(s)Jack Fascinato
Tennessee Ernie Ford singles chronology
"His Hands"
"Sixteen Tons"
"That's All"
Audio sample
Chorus sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford

Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded "Sixteen Tons" in 1955 as the B-side of his cover of the Moon Mullican standard "You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry". With Ford's snapping fingers and a unique clarinet-driven pop arrangement, it quickly became a million seller.[4] It hit Billboard's country music chart in November and held the No. 1 position for ten weeks, then crossed over and held the number 1 position on the pop music chart for eight weeks,[9] besting the competing version by Johnny Desmond. In the United Kingdom, Ford's version competed with versions by Edmund Hockridge and Frankie Laine. Nevertheless, Ford's version was the most successful, spending four weeks at number 1 in the UK Singles Chart in January and February 1956.[10][11]

On March 25, 2015, Ford's version of the song was inducted into the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry.[12]


  • Coleman, Rhonda Janney (April 2001). "Coal Miners and Their Communities in Southern Appalachia, 1925–1941, Part 1". West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly. XV (2). Archived from the original on December 21, 2013. Retrieved April 3, 2014.
  • Coleman, Rhonda Janney (July 2001). "Coal Miners and Their Communities in Southern Appalachia, 1925–1941, Part 2". West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly. XV (3). Archived from the original on April 7, 2014. Retrieved April 3, 2014.



  1. ^ "Capitol 48000: Americana Album series 78rpm numerical listing discography". Retrieved May 23, 2022.
  2. ^ a b "Sixteen Tons: The Story Behind the Legend". Tennessee Ernie Ford. Retrieved June 11, 2019.
  3. ^ "Advance Record Releases". Billboard. June 28, 1947. p. 119.
  4. ^ a b Merle Travis & Ernie Ford interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969)
  5. ^ John Cohen, liner notes to the album George Davis: When Kentucky Had No Mining Men (Folkways FA 2343, 1967)
  6. ^ Folkways FA 2343, 1967
  7. ^ Folkways Recordings ASIN B000S9DIHK, 2002
  8. ^ Green, Archie (March 1, 1972). Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs. Urbana. p. 312. ISBN 978-0252001819. OCLC 279194.
  9. ^ Collins, Ace (1996). The Stories Behind Country Music's All-time Greatest: 100 Songs. New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group. pp. 91–93. ISBN 1-57297-072-3.
  10. ^ Rice, Jo (1982). The Guinness Book of 500 Number One Hits (1st ed.). Enfield, Middlesex: Guinness Superlatives Ltd. p. 23. ISBN 0-85112-250-7.
  11. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. pp. 54–5. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.
  12. ^ "National Recording Registry To "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive"". the Library of Congress. March 25, 2015. Retrieved March 25, 2015.

External linksEdit