Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing feature where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
It’s no secret that country music’s reliance on authenticity and story-telling is one of its richest qualities. Even if one can’t directly relate to drinking their life away or whatever other sad topic country music touches, there’s still value in hearing those stories.
Thus far on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ we’ve examined one story from Merle Travis. “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” was a reflection and criticism of smoking culture, a bold statement for a song known today as merely a Western novelty. Today, we’re going to focus on another Travis story; a criticism of coal-mining life in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky that we know today as “Sixteen Tons.”
To rewind the clock a bit though, let’s talk a little about Travis’ upbringing. In a twist of irony, the Great Depression actually improved his life. By enlisting and working in the Civilian and Conservation Corps, Travis made enough money to purchase a Gretsch guitar. Teaming with other members of his CCC group, Travis formed a band and worked the streets for nickels and dimes. Eventually, this led to a radio job in Evansville, Indiana. By World War II, he had moved up to 50,000 watt WLW-AM in Cincinnati. Instead of mining, Travis was earning his wage by playing music, at least until he joined the Marines. Still, he continued to play music, and afterward, he secured a West Coast movie job with Tex Ritter. By 1946, Travis was recording for Capitol Records.
In another twist of irony, Cliffie Stone, one of the A&R men at Capitol, thought Travis had crossover potential. Stone suggested to the label’s executives that the best way to break Travis through to a larger audience might be to imitate popular folk singers. In 1947, Capitol Records encouraged Travis to write a series of songs that sounded “folky” for an album. The label had interest in capitalizing on the American folk music revival that was taking place. Travis had other intentions, and his story wasn’t fiction. He was born and raised in coal country and had relatives and friends who worked their lives away in the coal mines. Travis’ original 1947 recording of “Sixteen Tons,” which was just him and his guitar, included a recitation at the beginning explaining the song’s premise, and those who have even heard the song once know it.
“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.”
Those lines come from a letter his brother had sent to him about the death of World War II journalist Ernie Pyle. Although the song made the cut for Travis’ album, Folk Songs of the Hills, country music apparently wasn’t ready for this brand of hard-edged honesty. Travis’ version of the song didn’t do much of anything or was given the platform it deserved, that is, until Tennessee Ernie Ford came along.
At about the time Travis was trying to write folk music, a Tennessee-born disc jockey and World War II veteran was becoming quite prominent in San Bernardino, California. Stone noticed that while Ford was a great radio announcer, his singing voice was even better. Ford was a baritone who had been trained at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. In 1949, Ford signed to Capitol. Over the next six years, Ford notched both country and pop hits. One record, “Mule Train,” stayed at No. 1 for a month in country and went to No. 9 in pop, a record written by Travis which he had referred to as “junk.” Aside from that connection, Ford and Travis were already acquainted with each other when Ford decided to cut “Sixteen Tons.” Travis had played guitar on Ford’s first album. Known as one of the most versatile vocalists and artists in the genre, Ford had become acquainted with the song when he cut it as a B-side to “You Don’t Have To Be a Baby To Cry.” As luck would have it, radio programmers were more interested in the B-side.
Ford loved Travis’ old folk recordings, and “Sixteen Tons” stood out in particular. Ford aimed to make it bigger by adding a clarinet-driven pop arrangement to the song. Despite the unusual arrangement, it isn’t hard to see why “Sixteen Tons” took off. Ford’s smooth baritone gave the song more flavor rather than add unnecessary polish to it, and its nod to jazz complete with the signature finger-snapping made it catchy, but nonetheless dark. It’s a song where, in Ford’s voice, the song truly comes to life. Most listeners then didn’t know what a “company store” was, nor had they ever been close to a coal mine, but they would soon enough.
After 11 days, the song sold over 400,000 copies, and after only a few months it became the fastest selling single in Capitol’s history with over 4 million copies sold. The public’s reception wasn’t matched by the government’s original reception of either Travis’ or Ford’s recordings though. According to Ford’s son, Jeffrey Bucker “Buck” Ford, the U.S. government considered the song possibly seditious and placed Travis on a watch list because it claimed the song supported organizing workers and Communism. You can only imagine their response when, nearly a decade later, they heard Ford had planned to record it.
In an interview with the Bristol Herald Courier, Jeffrey was quoted saying, “When it was discovered he [Ernie] had done the song and intended on recording it, he was told flat out at Capitol Records — his producers Lee Gillette and Ken Nelson were told flat out by the House Un-American Activities Committee in L.A. — this will kill Ernest Ford’s career. This song was written by a known Communist, a man who has professed seditious concepts against the United States of America, and if Ernie Ford sings this song it will be the last song of his career.”
Instead of Communism, the song’s portrayal of coal miners making low wages, working long hours and trying to get out of debt is ultimately what resonated with people across the world. Imagine that. In the end, friendship won, as Ford recorded one of the biggest songs in the world (at the time) just so his friend, Travis, could earn the money.
Additionally, “Sixteen Tons” led to several investigations, the most notable one headed by premier CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow, revealing the terrible conditions many miners faced on a daily basis. Furthermore, these investigations detailed how major coal companies had long taken advantage of their workers. Thanks to a revolutionary new item known as the television, those plights could be shown through song and through graphic detail. These reports covered everything, from black lung disease, to abject poverty, to the tragedy of those who died in unsafe conditions. Because of this, the song helped make a nation aware of terrible conditions as well as helped spawn major mining reforms. As evidenced by now, “Sixteen Tons” was, and still is, more than just a song. Despite its unfortunate reputation as a backward genre, country music helped inspire a major social change.
In 2015, “Sixteen Tons” was inducted into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry.
This piece was written thanks to the following sources: