November 19, 2005
Today in History: Sixteen Tons
Fifty years ago today, on February 19, 1955, "Tennessee" Ernie Ford’s Sixteen Tons, in only its third week on the Cashbox charts, hit number two, making it the fastest-rising single in the country.
I was born one morning when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded Sixteen Tons of Number Nine coal
And the straw boss said, “Well, bless my soul!”
You load Sixteen Tons, and what do you get?
Another day older, and deeper in debt.
St. Peter, don’t you call me, ‘cause I can’t go -
I owe my soul to the company store
One of the interesting things about the song, with its folk-song sound and hardscrabble lyrics, is that it originated in a Capitol Records talent scout's deadline pressure to get out an album quickly:
Cliffie Stone, then an assistant producer and talent scout for Capitol Records, called Merle Travis (a Capitol hitmaker at that time) about recording a 78 rpm album (four discs in a binder) of folk songs. Capitol, seeing the success of a Burl Ives album, wanted their own folk music album. Merle told Cliffie he figured, "Ives has sung every folk song." Stone suggested Travis write some new songs that sounded folky, and to do so quickly; the first four-song session was scheduled for the next day. Travis recalled the traditional Nine Pound Hammer and wrote three songs that night about life in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky's coal mines, where his father worked. One was Dark As A Dungeon, the other, Sixteen Tons.
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