Sixteen Tons :: The Story Behind the Legend
In August, 1946, 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.
The song's chorus came from a letter Merle received from his brother lamenting the death of World War II journalist Ernie Pyle, killed while covering combat in the Pacific in 1945. John Travis wrote, "It's like working in the coal mines. You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt." Merle also recalled a remark his father would make to neighbors when asked how he was doing: "I can't afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store. " This referred to coal-company owned stores where miners bought food and supplies with money advanced by the company, called "scrip".
Later released on Capitol's 1947 LP "Folk Songs From The Hills", the song almost immediately began to generate controversy, causing Travis himself, problems, in the anti-communist, Cold War hysteria of the late forties. Some in government saw songs dealing with workers' woes, and folk music "activists" as potentially subversive. It made no difference that Travis was a true American patriot. Veteran Capitol producer, Ken Nelson, who worked at WJJD radio in Chicago in the late forties, recalled in a 1992 interview that FBI agents advised the station not to play Travis' records, because they considered him a "communist sympathizer," which was, of course, completely untrue.
Ernie knew the song from working with Travis on Cliffie Stone's Hometown Jamboree, and revived it on his daily NBC show early in 1955. Within five days, NBC received over 1200 letters from viewers asking about the song. In July, Ernie performed the song live at the Indiana State Fair, in front of a capacity crowd of 30,000. The response was deafening.
In September, reeling from a demanding road and television production schedule, Ernie was informed by Capitol that he was approaching breach of contract. He needed to record two sides for a single release immediately. Armed with a box of fan mail, Cliffie Stone convinced Capitol head Lee Gillette to allow Ernie to record "Sixteen Tons", and Gillette agreed; it would be the B side of a country-blues swinger titled "You Don't Have To Be A Baby To Cry", a tune that Gillette and others at the label believed would be Ernie's biggest hit yet. On September 17, 1955, both songs are recorded at Capitol's Melrose Avenue Studios in Hollywood. To kick off the tempo for arranger Jack Fascinato, Ernie began snapping his fingers...mistakenly left on the master tape by Gillette and the engineers.
On October 17, Capitol shipped the new record nationwide, and to deejays around the country, confident that "Baby" would be a hit. But, inexplicably, radio stations coast to coast began 'flipping' the single and playing the B side. Purely by accident, music history was about to be made.
In eleven days following its release, 400,000 singles are sold. Demand for the song was so great, that Capitol geared all its pressing plants nationwide to meet the deluge of orders. In Twenty-four days, over one million records were sold, and "Sixteen Tons" became the fastest-selling single in Capitol's history. By November, it had captured the top spot on every major record chart in the country, and by December 15 (less than two months after it's release) more than 2,000,000 copies were sold, making it the most successful single ever recorded.
Merle Travis--already celebrated as a guitar innovator and songwriter--was immortalized by the song. In later years, when performing the song himself, he altered the final stanza to, "I owe my soul...to Tennessee Ernie Ford." On July 29, 1956, he returned to his boyhood home of Ebeneezer, Kentucky, to unveil a granite monument the town built to immortalize his accomplishments, including Sixteen Tons. He died in 1983. In 1991, his ashes were buried under that monument, and remain there to this day.