Mark Steyn — SteynOnline Sixteen Tons was huge in its day, in a way that the fragmented and shriveled Hot One Hundred of today can barely imagine. Tennessee Ernie Ford’s version was released on October 17th 1955. Nine days later, it had sold 400,000 copies. By November 10th, it had sold another 600,000 to become the fastest-selling million-seller in pop history, a record it retains to this day. By December 15th, it had sold two million. It was Number One for seven weeks before being displaced by Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made Of This”. Who’d have thought there was so much gravy in a singalong about the unrelenting grinding misery of coal mining?
… Written almost a decade before Tennessee Ernie Ford struck gold with it, “Sixteen Tons” was the work of Merle Travis. .. On one night in August 1946, Merle Travis sat down and wrote three “folk” songs about Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, where his father had worked in the mines. One of those songs was “Sixteen Tons”….. Travis had a facility for big memorable hooks, and so, asked to hustle up a handful of folk songs overnight, he figured why not? He said he remembered a letter his brother had sent him during the war, about the death of the great reporter Ernie Pyle in the Pacific. In the course of his musings, John Travis had sighed, “It’s like working in the coal mines… Another day older and deeper in debt.” Merle recalled, too, his father’s weary fatalistic shrug when asked how things were going: “I can’t afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store.”
Put those two lines together and you’ve got half the song.
Tennesse Earnie Ford: “Sometimes it’s a new twist that boosts one of those songs up into the million sales class. “Sixteen Tons” was written eight years before I recorded it, too. I’d sung “Sixteen Tons” years before [on radio], but it hadn’t been any blockbuster, and Merle Travis, who’d written it, had put it in an album of his songs called Folk Songs of the Hills. Nothing happened then either. Then we decided to do some of Merle’s things with modern instrumentation [on television]. When Merle did them, he’d used a straight guitar music background. When we did them we used a flute, a bass clarinet, a trumpet, a clarinet, drums, a guitar, vibes, and a piano. They gave it a real wonderful sound.
“I snapped my fingers all through it. Sometimes I set my own tempo during rehearsal by doing that. After I was through rehearsing that song, Lee Gillette, who was in charge of the recording session for Capitol Records, screamed through the telephone from the control room, ‘Tell Ernie to leave that finger snapping in when you do the final waxing.’
“They liked”Sixteen Tons” all right at Capitol, but nobody threw a fit over it. Nobody said, “We’re glad you brought this along because it’s sure to sell a million copies in twenty-one days. They didn’t say that because anybody in his right mind knew that wouldn’t happen. Yet that’s exactly what did happen.”
But just because it was a hit in 1955/56 is no reason it cannot be ….. UPDATED!