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Recalling Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons”

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One of the things I enjoy most about music — and I know I'm not alone in this — is how hearing a single song can transport you back in time, triggering a vivid memory that might not have anything to do with the subject matter of the song. In the latest occurrence of this phenomenon for me, a familiar workingman's lament that sent me back over fifty years to my first real "boy-girl" party, and that song playing again and again, as unlikely as it seems now.

Recently, while going through my musical library, I ran across an old song by Tennessee Ernie Ford. If you have any memory at all of the fifties, then you know the tune I'm going to talk about; but for those who might not know, the song is a dour testament to hard-working coal miners, realistically recounting their struggles to escape a life of servitude to the coal company. It was written by Merle Travis, who had grown up in a coal mining family and so knew a few things about the subject, and it was called "Sixteen Tons."

When Ernie Ford came out with his recording in 1955, it surprisingly struck a chord all over America and became an enormous crossover hit, starting on the country charts and following that by spending months in the number one position on the pop charts. It became his signature tune, but he was by no means a one-hit wonder and he enjoyed a long career that included his early years as a country boogie-woogie artist and his eventual stardom as "the ol' peapicker," with his own TV show and big record sales.

One thing I know: his song reverberated deeply in one particular young man, although I'm not sure why. I had a couple of uncles who were coal miners so there's that, but I don't think I was too concerned by the plight of miners. I suspect that my fascination had more to do with the fact that I was insecure, shy, and very unsure of my place in life — in short, a typical young teenager — and lines such as "one fist of iron, the other of steel" spoke to my desire to be a tough, mature adult.

In any case, I liked the song a lot (along with everyone else) and had the record, which I played repeatedly and which became part of a stack I put together while getting ready for my party. It was late autumn and the occasion was my birthday, but this wasn't going to be a kiddie party with hats and balloons. I had invited several of the guys I considered to be buddies, and my cousin (who was a year younger than I) had volunteered to show up with several of her friends – so the guest list consisted of about a dozen kids aged 12 to 14, who were more or less strangers.

Has there ever been an adolescent who didn't think his or her parents were a total embarrassment? I was no different, and my unease was compounded when my mom began planning the party and told me her idea was to take all the kids out to my grandparents' house in the country. This added another layer to my embarrassment, because not only did they live out in the sticks but their house was very modest and old, heated by a pot-bellied stove, and didn't even have plumbing! That's right: everyone was going to be using an outhouse. I was sure I'd be the biggest joke in the school after this disaster — er, party — but I didn't seem to be able to make any headway with my mom, and the die was cast.

The evening of the party, everyone gathered and piled into parental cars for the trip. It was getting dark when we got there, and the first thing we found was that my granddad had built a huge fire out behind the house, and it was all ready for us to begin an old-fashioned "weenie-roast." You could almost feel the figurative ice breaking (or thawing?) as we stood around the fire, laughing and roasting hot dogs, later to be followed by marshmallows.

After we ate, the adults said that they'd clean up, and in the meantime, we might want to take a moonlight walk to a country graveyard that was about a mile down the road. You can imagine the scene: a spooky walk in the dark, squealing girls, teasing boys, and no adults. It was innocent fun, but fun it was. Later, back at the house and better acquainted (and with the adults tactfully moving to the other room) we played spin the bottle and listened to the records we'd brought – and "Sixteen Tons" got lots of play.

Late that night, when everyone was back in town and being picked up by their parents, several kids told me that it was the best party they'd ever been to. I'm sure that I never thanked my mom, but hopefully she saw the big smile on my face. Sometimes that works pretty well for a parent.

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About Big Geez

  • Bliffle

    This song is usually credited to Merle Travis in 1947, but at one time I had the Straight Goods that it was written in the early thirties by a guy called, IIRC, “Davis”.

  • http://oakhaus.blogspot.com Bill Sherman

    The standard story is that Travis wrote “16 Tons” an an original folk song for an eight-song collection in the late forties called Folk Songs of the Hills, though it’s likely that the song – like so many folk songs “credited” to individual songwriters (Burl Ives, anyone?) – existed in various forms before that. To the best of my knowledge, Travis’ is the first recorded version. . .

    Man, I love Ernie Ford’s boogie-woogie songs . . .

  • http://geezermusicclub.wordpress.com/ Big Geez

    Thanks for the comments, guys. I wonder what Travis (or Davis?) thought when Ernie had such a big hit with it?

  • http://ford larry

    m man i loved sixteen tons