“Sixteen Tons” was a surprise hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955. Originally written by Merle Travis—though there is some dispute over the authorship—in 1946, its working class lament is more indicative of the counter culture than the pop hits and mainstream country that dominated the airwaves.
Indeed, the song was released as a B-Side, and some disc jockeys were blacklisted for playing the track. The jazzy, baritone arrangement, which features finger snapping and clarinets from the former band leader and radio personality, captivated the country for years and became the artist’s signature song.
Like most Americans, my association with Ford is from his appearance in I Love Lucy in 1954 as Cousin Ernie. Playing a redneck hillbilly, he runs terrified from the slapstick Lucy as she tries to “vamp him.” Ford was a comedy artist, radio host, and an incredibly popular recording artist. He has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, is in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
So why then, if Ernie Ford represents the establishment, would his greatest hit be the anti-establishment and vaguely communist song “Sixteen Tons,” recorded at the height of McCarthyism?
Though it was culled from tradition and drew from popular music of the time, “Sixteen Tons” was supposedly written specifically for Ford’s first album. George S. Davis claims he wrote it in the 1930s, but the evidence is inconclusive. The chorus, “You load Sixteen Tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt,” may sound like a rallying cry for a worker’s revolt, but the song’s verses do not exactly call for worker uplift. It paints the coal miners as “weak minds” and calls for individual war on the establishment, not collectivity.
This departs from the communist refrain that exemplified the new American folk tradition. For example, would Woody Guthrie’s song resonate if it were simply “my land?” “Sixteen Tons” is a “plight” song.
Like Guthrie’s “Buffalo Skinners,” it simply illustrates a problem and does not necessarily call for change.
This has a history in the folk tradition. Many of the railroad songs and the work songs from the past are simply about the work, not about the possibility of uplift. To give a well-known example, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” is only about, well, working on the railroad, while the later—though now traditional—“If I Had a Hammer” is about fixing the world.
I know the song from The Weaver’s recording at Carnegie Hall, which has slight discrepancies in lyrical structure. For example, in the third verse, the “straw boss” says, “Well damn your soul” instead of “Oh bless my soul.” Though it may seem slight, in actuality, the verse change casts the boss as a less sympathetic character and attempts to revolutionize the work song.
To provide a bit of insight into its longevity, it has been recorded by Bo Diddley, Johnny Cash, the Eels, and even Rep. Dennis Kucinich. In Kucinich’s version, he uses it to exemplify the plight of the common people while resigning as a democratic nominee.
Though the current political climate may be all about change, I chose to title my column after a song that illustrates class strife without solution. The line I chose (“You load Sixteen Tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt”) resonates with most of us graduating with loans, and giving most of our money to “the company store”—Columbia University. While we may not be coal miners, on my first day of college I sat in a seminar about my loan at which I was told that the only way I could forfeit it is if I am called by “Saint Peter.”
Though many of us feel removed from the economic crisis, when it comes down to it, Columbia, the “straw man boss,” will damn our souls if we don’t pay. All those hours of studying, and what do you get? Sixteen tons of papers, a strong mind, a weak back, four years older, and, of course, a whole lot deeper in debt.
Jennie Rose Halperin is a Barnard College junior majoring in American Studies.