1001 Songs Challenge,  1950s,  Music

1001 Songs Challenge #64: Sixteen Tons (1955)

On 11 February 2019 I set myself the challenge of reading 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die by Robert Dimery (ed.) and following the book’s advice to the letter. I’ve previously read 1001 Films… and started 1001 Albums… but felt 1001 Songs… would be a sensible place to start for what I have in mind here.

My challenge is to read about one song per day and listen to it (YouTube and Spotify, I need you tonight!) before sharing my own thoughts. Some songs I will love, others I’ll hate, and I’m sure there will be those that leave me perplexed but listen to them I shall.

I’ll also try, and most likely fail, to pinpoint the best song from the 1001 on offer but I’m nothing if not foolhardy. Instead of one song, I’m predicting I’ll have about 100 favourites by the end and may have to resort to a Top 10 so far to maintain any semblance of sanity.

So long as I post every day (including Christmas) then this challenge should come to an end on Wednesday 8 November 2021. Staying with the Barney Stinson theme I am hoping that the whole experience will prove to be… legendary!


Tennessee Ernie Ford – Sixteen Tons (1955)

Sixteen Tons

” Sixteen Tons” is a song written by Merle Travis about a coal miner, based on life in mines in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. Travis first recorded the song at the Radio Recorders Studio B in Hollywood, California, on August 8, 1946. Cliffie Stone played bass on the recording.

Lyrics (via Genius)


A spot of jazz in the US is on the cards today though, unusually for this list, we’re not dealing with any songs about love. Our song today – Sixteen Tons – was originally written by Merle Travis and inspired by the coal miners working in Kentucky, of which Merle’s father was one. Other artists would cover the song in the years that followed and it was Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955 who would enjoy the biggest success topping the US charts.

Sixteen Tons was written with the words and stories of Merle Travis’ father working in the mines. The situation is far from pretty. The narrator sings of lifting sixteen tons of coal for little reward. He is a day older and continues to be in debt. The work down the mines is dangerous, of course, with miners at risk every day and Sixteen Tons does point out that some have died. The analogy of fists of iron and steel are thrown in with the warning that one of them will get you one day so earn as much as you can before the end comes.

Sixteen Tons raised eyebrows when Merle Travis first released it and it’s not hard to see why. The song paints the bleakest of pictures of life down the mines and laments the dangers that individuals are put in with little reward in return. Tennessee Ernie Ford’s version gave a jazz feel to Travis’ original take and includes some finger clicking offering a catchy beat. Ford makes the song sound more upbeat than it actually is when you delve deep into the lyrics but overall it’s another welcome addition to this list.


Favourite songs so far:

Edith Piaf – La Vie en Rose (1946)

Elmore James – Dust My Broom (1952)

Little Richard – Tutti Frutti (1955)

My name is Dave and I live in Yorkshire in the north of England and have been here all my life. I hope you enjoy your visit to All is Ephemeral.

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