Thursday, September 17, 2015


JFK+50:  Volume 5, No. 1716


Hollywood, California (JFK+50) Sixty years ago today, September 17, 1955, singer/entertainer Tennessee Ernie Ford* recorded the Merle Travis** song "Sixteen Tons" at Capitol Records Melrose Avenue studio here in Hollywood.

The chorus was based on a letter from Merle's brother "lamenting the death of Ernie Pyle, World War II journalist," and a comment made by his father that "I can't afford to die.  I owe my soul to the company store."

Ironically, "Sixteen Tons" was designated the "B" side of the single "You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry," but radio stations throughout the country chose to play the "B" side instead of the "A".

The record sold 400,000 copies in less than 2 weeks and 1 million copies within a month.  It was #1 on the country charts for ten weeks and on the pop charts for seven.

On March 25, 2015, it was announced that the Ernie Ford version of "Sixteen Tons"will be included in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry.

"Some people say a man is made out of mud
A poor man's made out of muscle and blood
Muscle and blood, skin and bones...
A mind that's weak and a back's that's strong

You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter, don't you call me, 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store."


Authorship of "Sixteen Tons" was also claimed by George S. Davis who wrote a song titled "Nine to Ten Tons" during the 1930s.

*Ernest Jennings Ford (1919-1991) was born in Bristol, TN & began his career with WOPI-AM in that city.  He studied classical music at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and served in the US Army Air Corps in WWII.

After the war, EJF worked in radio in California where he adopted the "on air" name, "Tennessee Ernie."  In 1949, EJF was signed by Capitol Records. 

**Merle Robert Travis (1917-1983) was born in Muhlenberg, County Ky & was hired as a guitarist by Clayton MiMichem in 1937.  MRT served in the USMC in WWII and continued his music career after the war.  MRT is considered one of the most influential American guitarists of the 20th Century.

Ernie & Betty Ford
May 8, 1962