Merle Travis – Sixteen Tons

Travis recorded the song for the first time on August 8, 1946. But the best-known version is the one that Ernie Ford recorded in 1955 for the Capitol label. I reached number one on December 17, 1955.

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A song written by Merle Travis, Travis recorded the song for the first time at Radio Recorders Studio B in Hollywood, California on August 8, 1946. But the best-known version is the one that Ernie Ford recorded in 1955 for the Capitol label. I reached number one on December 17, 1955.

Story behind the song:

The song is based on life in coal mines in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. According to Travis, the phrase “another older and more indebted day” of the choir was a phrase often used by his father, a coal miner. This and the line “I owe my soul to the store of the company” are a reference to the truck system and debt bondage. Under this writing system, workers were not paid in cash; instead, they were paid with non-transferable credit bonds that could only be exchanged for products sold in the company’s store.

This made it impossible for workers to accumulate savings in cash. The workers also used to live in dormitories or houses owned by the company, whose income was automatically deducted from their salary. In the United States, the truck system and associated debt bondage persisted until strikes by newly formed United Mine Workers and affiliated unions forced the end of such practices.

Some Versions
John Neher 1955 (Bell Records)
Red Sovine 1955 (Decca)
Eddie Arnold 1956 (RCA)
Harry Nilsson 1964 (Tower Records)
Hank Thompson 1967 (Warner)
Johnny Cash 1988 (Mercury)
Eric Burdon 1990 (Empire Records)
LeAnn Rimes 2011 (Curb Records)
Cousin Harley 2017 (Little Pig Records)
… and many more.

Miquel Batlle Garriga
mbatllegarriga@gmail.com


Merle Travis – Sixteen Tons lyrics

[Chorus]
You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
You get another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

(Spoken)
Yes, sir, there’s many a Kentucky coal miner that pretty nearly owes his soul to the company store. He gets so far in debt to the coal company he’s a-workin’ for that he goes on sometimes for years without bein’ paid one red cent in real, honest-to-goodness money. But he can always go to the company store and draw flickers or scrip. You know, that’s little brass coins that you can’t spend nowhere, only at the company store. So they add that against his account. And every day, he gets a little farther in debt. That sounds pretty bad, but even that’s got a brighter side to it

[Verse 1]
Now some people say a man’s made out of mud
But a poor man’s made outta muscle and blood
Muscle and blood, skin and bones
A mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong

[Chorus]
You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
You get another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

[Verse 2]
Well, I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mines
Loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss a-hollered “Well, bless my soul!”

[Chorus]
You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
You get another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

[Verse 3]
I was born one mornin’, it was drizzlin’ rain
Fightin’ and trouble is my middle name
I was raised in the bottoms by a mama hound
I’m mean as a dog, but I’m gentle as a lamb

[Chorus]
I load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
You get another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

[Verse 4]
Well, if you see me comin’, you better step aside
A lotta men didn’t, and a lotta men died
I got a fist of iron, and a fist of steel
If the right one don’t get you, then the left one will

[Chorus]
You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
You get another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

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