A History Of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs

A History Of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs header image 1
July 19, 2020  

PLEDGE WEEK: “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford

July 19, 2020

Welcome to the seventh and final in the Pledge Week series of episodes, putting up old bonus episodes posted to my Patreon in an attempt to encourage more subscriptions. If you like this, consider subscribing to the Patreon at http://patreon.com/join/andrewhickey . I'm glad to say that this pledge week has been successful enough that I may do another of these in a year or so.

This one is about "Sixteen Tons" by Tennessee Ernie Ford, a record that was a huge influence on many, many artists in the mid fifties.

As we're reaching the end of 1956, and are also now on the fiftieth episode of the podcast, I thought it worth while trying to fill in a few gaps in the year we've been covering. And one of those gaps is the song "Sixteen Tons". We've mentioned this song a couple of times before -- we talked during the episode on Bo Diddley about how much he liked the song, and it also came up in the episode on Johnny Cash, but because it's not actually a rock and roll song as such we never looked at it in any more detail. But it's a song that was a huge hit in 1956, and which influenced many rock and rollers, and so we should probably have a quick look at its history:

[Excerpt: Tennessee Ernie Ford, "Sixteen Tons"]

That's the version of the song that became a hit in 1956, by Tennessee Ernie Ford, but it's not the original version of the song. The song was originally written by Merle Travis, one of the greatest country guitarists of all time.

Merle Travis is credited with the invention of "Travis picking", a type of guitar playing where you play a bass line on the bottom two strings of the guitar while you play melody on the top two, with the melody syncopated as in ragtime -- it's a particular pattern that can be heard in everything from "The Boxer" by Simon and Garfunkel to "Just Breathe" by Pearl Jam.

Travis' own playing was more complicated than the kind of music that now gets called "Travis picking", as you can hear on, say, "Cannonball Rag":

[Excerpt: Merle Travis, "Cannonball Rag"]

That owes a lot to ragtime and blues, not just to country music. While Travis is credited as the inventor of this style, he wasn't actually its originator. It was actually invented by a black blues guitarist called Arnold Shultz, who lived in Travis' home state of Kentucky. Shultz never made a record, but he taught the style to several other guitarists, including one called Kennedy Jones, who in turn taught it to many other guitarists -- including Ike Everly, who we'll be hearing more about in the second year of the main podcast.

Travis spent the early part of his career as a fairly conventional country singer. He started off as one of the very first artists on Syd Nathan's King Records, before King made its turn to the R&B for which it became better known, but then in 1946 he signed to Capitol Records, where he made country-pop records like "Divorce Me COD":

[Excerpt: Merle Travis, "Divorce Me COD"]

But then Travis made an album called "Folk Songs of the Hills", which was very different from anything else he'd recorded before. This was before the long-playing vinyl record, and so it was a box of four singles, all of which consisted just of Travis singing to his own acoustic guitar accompaniment. The songs were a mixture of the traditional folk songs that the title led you to expect:

[Excerpt: Merle Travis, "John Henry"]

and new songs written by Travis himself, mostly about the culture of the mining areas of Kentucky where he grew up. And "Sixteen Tons" was one of those. In its original version it started with a spoken introduction explaining the concept of "company scrip", where someone could work for a company and be paid, not in cash that could be spent anywhere, but in tokens that could only be exchanged for goods sold by the company they worked for. This was an unfortunately common practice in the early and mid twentieth century, and those of you who've been following developments in cryptocurrencies and the big tech companies know that it's making a return at the moment:

[Excerpt: Merle Travis, "Sixteen Tons"]

Travis' recording was not particularly successful, and he went back to recording the honky tonk country records that he was successful with, but his career started to fade in the fifties. Until his friend Tennessee Ernie Ford, who had become nationally known thanks to some appearances on I Love Lucy, decided he wanted to record a new version of "Sixteen Tons" in 1956, a decade after Travis' original version.

Ford's version is very, very, different from Travis' original. It cuts out the spoken explanation, and where Travis' version is a ragtime-influenced guitar track, Ford's is taken at a much lower pitch, and it is dominated by clarinet and fingersnaps. It's quite an astonishing arrangement, although it was soon imitated by all sorts of people, not least Peggy Lee in her version of "Fever":

[Excerpt: Tennessee Ernie Ford, "Sixteen Tons"]

Ford's recording became an instant classic, inspiring everyone from Johnny Cash to Bo Diddley to Tom Waits. It's a perfect marriage of song, arrangement, and vocalist, and one of those records that perfectly encapsulates its time.

It also revived the career of Merle Travis, who had stopped having any commercial success with his electric recordings, despite being a musician's musician who every single other guitarist in the business looked up to. Suddenly people started to reevaulate Travis' work, and he became an integral part of the new folk music movement. Travis continued playing the electric guitar, but he started recording solo albums of electric guitar performances of traditional songs, and became known as one of the great exponents of country guitar, as well as one of the great songwriters, with his "Dark as a Dungeon" in particular, another song from "Folk Songs of the Hills", becoming a country standard.

Tennessee Ernie Ford, meanwhile, went on to a career as a presenter of TV variety shows, and while he continued making records, none of them had the success, either artistically or commercially, of "Sixteen Tons". But you only need to make one classic like that per career for your career to be worthwhile.