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Oct 03

TENNESSEE ERNIE FORD – “Sixteen Tons”

Popular14 comments • 2,409 views

#41, 20th January 1956

What makes a hit? Gimmicks, among other things. Pop records have always provided their fair share of ‘water-cooler moments’ – “Have you heard that one?” – and it helps if they have a couple of good lines, or a sound that grabs you, or if their performer gives good visual. If the word ‘gimmick’ is too crass for you, substitute ‘hook’ – but there is a difference. A song with a terrific melody will probably have a great hook, but the average listener might not be able to reproduce the melody. But everyone who heard “Sixteen Tons” could click their fingers, and manage a deep-voiced “company sto-o-o-o-o-ow”, and repeat a couple of the song’s many great lines. The main musical hook – that rueful, shoulder-shrugging horn line that kicks things off – is also a marvel, but “Sixteen Tons” is a record stuffed with gimmicks.

It’s also absolutely distinct in mood from anything to hit No.1 before it. There’s humour, but it’s desperately black. The record appeals to the audience for sparse Americana, but “Sixteen Tons” has none of rock and roll’s vigour; its overall mood is a sort of nihilistic swagger. The singer was born working, he will die working, and even when he dies his soul will keep on working, and with his fists of metal he’s almost a machine himself. His hints of bad-boy toughness are matched by an acknowledgement of the price that toughness comes at. I don’t always demand depth from pop music – too often shooting for depth means botching the breezier things that pop does better than any other art – but “Sixteen Tons” achieves it (and something just as rare, mystery) while staying pop to the core: catchy, idea-filled, instantly memorable.

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Comments

  1. 1
    Lena on 30 Oct 2006 #

    Oh my God, no one else has commented on this yet!?! I know it’s a long stretch – the longest – to connect this to punk rock, but ‘nihilistic swagger’ sounds awfully close to me. Doesn’t he talk about how he killed a man because he didn’t get out of his way? (can’t remember the lyrics ugh)…

  2. 2
    Alan on 30 Oct 2006 #

    FT historical note for Lena. When Popular started it used the free Haloscan comments system which only held so many and then expired older comments to be lost to the ether forever. Entirely because precious Popular conversations were evaporating, FT moved to permanent Blogger comments sometime before Tom got to the 60s #1s. (What Haloscan comments were left were pasted in to Blogger comments).

    All Blogger comments (minus an immense amount of spam!) were moved over to WP this summer gone.

  3. 3
    Lena on 30 Oct 2006 #

    Ah, well that explains things…thanks Alan!

  4. 4
    Doctor Casino on 19 Aug 2007 #

    For all I know, the lost comments would cover this point better than I can ever hope to – but I press on!

    I like the song, although I’m only really familiar with it through Nilsson’s jaunty late-60s recording of it. Tom, I agree that the content of the lyric is fabulous stuff, and really quite provocative for 1956 (although this was a generation that had survived the Depression – perhaps certain things were less shocking then than I would expect).

    But…. the performance is a mismatch. The clarinet tag is a hook but it’s a dinky, tidy hook; the bigger problem is Ford himself, who takes the swagger into a territory too oily to sell the blues his song is describing. You believe that he’s maybe seen hard times in Prohibition raids – but loading tonnage, not so much. Even the elfin Nilsson managed to make a more cohesive package out of this, IMO.

    The ‘plong, plonnnnng’ tones that show up late in the track are a stroke of genius, though. With the shuffle of the percussion they almost evoke a train’s horn, but they are vague and untraceable, the one bit of ghostly Western weirdness that the song needs so much more of.

  5. 5
    Matthew on 10 Jan 2009 #

    “If you see me coming better step aside, a lot of men didn’t and a lot of men died” is a lyric I knew somehow despite never, to my knowledge, having heard any version of this song. Which resonancy down through the decades is a good enough reason to elevate it to classic status, in my book. Who knew there was all this interesting stuff going on in the Fifties?

  6. 6
    rosie on 30 Sep 2010 #

    I first became familiar with the song in the version by The Platters, while in France at Easter 1968. I loved it – I’m a sucker for everything The Platters ever did. That’s still a fine version, but it was Tennessee Ernie that made the spine tingle when I heard his version.

    Tony Williams was amazing, of course, but I couldn’t quite imagine him sweating and filthy in an Appalachian colliery. With TEF – and here I disagree with Doc Casino – I can,

  7. 7
    Eli on 16 Jan 2011 #

    Some of the records awarded high marks by Popular really do surprise me. Personally speaking, it’s a catchy tune, but I wouldn’t rate it is a favourite. But yes, it is a bit ‘gritty’, and signals the growing tastes for country music in the UK at the time.

    Frankie Laine rushed out a cover version, which Frankie fans may well prefer. It was probably those in Britain that got it to #10 here.

  8. 8
    Mark G on 17 Jan 2011 #

    It’s missing a point in my estimation.

    Particularly for the snicker when he talks about “no high-tone woman made me walk the line”

  9. 9
    Eli on 18 Jan 2011 #

    Trivia fans should note that Tennessee Ernie Ford achieved a rare feat whilst this was #1 – that of having another record in the top 3. His version of The Ballad of Davy Crockett was #3, for the week ending 27 Jan 1956, when Sixteen Tons was atop for the second week. I think the only other 50s occurrence was Shirley Bassey in 1959. I don’t even think it’s happened many times since.

  10. 10
    crag on 13 Apr 2011 #

    DESERT ISLAND DISC WATCH (Up to 11/04/11)

    Stan Kenton, bandleader (1956)

    HRH Princess Margaret (1981).

  11. 11
    Ken Shinn on 26 Mar 2012 #

    “If you’re served a school dinner, better set it aside:
    A lot of kids didn’t and a lot of kids died;
    The meat’s made of iron, the spuds made of steel –
    And if they don’t get you, then the pudding will…”

    Memetic distortion courtesy of British schoolchildren.

  12. 12
    Patrick Mexico on 19 Nov 2013 #

    Princess Margaret! Christ, that’s more incongruous a choice than Call Me Dave and The Eton Rifles.

  13. 13
    hectorthebat on 31 Jan 2014 #

    Critic watch: This song appears on the following ‘best-of’ lists:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 20 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 12
    Heartaches By the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles (USA, 2003) 118
    RIAA and NEA (USA) – 365 Songs of the Century (2001) 83
    The Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame Albums and Songs (USA)
    Mojo (UK) – The Ultimate Jukebox: 100 Singles You Must Own (2003) 69
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 874
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  14. 14
    Tom on 31 Jan 2014 #

    Is that top book saying, there are 9000 songs you MUST download (but whether you actually hear them or not is up to you)?

    Probably a pretty accurate ratio for pirated stuff tbh.

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