Tennessee Ernie Ford’s career-defining song — for fans from casual to adamant — is the megahit “Sixteen Tons,” but how he came to sing it represents one of the most interesting twists in his remarkable career.
Ford was a major entertainment star in the mid 1950s, with his own live NBC TV variety show, appearances on other shows including “I Love Lucy,” a string of hit records and concert tours across the U.S. and overseas.
Country musician Merle Travis, who performed on Ford’s first album, wrote “Sixteen Tons” in 1946 about the plight of coal miners in his native Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. However, the U.S. government considered it possibly seditious and placed Travis on a watch list because it claimed the song supported organizing workers and Communism, said Ernie Ford’s son, Jeffrey Buckner “Buck” Ford.
Fast forward to 1955, when Ernie Ford was approaching the zenith of his career. Travis — a close friend and label mate at Capitol Records — was scheduled to appear on his live show.
“Merle Travis opted out at the last minute because the government came in and told NBC that Merle Travis could not sing these songs and included in the songs he couldn’t sing was ‘Sixteen Tons,’” Ford said. “Merle Travis refused to be on the show, one of dad’s closest friends, because he refused to be told what to sing.”
Ford’s response was epic.
“Dad loved the song, had known the song for years. Dad had his arranger, Jack Fascinato, take the TV band and put an arrangement together. And dad did the song live on the morning show,” Ford said.
The government was even more horrified to learn Ford planned to record the song, to fulfill his recording contract.
“When it was discovered he had done the song and intended on recording it, he was told flat out at Capitol Records — his producers Lee Gillette and Ken Nelson were told flat out by the House Un-American Activities Committee in L.A. — this will kill Ernest Ford’s career,” he recalled. “This song was written by a known Communist, a man who has professed seditious concepts against the United States of America, and if Ernie Ford sings this song it will be the last song of his career.”
The song was recorded but released on the “B” side of another song — “You Don’t Have to be a Baby to Cry” — that the label identified as the single they wanted to promote. Buck Ford said they believe it was a disc jockey in Kansas City who “mistakenly” flipped the disc and first played “Sixteen Tons” over the airwaves.
With Ford snapping his fingers and belting the mournful lyrics in his caramel-rich bass-baritone voice, the records sold like wildfire.
“In six weeks, it became the fastest-selling single in the history of the music business. At the end of two months, it was being touted as perhaps the biggest selling song ever,” Ford said. “Dad recorded it because he wanted Merle Travis to make the money.”
Its portrayal of coal miners making low wages, working long hours and trying to get out of debt is “timeless” and resonates with people around the globe, Ford said.
Ford’s recording of “Sixteen Tons” sold more than 20 million copies and, in 2015, it was inducted into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry.