As 1956 began, it became apparent that the Prime Minister Anthony Eden had plunged in the polls, which seemed surprising following the Conservatives’ solid victory in the election the previous year. Whether Labour had received a bounce off the back of electing their new leader, Hugh Gaitskell, remained to be seen. On 24 January, plans were announced for the building of thousands of new homes in the Barbican area of London, which had been devastated by Luftwaffe bombings in World War Two. In the charts, interest in Dickie Valentine’s Christmas Alphabet understandably died down after the holidays, and the first new number one of the year was Rock Around the Clock, enjoying its second run at the top, before being usurped by a truly unique single.
Sixteen Tons had originally been written and recorded by country singer-songwriter Merle Travis back in 1946. Travis’s songs often spoke of the hardships of workers in the US as he came from a mining family in Kentucky. His brother once wrote him a letter with the line ‘You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt’. His father was also fond of saying ‘I can’t afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store.’. Back then, miners were paid with credit vouchers that they could use to buy goods at the company store. Travis had the beginnings of a very catchy chorus . He came up with a song whose humour is as black as the dirt in the miners’ fingernails, and Tennessee Ernie Ford was listening. Ten years later, his cover became his second UK number 1 single in less than a year.
Sixteen Tons is so much better than Give Me Your Word. His previous number 1 was a mediocre ballad that anyone could have recorded. It’s hard to think who could perform Sixteen Tons as well as Ford. Featuring a sparse arrangement that features his deep, booming voice and finger-clicking to begin with, followed by a clarinet backing him up, Ford speaks not only for US workers, but any slave to the man. In the gloomy winter months of 1956, no doubt UK miners could find solace in such a song. Although the mining references root the song firmly in the past, anyone who finds themselves slaving away just to get by can identify. And it helps that it’s as catchy as hell.
Selling millions upon millions, Sixteen Tons became Ford’s signature song, and earned him his own TV show, which ran for five years. Unfortunately, he and his first wife Betty had alcohol problems, and while he managed during his career peak, by the 70s his love of whiskey was taking its toll. Betty died in 1989 but even this couldn’t curtail his drinking. He died of liver failure on 17 October 1991 – 36 years to the day of the first release of Sixteen Tons. However, he left behind the definitive version of a song that truly resonates.
Written by: Merle Travis
Weeks at number 1: 2 (20 January-16 February)
Singer John Lydon – 31 January
Actor Philip Franks – 2 January
New Order bassist Peter Hook – 13 February
Author AA Milne – 31 January