Sometimes songs from different genres move people in a certain way so that the categories don’t matter at all. Even if you had never worked in a coal mine or had to buy goods from the employer’s store, the sentiment of “Sixteen Tons” of being another day older and deeper in debt is universally understood.
The song is credited to country singer Merle Travis, although there are other claims. Anyway, it was released in 1947 on his box set album Folk Songs of the Hills in 1947. While the number of covers is extensive and an extraordinary testament to the song’s popularity, the best-selling version (bless his pea pickin’ heart) was by Tennessee Ernie Ford. In 1955 his record went to #1 on the Country & Western Chart and then in 1956 crossed over to go to #1 on the Pop Chart, where it remained for weeks. Ford would often snap his fingers to set a tempo for a song. When the producer Lee Gillette heard Ford do that during the recording of “Sixteen Tons,” Gillette said, “Leave that in.” It was great 50s music and is great today.