Written and first recorded by Merle Travis (1946).
Other hit versions by Johnny Desmond (US #17 1955),Tennessee Ernie Ford (US #1/C&W #1/UK #1 1955), Frankie Laine (UK #10 1956).
Also recorded by The Weavers (1955), B.B. “Blues Boy” King and His Orchestra (B-side 1956).
From the wiki: “‘Sixteen Tons’ was written in 1946 by Merle Travis about a coal miner, based on life in the coal mines of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. First recorded in Hollywood, CA, in 1946, ‘Sixteen Tons’ was released in July 1947 by Capitol on Travis’s album Folk Songs of the Hills, widely regarded as one of Travis’ finest achievements. The album became a gold record.
“According to Travis, the lyric from the chorus, ‘another day older and deeper in debt’, was a phrase often used by his coal miner father. This, and the line ‘I owe my soul to the company store’, are a reference to the truck system and to debt bondage. Under this scrip system, workers were not paid cash; rather they were paid with non-transferable credit vouchers that could be exchanged only for goods sold at the company store. This made it impossible for workers to store up cash savings. Workers also usually lived in company-owned dormitories or houses, the rent for which was automatically deducted from their pay. In the United States the truck system and associated debt bondage persisted until the strikes of the newly formed United Mine Workers and affiliated unions forced an end to such practices in the 1960s.
“Two covers released in 1955, by Johnny Desmond and by Tennessee Ernie Ford, competed against each other on the Billboard music charts. Ford’s arrangement was released on October 17, 1955 as the B-side of his cover of the Moon Mullican standard ‘You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry’. It topped Billboard’s country music chart in November and held the #1 position for ten weeks, then crossed over to the Hot 100 and held the #1 position on the pop chart for eight weeks in early 1956, besting the competing pop version by Desmond. Ford’s recording was also released as a single in the UK in January 1956, spending four weeks at #1, while another competing version, by the American entertainer Frankie Laine, peaked at #10.
“Ford’s ‘Sixteen Tons’ was elected into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. And, in March 2015, his version of the song was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.”
“B.B. King ‘and His Orchestra’ released on cover of ‘Sixteen Tons’ in December 1955 as the B-side to ‘Crying Won’t Help You’, which peaked at #15 on the R&B chart. The Weaver aksi recorded ‘Sixteen Tons’ in December 1955, for release on their Live at Carnegie Hall in late 1956.”
Johnny Desmond, “Sixteen Tons” (1955):
Tennessee Ernie Ford, “Sixteen Tons” (1955):
The Weavers, “Sixteen Tons” (1955):
Frankie Laine, “Sixteen Tons” (1956):
B.B. “Blues Boy” King and His Orchestra, “Sixteen Tons” (1956):