March 21, 2011

"Those snaps are all you need to know."

"The working man's plight is boiled down to the struggle for money.  Ford uses his gospel training to make this fight seem almost as fight that Jesus himself would join to defeat the forces that make him 'another day older and deeper in debt'.  But because he lacks hope of escape, Ford's message here seems to subscribe to the 'take this job and shove it' school of country music as opposed to the aspirational.  The snaps, though; that's the heartbeat of America there."

#180 on List-a-Beefy's top 200 #1 songs of the last 55 years.

39 comments:

PaulV said...

I remember watching his TV show when I was a wee one. Song is in my limited vocal range.

rocketeer67 said...

For me, it's the best song, ever.

Carol_Herman said...

16 TONS, recorded in the early 50's. Tell the kids that was back when TV's were Black & White. And, people made a living repairing them. Big tubed fellas. Sometimes, people went out and bought standing magnifying glass, to stick in front of the TV. So you could enlarge the picture.

Milton Berle was Mr. Tuesday Night.

People actually saved up and bought TV's across this land, just to see I LOVE LUCY.

And, songs weren't movements against either party! They were infectious. As the "snapping fingers" indicate.

Back then we had BIG BANDS. And, people dressing up to go to The Stork Club, and places like that. Women wore gowns.

And, our economy was finally shooting skyward. (One fear at WW2's conclusion was that we wouldn't have enough jobs for the men who served. And, who were coming home.) That's why there was a GI Bill. That's why there was an influx of men, going to college. Being the first members of their family to do so.

You could sing "16 Tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt," and still believe in the American Dream.

TosaGuy said...

It is a truly great American song.

However, in this case, the taxpayers are loading the 16 tons and owing the company store.

vbspurs said...

I only know Tennessee Ernie Ford from his cameo on an episode of I Love Lucy. I always confused him with Jim Nabors.

Rocketeer wrote:

For me, it's the best song, ever.

What! "Coal Miner's Daughter" is what, chopped liver??

hombre said...

It was Ford's voice, the snaps and the tempo, not the message, that accounted for the popularity of Sixteen Tons.

Then, as now, it was the kids who bought most of the singles. As long as the "company store" left enough for our allowances and the 99 cents to buy the record, "the working man's plight" was no big deal.

edutcher said...

The reviewer doesn't know what he's talking about with the "Take this job..." nonsense.

It's really about a man who refuses to be beaten by circumstance.

There's a lot of attitude ("Got a right hand of iron, left one of steel") in the song, in counterpoint to the "Saint Peter, don't you call me 'cause I can't go - I owe my soul to the company store" part of the chorus.

That is an old, old memory.

vbspurs said...

I only know Tennessee Ernie Ford from his cameo on an episode of I Love Lucy. I always confused him with Jim Nabors.

Not even close, mum. Wrong orientation and everything.

Rocketeer wrote:

For me, it's the best song, ever.

What! "Coal Miner's Daughter" is what, chopped liver??


Next to that, yes. "Daughter" always struck me as a bit of a whine.

themightypuck said...

I was always partial to Merle Travis's Nine Pound Hammer.

ricpic said...

The poor man is poor due to lack of struggle. He may dream of money but rarely struggles for it. More to the point, he surrenders to rather than struggles against his appetites. Savings? The power of compounding? Fuhgedaboudit. Gotta have that full wall flatscreen. Result? "I'm poor and that rich guy's to blame!"

Ann Althouse said...

I was just under 5 years old when that song was a big hit. I found the words a complete mystery.

"I o my so to the company sto"... that's what I heard. What did it mean? 16 tons of what? Why 16? I heard "St. Peter" as "sayin' Peter." Who was Peter and why shouldn't he call? Was it a phone call about a party or something, but why couldn't he go? I pictured TEF under a cartoon-like weight with 16 tons written on it.

Ann Althouse said...

Didn't understand how he got into that predicament, but once there, he was not accepting invitations.

themightypuck said...

"The poor man is poor due to lack of struggle."

V.I. Lenin?

rhhardin said...

It didn't compare with Ernie Kovacs' Nirobi Trio, was my opinion.

American spirit is American spirit.

vbspurs said...

Ann wrote:

I heard "St. Peter" as "sayin' Peter."

Oh, you misheard lyrics as a kid, too?

Like me mishearing the "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" line, "Later we'll have some pumpkin pie" as "later we'll have some f*cking pie". I SWEAR IT SOUNDS JUST LIKE THAT, LISTEN TO IT.

Carol_Herman said...

Oh, my. Kids do mishear lyrics all of the time. 16 TONS was about miners. And, coal. Hard work.

(England, back then, had a miner's strike that went on for years!)

The days just slip away. Not everything becomes history.

vbspurs said...

"But because he lacks hope of escape, Ford's message here seems to subscribe to the 'take this job and shove it' school of country music

Today, I went to Dunkin Donuts and was approached by a grimy woman asking for a handout. I gave her some money, despite having cut back on that kind of charity these 3 years.

That encounter and this post reminds me of that other "poor man blues" standard, Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?.

Fave line:

Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it's done
Brother, can you spare a dime?

rocketeer67 said...

What! "Coal Miner's Daughter" is what, chopped liver??

That's not even Loretta Lynn's best song, much less the best song, ever!

Paddy O said...

For me this song is iconic as part of the introduction to Joe Versus the Volcano, which exemplifies the selling your soul to the company store. Perfect song for the scene, and it's just a great song all around.

Course, my first memory of Tennessee Ernie Ford wasn't this song, but was his cameo on I Love Lucy, which I saw, of course, in reruns.

Paddy O said...

"Didn't understand how he got into that predicament"

Brain cloud

Phil 3:14 said...

A mining song.

Another "Rock" song by TEF

from his 1st platinum album

gloogle said...

I remeber my Dad listening to this song. I sing it now to annoy my daughters....

gloogle said...

Also, think how efficient those lyrics are. He tells a lot of story in a lot less words...

Joe said...

(The Crypto Jew)


The poor man is poor due to lack of struggle. He may dream of money but rarely struggles for it. More to the point, he surrenders to rather than struggles against his appetites. Savings? The power of compounding? Fuhgedaboudit. Gotta have that full wall flatscreen. Result? "I'm poor and that rich guy's to blame!"


I agree it’s about his/her Lack of Struggle, BUT with the help of a Vanguard Revolutionary Cadre the Poor Man can succeed! Arise ye Starving Masses! Workers of the World UNITE, all you have to lose is your chains!

Seriously you confuse era’s…THIS song is about an era that REQUIRED STRUGGLE, by the Working Man. Mayhap not so much today. Which era do you apply your complaint to? Is yours only limited to today or is yours more of a “Universal Complaint”, blaming the Poor for Their Plight?

DADvocate said...

Love that song. We had the original 45 at my parents. My mom might still have it. One of the first songs I learned by heart, easy to sing along with.

Greg G said...

Must See TV: Tennessee Ernie Ford's performance on ABC's "Hollywood Palace" in 1965, wherein he reinvented 16 Tons as a snazzy go-go number, complete with dancing showgirls strutting along with him. Seriously, it's great!

Fortunately, someone's put it on YouTube.

Alex said...

Chicago was a very "socially conscious" rock band. I just skip those tracks.

EDH said...

List-a-Beefy is a horribly disorganized web site.

Geoff Matthews said...

Mark Steyn wrote an interesting piece on this song. Written by Merle Travis (and originally recorded by him), he would remark "I owe my soul to Tennessee Ford".

vbspurs said...

Greg G wrote:

Must See TV: Tennessee Ernie Ford's performance on ABC's "Hollywood Palace" in 1965, wherein he reinvented 16 Tons as a snazzy go-go number, complete with dancing showgirls strutting along with him. Seriously, it's great!

It really was, thanks! It is amusing that even when he was trying to be more with-it in 1965, that he still had on a tux and the go-go girls behind them where in demure dirndls.

ricpic said...

Joe -- With the rarest of exceptions the poor are to blame for their plight. And the fact that that's an unfashionable thing to say doesn't make it any less true. Only those who are comfortable, and mostly those who are comfortable and young, harbor romantic illusions about the poor. All those lefty punks in Madison who are in solidarity with the poor? The poor are a noble FICTION to them. They'd run screaming into the night from actual contact.

Joe said...

(The Crypto Jew)


With the rarest of exceptions the poor are to blame for their plight.


UNIVERSALLY or CURRENTLY….the difference between Matewan and Madison is profound…and if you try to conflate Matewan AND Madison, you’re being foolish.

The Crack Emcee said...

Ann,

"I o my so to the company sto"... that's what I heard. What did it mean? 16 tons of what? Why 16? I heard "St. Peter" as "sayin' Peter." Who was Peter and why shouldn't he call? Was it a phone call about a party or something, but why couldn't he go? I pictured TEF under a cartoon-like weight with 16 tons written on it.

LOL! I love hearing about how people receive music, and that's a great description. I also love watching a dance floor fill up when a particular song comes on. I feel like I'm a part of a long musical lineage, so this stuff affects me personally.

I love "16 Tons" (and TEF) because they speak of my foster parent's world of sharecropping.

Kevin Walsh said...

That site is hard to navigate, I can't find the ones before or after #180

www.forgotten-ny.com

Christy said...

The song stayed in rotation for years here in East Tennessee and it was probably responsible for my first lesson in personal finance. I remember Grandma telling me about the company store and how people got seduced by the convenience and easy credit. She only ever bought her sewing machine at the company store and wouldn't let anyone in the family shop there. As soon as she saved enough money she got Grandpa out of the mines of Kentucky and moved the family to a tobacco farm in Tennessee. During the depression, btw. Took me a long time to believe that there were good uses for credit.

Alex said...

Took me a long time to believe that there were good uses for credit.

Credit cards serve several purposes these days:

#1 - you can't reserve an airline ticket, rental car, hotel room without one.

#2 - it's a convenience over using cash.

Now this all works IF you pay off the monthly balance. Banks are finding that they are losing money on people like me, so they're starting to charge annual fees again.

William said...

I'm with edutcher on this. Songs often have a different meaning than what the lyrics would indicate. Ford exults in the stength of his back and the power of his fists. The song is self affirming, not self pitying. He has a hard life but chooses to view it at as a kind of resistance exercise and not an oppresive weight. I've always liked this song and never considered it a downer. Johnny Cash has a version that's more like a Harlan County "Ole Man River", but Ford has the best version......Mack the Knife is a bouncy, upbeat tune when Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong sing it. Most women, however, sing it as a dirgeful ballad. They refuse to see the buoyant upside of having a strong, pimp hand and stabbing prostitutes on Sunday morning. They just miss the point completely.

DADvocate said...

The song is self affirming, not self pitying.

That's the way I always took it.

Helmut for Boskone said...

Ah, children. TEF had a daytime TV show in the early sixties. CBS? ... don't remember. Anyway, he had a regular cast, and they did skits, talked to the (live)audience and did things like play "Mad Libs". He sang "Sixteen Tons" regularly, but lots of other songs too. He finished each show saying he would see you next time "if the good Lord's willin' and the creek don't rise". Fond memories...

Phil said...

I was raised in a king break by an ol' mama lion. No high-tone woman make me walk the line.