You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?

Merle Travis
Merle Travis




According to Merle Travis, “you get another day older and deeper in debt.”

Sound familiar to any writers out there?

The song Sixteen Tons is one of my favorites.  It has a history in my family ever since I was a young kid, and always appears in any family sing along.

Today, I was thinking about what made that song so great that it could stick in my mind for fifty years, become a part of my DNA.

I don’t know for sure, but here are  some thoughts.

  • The song is from the point of view of a guy who is working his rear end off every day and getting nowhere.  He knows he will never get anywhere, but he keeps working.
  • The guy has an attitude that says I don’t care what anybody says, I am doing it my way.  “I was raised in a cane break by an old mother lion, ain’t no high-toned woman make me toe the line.”
  • It is about heartache. “Trouble and heartache are my middle names.”
  • It is anti-establishment to the gills.  “The straw boss said, well bless my soul.”
  • It is the kind of song that people can sing if they are drunk.  Or, maybe they sing it, then get drunk.
  • The song became a big hit when a guy with the name of a state in his name recorded it.  Of course, I am talking about Tennessee Ernie Ford.  If I gave a character a name like that in a book, at least twelve reviewers would one-star me for using such a silly name.  But Tennessee Ernie and Sixteen Tons were a perfect match.  When the right song meets the right singer, it’s magic. He sold two million copies of it in 1956.

    Tennessee Ernie Ford
    Tennessee Ernie Ford

Merle Travis, the songwriter, had a unique style about him.  Many of you who aren’t guitar players may not realize this but Merle’s playing was so distinctive that to this day there is a style of finger-picking that bears his name.  “Travis-style” picking utilizes the thumb and index finger of the right hand to strike the strings.  It is something like hunt and peck typing taken to the ultimate level of artistry on the strings of a guitar.

So, we have a song written in a unique voice, by a unique stylist, that draws on the deepest human emotions.

No wonder it has staying power.

If that isn’t a lesson for writers, I’m not sure what would be.


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