Sixteen Tons of What?


Some of you know this song very well, some will recognize a few of its words, and some of you have never heard of it. But here is the first line of the song:

“You load sixteen tons, and what do you get, another day older and deeper in debt.”

Coal miners 1.jpg


Who wrote and recorded the song? Why was it written? Sixteen tons of what? Why is someone getting deeper in debt?


  1. It was written and recorder by Merle Travis in 1946.
  2. The song is about life in the coal mines of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky.
  3. Deeper in debt was about the mine advancing money to the miners to buy food and supplies at the company store. Soon, the miners owed more than they could pay. As the days rolled by they just got deeper and deeper in debt. The debilitating system kept the miners in bondage to the mine. They couldn’t leave.

Hence the lyric, “I owe my soul to the company store.” That line came from Merle’s dad who often remarked,

“I can’t afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store.”

company strore 1.jpg


When Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded the song in 1955, it was the B-side of a 45 record. The A-Side was a song called, “Baby” that was projected to become a huge hit. It didn’t.

The record was shipped nationwide on October 17, 1955. In its first eleven days, 400,000 singles were sold. Capitol Records had the pressing plants producing as many as they could and as fast as possible. In twenty-four days, over one million records were bought. It wasn’t “Baby” that the nation clamored to have, but its companion on the flip side.

“Sixteen Tons” became the fastest-selling single in Capital’s history and was number one on every major record chart in the country. By December 15, less than two months after its release, more than two million copies were sold.


Why was the song so popular? Why did it resonate with listeners all over the country? Perhaps it was the first verse:

          “Some people say a man is made outta’ mud

           A poor man’s made outta’ muscle and blood

          Muscle and blood and skin and bones

          A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong.”

coal miners 3.jpg

Travis’s song speaks right to the heart. We can feel the pain of a hard-luck life, the back breaking work and debilitating poverty. There is something tragic, something immoral, about a man working himself to death and having nothing to leave his family but a bundle of company debt.

Some say that coal built America, that it forged the iron and steal that made this country great. Huge financial empires were built with coal, but not for the coal miners.

Does all this seem fair? Were there others who suffered at the hands of unjust system?Were the coal miners the only ones who had hard times and difficult lives?


Jesus said to the heavy burdened that he could give them rest for their souls.

Jesus said to those who were lost and scattered that he would be their shepherd.

Jesus said to those who were lost that he came to find them and give them life.


I don’t know if Jesus gives justice to those who are abused in this life. I don’t know if he restores the balance between what’s right and what isn’t.

But I do know he restores hope. He grants peace. He offers love.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s