Merle Travis was an American country singer, songwriter, and guitarist. His songs’ lyrics often discussed both the lives and the economic exploitation of American coal miners. In 1946, he was asked to record an album of folk songs and Travis combined traditional songs with his own compositions recalling his family’s days working in the mines. The result was released as the 4-disk 78 rpm box set Folk Songs of the Hills. This album, featuring Travis accompanied only on his guitar, contains one of his most enduring songs, centered on the lives of coal miners – ‘Sixteen Tons’.
But the song peaked 9 years later, all over again, in 1955, thanks to a new version sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford, another American singer.
There have been many other versions of this song.
For instance, here’s B.B.King’s version, again in 1955!
Stevie Wonder recorded a fantastic soul and Motown-style variant of the same original in 1966, for his album Down To Earth!
Then there’s Tom Jones’ rock-style variant from 1967.
There are several international versions too! Take for instance, this French version from the year Tennessee Ernie Ford made it popular (1955), by Armand Mestral, called ‘Seize Tonnes’.
Or this German version from 1957, by Ralf Bendix, called “sie hieß mary ann”.
And a Spanish version by José Guardiola, called ‘Dieciséis Toneladas’, in 1960.
The tune was even used in an advertisement by General Electric, quite ironically, since it had new lyrics referring to clean coal, while the original was Merle Travis singing about the misfortune of working as a coal miner.
The original lyrics go:
You load Sixteen Tons, whadaya get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t ya call me, cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store
And GE’s advertisement has lyrics that go, “Coal power is looking more beautiful every day”! Talk about being tone deaf!
Perhaps the most creative variant of the song, one that significantly enhances and explores the tune beyond what it was originally, was by our very own S.D.Burman. The song, from the 1958 film, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, was ‘Ek Ladki Bheegi Bhaagi Si’, one of the most iconic rain songs in Hindi cinema.
S.D.Burman, along with Kishore Kumar’s singing prowess, turn an otherwise simple tune that repeated several times, into a vibrant tune befitting a Hindi masala film! When you hear the Hindi song now, after hearing so many versions of ‘Sixteen Tons’, you may wonder if it was really inspired! There are many cues from the original that feature in the Hindi, most notably the background flute-like sound that plays on both songs.
But that’s not the only connection. There’s another connection between Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi‘s ‘Ek Ladki Bheegi Bhaagi Si’ and ‘Sixteen Tons’ that goes beyond music. That’s the singer! Yes! There is another song of Tennessee Ernie Ford that finds itself in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi! That makes it plausible that ‘Sixteen Tons’ was used too, in the same film.
Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded ‘The Watermelon Song’ as a Side-B song for his 1957 record, One Suit. The song was composed by Bill Yustrom.
The song was used almost as-is in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, to create ‘Hum The Woh Thi’! Unlike ‘Sixteen Tons’ and ‘Ek Ladki Bheegi Bhaagi Si’, this one was a blatant lift, with very limited variations. Superbly sung by Kishore Kumar, of course!
It is said that S.D.Burman ‘used’ Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 2 songs to create their Hindi versions, on Kishore Kumar’s request!