The History and a Song: Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons”

People have been coming to America, for some reason or another, for a very long time. Some sought freedom of religion. Some yearned for economic opportunities not found in their home country. According to scientists, the earliest inhabitants migrated from Asia thousands of years ago. As time passed, the descendants of the original immigrants migrated across the vast North American landscape. Their cultures grew and flourished for countless generations. Then, starting in the early 1500s, immigrants from Europe (and many other countries shortly thereafter made their way across the Atlantic Ocean to start a new life in The New World. While a vast majority of Europeans came here by their own free will, there were exceptions. Convicts from England were delivered to the American colonies to work. This forced transport sounds like a precursor to an even eviler act: slavery.

Anytime you mention the vile word of ‘slavery’; it immediately brings justified negative imagery. Throughout the world and history, we have had many forms of slavery. Despite slavery spanning almost every culture, nationality, and religion from ancient times to our present-day; most Americans think of the enslaved Africans when someone mentions slavery. The story of the enslaved Africans began with twenty African slaves in 1619; brought to the English colony in Jamestown, Virginia. Richard Worth (in his Immigration to the US series) acknowledges “(m)any African slaves were brought to the colonies by the English Royal African Company, which was started in 1672.” Worth also states that “from 1700 to 1770, the number of slaves in the North grew from about 5,000 to 47,000, or 4 percent of the entire population. In the South, the enslaved population increased from about 24,000 to more than 400,000. In some areas, more than 50 percent of the population was slaves.” Slavery did not end in the United States for the millions of slaves transported to America (with 310,000 ending up in the Thirteen Colonies before 1776) or for their many descendants until 1865. You might be asking if a need for slaves ended after 1865? The answer is no.

Slavery was an integral part of most Southern farms. These Southern economies depended on the tobacco, rice, and indigo crops that the plantations produced. So the answer is simple: it ended up being about money. So as I asked earlier, did the need for workers/slaves end after the abolishment of slavery in the US? Some freed slaves moved Northward. While there was a majority of freed slaves that sought work elsewhere; some chose to remain on those plantations as tenant farmers. Sadly this tenant farming mirrored many of the negative aspects of slavery by limiting the autonomy of the workers and continued to allow the farmers to produce utilizing cheap labor. The former slaves, as well as poor white workers, existed in a state of indebtedness to the landowners.

This indebtedness not only existed in the strawberry and tobacco fields of tenant farms but down deep inside the collapsing coal mines across the nation. Early on in coal mining history, the coal miners exposed to many daily dangers. The men guided the swing of their sharp pickaxes standing in puddles of water and shovel tons of coal in the flickering light of their gas headlamp. While the miners dealt with dangers in the mines, they find themselves in a state of constant debt in their lives. The perils of a coal miner were described in the song “Sixteen Tons” by Merle Travis. Based on coal miners of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky; Travis used lines from letters written by men who knew this life first hand. “You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt” was a quote from a letter Travis’s brother John wrote to him while the line “St Peter don’t you call me cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store” came from something their coal miner father used to say. He is quoted as saying: “I can’t afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store.” This reference to debt bondage shows you the woes of living under this scrip system. These coal miners (as well as the tenant farmers) were not paid cash. They were paid in non-transferable vouchers which could only be used at the company store. The coal miners (as well as tenant farmers) automatically had rent deducted from their pay, and these non-transferable funds made it impossible for workers to save any real money.

Like the 1955 version of “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford (that reached number one on the Billboard charts) has continued to be a favorite of many; debt slavery also continued to flourish. The practice of debt slavery (also known as debt bondage or bonded labor) is currently the most common method of slavery still found in the world. As of 2005, an estimated 8.1 million people were victims of debt bondage. The United Nations ware working to abolish the practice and have since called it modern-day slavery. Despite its criminalizing by the International Labour Organization in 2005, the illegal practice still flourishes in many parts of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.


Immigration to the United States: Africans in America” by Richard Worth. 2004


Featured Image – Coal Mine in Iowa by Carl Mydans – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID fsa.8b28714.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain,

African Slaves Transport accredited to Public Domain,

Family on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, Circa 1862 courtesy of Timothy H. O’Sullivan, the Library of Congress and –, Public Domain,

Child Coal Miners in West Virginia in 1908 by Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940) – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Records of the National Child Labor Committee,, Public Domain,

US Coal and Coke Company Store in 1946, Gary, West Virginia by Russell Lee – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain,

Tennessee Ernie Ford attributed to NBC Television – eBay itemphoto frontpress release, Public Domain,


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