Sixteen Tons

Merle Travis, 1947

What is this song about? What does the beat remind you of?

What literary tools does the songwriter use? Exaggeration, hyperbole. What are some examples of exaggeration in these lyrics?

What is the mood of this song? Why is "fighting and trouble" his middle name? Why was the miner so angry? Why does he brag so much? What was the "company store"? How is it possible to work more and owe more instead of less? Is that another example of exaggeration or was it a fact of the miners' lives? Why?

When were the labor conditions described here common? What were the United Mine Workers' (UMW) goals in the 1950s? How had their goals changed through the decades before? What changes were happening in coal mining?

If the trend in the 1950s was toward more "white collar" and less "blue collar" jobs, why was this song such a huge hit in 1955? What role did memories of pre-war conditions play in motivating adults in the 1950s? Hints: adults during this era were "depression babies," who were also the parents of the "hippies" of the 1960s. How did the children of these 1950s parents (the "hippies" of the 1960s) feel about their parents' values by the 1960s? How did the parents view their children's values?

"Sixteen Tons" performed by Merle Travis on Folk Songs of the Hills, Nashville: Capitol [7243-8-35810-2-3], © 1996. (Recorded in 1947).

Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. Please consult this online source:

Merle Travis was born the son of a coal miner in 1917 in Kentucky. He grew up in a poor household, without electricity or running water. He taught himself to play banjo and performed with different bands for radio stations. After serving in World War II, Travis moved to California and was on radio, worked in moving pictures, and made records for Capitol.

On the origins of the text for “Sixteen Tons,” Travis commented, "My Dad never saw real money. He was constantly in debt to the coal company. When shopping was needed, Dad would go to a window and draw little brass tokens against his account. They could only be spent at the company store. He used to say: 'I can't afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store'" (Fowke and Glazer). The song was recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955 and became a huge hit. Coal company scrip

A punch card to use at the Southern Mine Company's company store.

Interview older adults who worked as laborers to find out more about the role of unions in improving their working and living conditions.

Write an exaggerated, bragging song or poem about your job as a student.

Compare this song to:

Other labor songs: "John Henry" and "Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill" (both in Unit 5).

Other coal mining songs: "Dark as a Dungeon" (also Merle Travis), "Working in a Coal Mine" (R&B, 1960s) and "Coal Miner's Daughter" (Loretta Lynn, 1970s).



Creative Commons License
Voices Across Time is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at