Sixteen Tons - the rest of the story

I remember first hearing Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons" when I was in the third grade.  I was aware the song became popular nationwide pretty quickly.  But there's a lot more about the song I didn't know.
This is an amazing story that tells some things about music history.  If you don't have time to read, here are the main highlights:
- written in 1946, the song didn't become popular until 1955
- Capitol Records wanted a folk album to compete with Burl Ives
- the song was written by Merle Travis in one night along with 3 other songs
- some lyrics lament the passing of WWII journalist Ernie Pyle
- other lyrics mourned the plight of working in coal mines
- because of the reference to workers problems, people thought Travis was a communist
- the FBI advised radio stations not to play the song
- Ernie Ford already had his own TV show when he revived the song in 1955
- He sang it again at the Indiana State Fair and the response was deafening
- Capitol Records was persuaded to allow the song as "Side B" to another tune
- Capitol was sure "Side A" would be a hit
- DJs nationwide played "Side B" for reasons no one could explain
- The sound of Ernie's snapping fingers on the song was left on the recording by accident
- the song sold 400,000 copies in 11 days, over a million in 24 days
- Capitol had to switch all its plants to cutting the record to keep up with demand
- It was the hottest selling song in Capitol history, #1 on all the charts
- Within 2 months it sold over 2 million copies becoming the most successful single ever
- Ernie Ford died October 17, 1991, thirty-six years to the day after the song's release
If you have time to read the whole story, you'll find it below.  Pretty fascinating to say the least.
I've included a bit of history from my own research at the end of this email.  You may find it interesting.
"Sixteen Tons" The Story Behind the Legend
[original story from: 
unfortunately no longer available there.]
In August, 1946, Cliffie Stone, then an assistant producer and talent scout for Capitol Records, called Merle Travis (a Capitol hitmaker at that time) about recording a 78 rpm album (four discs in a binder) of folk songs. Capitol, seeing the success of a Burl Ives album,  wanted their own folk music album. Merle told Cliffie he figured, "Ives has sung every folk song." Stone suggested Travis write some new songs that sounded folky, and to do so quickly; the first four-song session was scheduled for the next day. Travis recalled the traditional Nine Pound Hammer and wrote three songs that night about life in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky's coal mines, where his father worked. One was Dark As A Dungeon, the other, Sixteen Tons.
The song's chorus came from a letter Merle received from his brother lamenting the death of World War II journalist Ernie Pyle, killed while covering combat in the Pacific in 1945. John Travis wrote, "It's like working in the coal mines. You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt." Merle also recalled a remark his father would make to neighbors when asked how he was doing: "I can't afford to die. I owe my soul to the company store. " This referred to coal-company owned stores where miners bought food and supplies with money advanced by the company, called "scrip".
Later released on Capitol's 1947 LP "Folk Songs From The Hills", the song almost immediately began to generate controversy, causing Travis himself,  problems, in the anti-communist, Cold War hysteria of the late forties. Some in government saw songs dealing with workers' woes, and folk music "activists" as potentially subversive. It made no difference that Travis was a true American patriot. Veteran Capitol producer, Ken Nelson, who worked at WJJD radio in Chicago in the late forties, recalled in a 1992 interview that FBI agents advised the station not to play Travis' records, because they considered him a "communist sympathizer," which was, of course, completely untrue.
Ernie knew the song from working with Travis on Cliffie Stone's Hometown Jamboree, and revived it on his daily NBC show early in 1955. Within five days, NBC received over 1200 letters from viewers asking about the song. In July, Ernie performed the song live at the Indiana State Fair, in front of a capacity crowd of 30,000. The response was deafening.
In September, reeling from a demanding road and television production schedule, Ernie was informed by Capitol that he was approaching breach of contract. He needed to record two sides for a single release immediately. Armed with a box of fan mail, Cliffie Stone convinced Capitol head Lee Gillette to allow Ernie to record "Sixteen Tons", and Gillette agreed; it would be the B side of a country-blues swinger titled "You Don't Have To Be A Baby To Cry", a tune that  Gillette and others at the label believed would be Ernie's biggest hit yet. On September 17, 1955, both songs are recorded at Capitol's Melrose Avenue Studios in Hollywood. To kick off the tempo for arranger Jack Fascinato, Ernie began snapping his fingers...mistakenly left on the master tape by Gillette and the engineers.
On October 17, Capitol shipped the new record nationwide, and to deejays around the country, confident that "Baby" would be a hit. But, inexplicably, radio stations coast to coast began 'flipping' the single and playing the B side. Purely by accident, music history was about to be made.
In eleven days following its release, 400,000 singles are sold. Demand for the song was so great, that Capitol geared all its pressing plants nationwide to meet the deluge of orders. In Twenty-four days, over one million records were sold, and "Sixteen Tons" became the fastest-selling single in Capitol's history. By November, it had captured the top spot on every major record chart in the country, and by December 15 (less than two months after it's release) more than 2,000,000 copies were sold, making it the most successful single ever recorded.
Merle Travis--already celebrated as a guitar innovator and songwriter--was immortalized by the song. In later years, when performing the song himself, he altered the final stanza to, "I owe my Tennessee Ernie Ford." On July 29, 1956, he returned to his boyhood home of Ebeneezer, Kentucky, to unveil a granite monument the town built to immortalize his accomplishments, including Sixteen Tons. He died in 1983. In 1991, his ashes were buried under that monument, and remain there to this day.
On October 17, 1991, thirty-six years to the day after the release of "Sixteen Tons", Ernie Ford passed away, closing the chapter on one of American music's most compelling, legendary stories.

And why did the song become so popular in 1955 when it seemed doomed at it's first release in 1946?  I've been interested in modern music history since I was a kid.  Sure, the political atmosphere, like the above story says, wasn't favorable in 1946.  But other factors were at work that aren't mentioned in the story.  Here's what I think may have also affected the song's popularity.
Rural Electrification wasn't general throughout the South until about 10 years prior to the song's release in 1946.  For instance, according to one old fellow I interviewed, electric power didn't generally arrive in rural areas surrounding Birmingham, Alabama until 1937.  Battery powered radios were available by 1930 but that was at the beginning of the Great Depression.  Unemployment was at 25%.  Less than 1 family in 10 owned a radio. 

Those that owned battery powered radios were judicious in their use.  Batteries were too expensive to waste.  News was usually what they listened to  Most couldn't afford the luxury of listening to music.  There were also phonograph records available since the late 1800s.  But again, these were a luxury.  By the 1940s, the Great Depression had just ending and there was a World War in progress.  With rural electrification, more and more people began listening to radio.  The music world began to change rapidly.  In 1949, RCA Victor released the first 45 RPM single (prior to then, only the larger 78 RPM single recordings were available).  The relationship with the music industry, radio, and the federal government was all new back then.  In my opinion, the FBI had less influence in 1955 than in 1946.  By then, the music industry had become too popular and had more political influence.
By the mid 1950s, both WWII (1945) and the Korean War (1953) had ended.  Families had been established.  Baby Boomer kids were old enough to enjoy music.  America had brought home Hi-Fidelity sound, invented by the Germans in 1941.  "Hi-Fi" as it was called was a must-have new technology for many young families like my Uncle Nat.  For the first time in the history of recording, music no longer sounded "scratchy."  It almost sounded live.  Once again, music had became the latest fad.
That's why I think "Sixteen Tons" by Tennessee Ernie Ford was so popular in 1955 when the same song by Merle Travis was so unpopular in 1946 when first released.  Ernie Ford was just lucky.  He had the right voice for the right song at the right time -- nothing more.  That's my story and I'm stickin' to it!
Ronnie Vincent