Tennessee Ernie Ford was a UC man. The baritone-voiced country legend attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, which later became a part of UC, in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Ford’s classical vocal training made him an anomaly on the country charts of the 1950s and 1960s, endowing him with the ability to evoke a weighty, distinctively dramatic gravitas in his songs. The Bristol, Tennessee native’s unique sound and eclectic musical tastes enabled him to cross-over from country stardom onto the pop and gospel charts. Ford could sing tears-in-yer-beer country ballads, Pentecostal hymns, and Civil War camp songs all with great effect.
Ford turned Merle Travis’ “Sixteen Tons,” a darkly comedic portrait of a coal miner’s life in a company town, into a number one country and pop hit in 1956. Sparsely arranged and jazzy, Ford’s version of “Sixteen Tons” was unlike the cheery pop and early rock-n-roll records then dominating the charts. It was more Upton Sinclair or Emile Zola than Tin Pan Alley or Mitch Miller.
It was Ford’s baritone voice and studied, casual delivery of such lines as “some people say a man is made outta mud/a poor man’s made out of muscle and blood/muscle and blood, skin and bones/a mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong” that made “Sixteen Tons” such an evocative tune.
Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons” is today’s selection from the video vault.