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Merle Travis: “Sixteen Tons” and “Lost John”

Merle Travis is one of the great country guitar players of the middle part of the 20th century. He also is noteworthy for writing Sixteen Tons, which was a big hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford and now is a standard. He sings it in the clip above after telling a cute story about Chet Atkins. The music starts at about the 2:50 mark. Lost John is below.

(Editor’s Note: The original version of “16 Tons” that I posted was taken down by YouTube. Another version now is above, so the intro above makes not sense. Too bad–it was a cute story.)

Here is the beginning of Travis’ bio at NNDB:

Son of a tobacco farmer-turned-coal-miner, Merle Travis spent most of his childhood in the small town of Ebenezer, living amongst conditions of extreme poverty. His father played the five-string banjo and for a while Merle also took up the instrument, but by the age of 12 he switched over to guitar after being presented a nondescript model by his brother. From some of his coal mining neighbors (one of whom was the father of two boys that later became known as The Everly Brothers) he learned a picking technique that used the thumb and two fingers to play bass and melody lines simultaneously – a technique that was responsible for much of his later fame, due to both the incredible technical prowess he achieved through its use and the varety of musical styles to which it could be applied. By his late teens Travis hit the road, busking around the country and eventually landing a job with The Tennessee Tomcats, followed by a period with the higher-profile group Clayton McMichen’s Georgia Wildcats beginning in 1937. A year later he had secured a regular spot on WLW in Cincinnati as part of The Drifting Pioneers – an opportunity brought to an end by the outbreak of World War II, but as a result of which he managed to broaden his exposure to a national audience. Continue Reading…

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Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.


What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.


The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.