In January 1949, after several years performing on the radio, Bristol native Tennessee Ernie Ford was signed to a recording contract with Capitol Records. Over the course of only a few years, Ford placed a dozen Top 20 hits on the country chart while simultaneously scoring half a dozen Top 20 pop hits, clearly demonstrating his broad appeal to disc jockeys and fans alike. A trailblazer within the industry, Ford recorded 66 singles, including the hit for which he was most well known, “Sixteen Tons,” and 88 albums, selling an estimated 90 million copies and influencing countless artists throughout his career.
Ford had a special place in his heart for Christmas music, and within the many genres that he made his own – from “boogie” to gospel – he recorded several albums celebrating the festive season, including The Star Carol (1958), The Story of Christmas (1963), Sing We Now of Christmas (1965), O Come All Ye Faithful (1968), and C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S (1971).
And so to mark the holidays, we thought we’d share a few Christmas-themed Tennessee Ernie Ford memories and objects from our collections to get our readers in the spirit of the season!
We have several of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s records in our museum collections, including the two seen here. The holiday songs on these albums are mostly religious ones, such as “O Holy Night” and “Joy to the World,” but also include simply festive selections, such as “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
This pamphlet, now in the museum’s collections, shared some of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s favorite Christmas recipes, including his mother’s famous applesauce cake, so loved by the star that when he visited his hometown of Bristol at the height of his fame, the press took a photograph of him having the first slice of the cake his mother had made for his return! Inside the pamphlet, Ford notes that his family have pored over and made some of their favorite recipes so many times that they’ve “almost read the handwriting off the paper”!
Ford is seen here on the 1963 NBC special The Story of Christmas, one of many Christmas shows he did during his long career. This holiday special, sponsored by General Mills and hosted by Ford, included him performing numerous musical numbers, vocal arrangements of classic carols by the Roger Wagner Chorale and Orchestra, and a wonderful animated segment that was created by Eyvind Earle, the renowned animation artist who worked on Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Fantasia. It was also the first network television special to be broadcast without commercials! When the special aired, it was hugely popular, with entertainment trade magazine Daily Variety saying: “The tape should be preserved and played back for years on end. Its brilliance will never be dimmed or excelled.”
Last but certainly not least, we wanted to share this wonderful – and hilarious – clip of Tennessee Ernie Ford performing the African-American spiritual “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” a cumulative song whose lyrics reference the Christmas story in the line “One for the little bitty baby born in Bethlehem.” Watch the clip all the way through to see visual evidence of the W. C. Fields’ mantra about the challenge of working with children and animals…and how hard Ford works to not crack up during his singing! (By the way, the kid sitting beside Ford who steals the show? His youngest son Brion!)
And with that, we wish you a very merry Tennessee (Ernie Ford) Christmas!
Emily Robinson is the Collections Manager and Rene Rodgers is the Head Curator at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.