Come & Listen You Fellers

Review of MUSIC OF COAL
Mining Songs from the Appalachian Coalfields

Produced by Jack Wright
Lonesome Pine Office on Youth, 2007

I’ll be under the mountain courting a dire fate,
Till my lungs are as black as a day in this place,
Till my hands callus over and my heart turns to stone,
Then you’ll grind that to dust just to fill in the hole.
“Black Lung,” by A. J. Roach

Scott County, Virginia, songwriter A. J. Roach was angry when he wrote “Black Lung” in 2006. His maternal grandfather, a coal miner, died from black lung disease when his mother was a child. His grandmother was left with nine children to raise yet was only compensated by the coal company with “a few hundred dollars.” Roach says, “It was that anger and that feeling of loss that spurred me to write this song.”

Roach’s song is one of 48 musical expressions of struggle and resistance in the recently released two-CD set Music of Coal: Mining Songs from the Appalachian Coalfields. “The themes of these songs are sometimes tragic because so many people have lost their lives in mining over the years,” says Producer Jack Wright.

Music of Coal is the project of the Lonesome Pine Office on Youth in Big Stone Gap, a delinquency prevention agency that has served families in Southwest Virginia since 1980. Conceived as a fund-raising project, the collection contains nearly a century’s worth of coal mining songs. An accompanying book includes lyrics, archival photographs and Wright’s extensive, Grammy-nominated liner notes.

The project relied heavily on local musicians and resources, including Maggard Recording Studio of Big Stone Gap as principal production facility.

“Our collection gives a hundred year view of life in the mines and camps of Appalachia from many of the voices who lived it,” says Wright, “I want people to see the complex and bittersweet history of coal mining — to see how families have struggled to make a living.”

Music of Coal begins with a 1908 recording of a music hall tune, “Down in a Coal Mine,” performed by the Thomas Edison Concert Band. The collection ends with pop music eccentric Natalie Merchant covering the classic union ballad “Which Side Are You On?” In between are 46 songs—many of them performed by miners and miners’ children and grandchildren—that tell the often dreadful and dichotomous story of coal mining in Appalachia.

Listeners can witness Clay County, Kentucky, native Aunt Molly Jackson‘s aggressive and arresting directive for miners to “strike for union conditions, boys,” in her 1937 recording of “Hard Times in Coleman’s Mine.” Just a few songs later, listeners can sympathize with the sentiments of contemporary songwriter Susanne Mumpower as she celebrates her grandfather’s memory as a miner in “Coal Dust Kisses”: “Looking back, I never knew I knew hard times,” Mumpower sings, “We had things money couldn’t buy, like coal dust kisses all the time.”

The assassinations of United Mine Workers of America executive Jock Yablonski and his family are recounted in Hazel Dickens‘ stark ballad “The Yablonski Murder,” where Dickens nearly shouts her declarative refrain: “Well, it’s cold blooded murder, friends, I’m talking about. Now, who’s gonna stand up? Lord, who’s gonna fight?” Amazingly, this poetic murder ballad of injustice and corruption sits comfortably next to “Coal Miner’s Boogie,” a hillbilly eight-to-the-bar dance song. George Davis, who spent 28 years as an underground miner, became known as “The Singing Miner” and hosted daily radio shows in Hazard, Kentucky. His “Coal Miner’s Boogie” heralds the end of the miners’ working day: “Put a nickel in the slot and the music rolls out. See them old coal miners just a-boogieing about.”

Music of Coal includes popular musicians like Blue Highway, Tom T. Hall, Dwight Yoakum and Darrell Scott, as well as more obscure singing miners like Orville Jenks, Ed Sturgill and Gene Carpenter, and singing preachers such as Dorothy Myles, Joe Freeman, Elder James Caudill and members of the Evangelistic Choralaires, the oldest African-American Appalachian gospel group in southwest Virginia.

Songwriters and performers known for their protest efforts like Sarah Ogan Gunning, Nimrod Workman, Jean Ritchie and Billy Edd Wheeler are well represented. There is even a musical lineage: Sara and Maybelle Carter sing the beautifully executed “Coal Miner’s Blues” of 1938 on volume one. Nearly 70 years later, Sara Carter’s grandson Dale Jett sings Billy Edd Wheeler’s “The Coal Tattoo” on volume two.

Music of Coal is a gift outright. In voices plain, clear and often haunting, we are given an entire musical history of coal mining life and work in Appalachia. Within these songs we learn of union organizing, coalfield battles, the broad form deed, environmental plunder and degradation, the contributions of women and minorities to coal mining, and the wretched consequences of disease, disability and disaster associated with coal mining.

Jack Wright notes in the anthology’s introduction that the collection “is our praise and acknowledgement to the men, women and children who have labored, sometimes sacrificing their all, to produce coal for the fires of progress.”

Despite the often dire fate of mining work, the lure of steady wages and honest work in the coal mines is an age-old story. Miners knew this and so did their children, as Merle Travis, a miner’s son, reminds us in his 1947 cautionary song “Dark as a Dungeon“:

Come and listen you fellows, so young and so fine,
And seek not your fortunes in the dark dreary mine.
It will form as a habit and seep in your soul,
Till the stream of your blood is as black as the coal.
This review first appeared in New Southernerner online.
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