Monday, March 9, 2015

Book/Record Reaction: Music of Coal

Reading and Listening to Music of Coal
Author/producer: Jack Wright 

Date: 2007 

Publisher: Lonesome Pine Office on Youth (

ISBN: none, but click here to see it on Amazon

Length: 68 pages (book), over 2 hours (recorded music)

Quote: “Few occupational traditions...have inspired more songs than coal.”)
Music of Coal was one new album of music I wanted to listen to, and review, when it came out. I didn’t, because the music was published on CD’s only. I bought LPs and LP players, cassettes and cassette players, and then I took a vow that I wasn’t going to spend any more money on yet another musical gimmick whose manufacturer wouldn’t even be able to make routine repairs on the thing ten years later. So I had to wait for someone whose new car came with a CD player to find this album and share it with a car pool, while we were driving through some of the scenery photographed in the book. It was quite a thought-provoking experience.
This document was meant to inform readers and listeners more than to entertain them. Two hours of coal mine songs, many of which were written to report bad news, can become depressing. Some of the songs were written by miners who say they like their jobs; probably most of them mean they like being able to live close to their rural roots, but Merle Travis famously had another explanation: “It will form as a a drunkard his wine, a man will have lust for the lure of the mine.” 
Here are the thoughts I noted while reading and listening:
1. The album begins with “Down in a coal mine, underneath the ground,” and mentions that this was a British song that came to the U.S. via vaudeville theatre. The version on the album was performed by the Edison Orchestra, as a march, and includes only the chorus (there were five verses). Coal mine bosses were known to have organized brass bands, which presumably would have imitated this performance, but the record doesn’t include any of them.
2. A picture of Lancashire pit lasses does not belong next to the song by Sara and Maybelle Carter. Women had no place in the Virginia mines until the 1970s, when some women imagined that working in coal mines would be “liberating.” Originally the intention of banning all females from all coal mines was to end the abuse of women and children, as documented in British coal mines, where smaller workers were sometimes wanted but were expected to work harder for lower wages. As mining became more mechanized, some bosses continued to refuse to hire women out of fear that sooner or later some male laborer would make either a joke or a flirtatious “pass” at a woman, who would claim to have been insulted, and there’d be a fight. There are legends of cross-dressing women who worked in Virginia coal mines in the early twentieth century; I have not seen documentation.
3. Nimrod Workman claimed that water seeped into the mine and “I...come outside and my clothes would be wet...and they would freeze into ice. My wife would build up a fire and it would take me a time to get my clothes thawed up to where I could get them off.” Is this possible? Yes. Coal miners adapted to constant 55-degree damp by wearing lots of layers. If the inside layers of clothing are thick and sturdy, the outside layers can freeze without the person being frostbitten. Kentucky, like Virginia, does have days like that, though not in every year.
4. All coal miners were black; according to photos some of the coal camps were so well integrated that it’s hard to tell which miners were Black, underneath the coal dust, and which were White. There are practically no African-Americans in coal communities today. I once commented on this to one of the older generation in Appalachia and was told, “There used to be some Black people around here. I suppose they’ve all moved away...don’t remember the last time I saw any of them.”

5. A photo-op showing Franklin D. Roosevelt allegedly greeting a miner, whose face looks black, is interesting. FDR is beaming and reaching out to shake someone’s hand. So is the miner. They do not, however, appear to be reaching toward each other’s hands.
6. Apart from the vintage of the cars in a picture from about 1950, Main Street in Appalachia hasn’t changed much.
7. Around her 70th birthday, Jean Ritchie’s voice had only grown higher and sweeter than ever. Her rendition of “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Any More” was still fine.
8. Many early coal mining songs were composed, sung, and sponsored by the unions, which later became as corrupt as the bosses the unions had been formed to fight. Some unions were led by Socialists and, while their party was overt and legal, by Communists. Sure enough, this album contains a song in which folk singers attempt, without much success, to berate “the dirty capitalist system” in two-part harmony. Nobody's heard that on the radio.
9. The photo of the widow and four orphans Fisher, of Kentucky, taken after Tommy Fisher and 24 other men died in 1943, will remind some readers of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Were their eyes all dilated by some drug they’d been given “for the shock”? Did someone poke holes in the original snapshot with a pin?
10. Carter Stanley’s performance of “Daddy Don’t Go to the Mines” is here remixed with harmony by his daughter, Jeannie, who was four years old when he died. You can tell she’s spent a lot of time singing along with the records he left her.
11. The car in which I was listening to the CD's passed the ruins of a settlement called Derby. According to this book, it was the site of an explosion in 1934; seventeen miners dead, 74 trapped underground for hours (they nearly had to swim out). A broadside verse was composed shortly afterward, but not recorded until 2006. A note on a copy of the lyrics said that it was composed to the tune “Picture on the Wall.” I never heard the story or the song. A major news event in Wise County was not necessarily of much interest in Scott County. This has not changed.
12. Billy Edd Wheeler claims that he’s seldom able to sing his song of coal-camp nostalgia: “It’s been a long time since I’ve been home, but I’m not going back soon...The town’s all gone, it’s gone away. The people are straw the wind has blown away...How could anybody know that the next year or so, We would all be traveling over mountain and plain, Tryin’ to plant our roots again.” The coal camps have disappeared. A friend of my mother’s, one of the lucky coal-camp children who’d married well and found something better than the Bonny Blue coal camp where she was born, wanted to show Mother where she’d grown up; they weren’t even allowed to drive past the site of her home. 
13. Ron Short claims that in West Virginia miners who wore red bandanas, who fought in an armed rebellion against mine “operators” and eventually federal troops, were called “rednecks” and made that name a term of pride. I never heard that story either.
14. “Sixteen Tons” was first recorded by Merle Travis, then made a hit by Ernie Ford, but on this record it’s performed by some youngster called Ned Beatty. His version passes over the original first verse, “Some people say a man is made out of mud. A poor man is made out of muscle and blood,” to focus on the reason why a Gate City man might have to take a job in a mine: “I was born one mornin’ it was drizzlin’ rain. Fightin’ and trouble are my middle name.” In communities closer to the mines, a coal mine might have been among the first places a young man looked for a job, but in my home town the mines were where a man went if he was really it might be because he had a record for "fightin' and trouble."
15. By and large the book that accompanies the albums manages to remember that Appalachia is one town, and there are others. Nevertheless, on page 51: “A.J. Roach...speaks from his roots in Appalachia. Raised in the hollows of Scott County, Virginia...” Appalachia is in Wise County.
16. A.J. Roach’s song is entitled “Black Lung.” It makes me wonder why no miner photographed in work gear, in this book, has a face mask. 
17. And I’m not sure in what part of Scott County A.J. Roach’s grandfather “was—like most men in my area of Virginia—a coal miner.” Wise and Lee County men were coal miners. Scott County had an active coal mine in the early half of the twentieth century, but even while it existed that mine never employed most of the men even in one town. Roach is not a Gate City name so my guess would be that this grandfather lived somewhere closer to the coal mines. Possibly he was from Appalachia.
18. In 1992, deep in a mine outside Norton, some idiot lighted a cigarette. “Many of his co-workers might have survived if that small explosion hadn’t kicked up a  cloud of coal dust that also ignited...and the fireball that developed spread to every part of the mine at about 600 m.p.h...Coal companies are cited for dust violations far more often than any other problem.” Hmph. What about violations of laws against smoking in other people’s place of employment?!
19. Some kid from East Tennessee State University made up a song about a disaster in the Coeburn mine: “Twenty men saw their Maker’s face.” There was no disaster in the Coeburn mine. The compilers of this album wanted the song, and apparently were able to get it cheaper than either of the authentic versions of “Sixteen Tons,” so they went to the trouble of digging up the detail that another mine, “about three miles from Coeburn,” had two explosions, in 1907 and 1910, and a total of nineteen miners were killed. Hmph, again.
20. Between 2005, when Jack Wright and friends started compiling this book and record, and 2007, when Music of Coal was published, 64 miners died in the U.S. alone. In China, it was reported that 4746 miners died in 2006 alone. There is still (although that song is not included in this collection) blood on the coal.

As documented in this collection, some people still work in coal mines, and still want to. Some people speculate, "They wouldn't do well in other jobs." Some coal miners have, like our inactive member Adayahi, done quite well in other jobs. There are no easy answers, but this collection may provide as much emotional insight into the situation as most of us are ever going to get. People who belong here will do, and do without, a lot of things in order to stay here.

Music of Coal was originally sold as a fundraiser for charity, and its value has gone up not down since its release. This web site will offer it as a Fair Trade Book (with CD's). The best price we can offer will be $80 for the set + $5 for shipping, and if you send that amount to salolianigodagewi @ we'll send the Lonesome Pine Office on Youth $8.50.