Music of Coal

Music of Coal

Music of Coal

Mining Songs from the Appalachian Coalfields

Lonesome Pine Council on Youth

As the title suggests, this music collection primarily focuses on the Appalachian Coalfields. This actually makes for a richer, more colorful palette to use in painting the stories of the coal miner than it would had the album been inclusive of all coal mining.

Some of what’s here may be lost on many due to the fact that this is probably the most undiluted culture in America with some ways and phrases that have long since been lost to modern culture.

Appalachia is much akin to New Orleans, in that various cultures were slammed together very early in our history. But unlike New Orleans, Appalachia remained a severely isolated region up until after World War 2, and it was actually still pretty isolated until Lyndon Johnson’s ‘War On Poverty’ — which was a continuation of some of President Kennedy’s efforts.

Around the turn of the century, the Old Money in America was able to actually build little socialist pockets of commerce just several hundred miles from Washington, DC. These companies basically owned the workers, the police forces, the grocery stores, the schools and so forth. If you want to know what Big Business would do if left almost totally unbridled, just look at the history of the Appalachian Coalfield.

These companies built self-contained little villages which actually printed their own money in the form of “script” which could only be spent at the company stores on over-priced goods. This script served as the basis of one of the very first easy credit rip-off traps long before Title Pawn was a part of our vernacular. A man could draw script up to the amount that he had worked that very day, so when payday came, there was sometimes little or nothing left. The Merle Travis-penned Tennessee Ernie Ford hit, “Sixteen Tons,” is all about this. A Ned Beatty version is included on this disc. Merle Travis is also included with another classic “Dark as a Dungeon.”

There were a few model towns that offered better schools, electricity and other benefits then unavailable to those outside these pockets, but life was often a series of major struggles anyway. A man who was injured and unable to work was no-longer of no use to The Company and would be kicked out of his company house pretty much immediately.

Striking for better wages or working conditions was downright dangerous in the coalfields. These strikes resulted in Coal Wars that were so violent that at times, bombs in the form of dynamite were dropped on the strikers from small planes, and replacement workers were hauled to work in armored cars. One of the classic protest songs of all time — “Which Side Are You On” — came out of the Harlan Coal Wars. Natalie Merchant provides a cover of the song for this release.

These are songs that span nearly 100 years, including those recorded by Carter Stanley, The Carter Family, Tom T. Hall and Darrell Scott. There are 48 songs total in this 2-CD collection. Surprisingly, one of the most haunting songs is an a cappella rendering of “West Virginia Coal Mine Disaster” by the then 11-year-old Molly Slemp. Her voice literally haunted me. It was just like the first time I heard Iris Dement’s “Let The Mystery Be.”

There are a few weak songs here, but with 48 total songs I can accept a couple. All-in-all it’s the most comprehensive collection of coal mining songs to date. There’s still a lot of interesting Appalachian history that is begging to be told, but this is most certainly a good picture of at least one part of it.

The proceeds from this collection benefit the Lonesome Pine Council on Youth.

Music of Coal: www.lpoy.org/music_of_coal.htm

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