Forty-eight songs capture the spirit of Appalachian Virginia
By David Bearinger
The history of Appalachian Virginia and the lives of its people have been shaped by coal. Coal produced vast wealth. Sadly, much of that wealth flowed out of the region while the mountain communities remained mostly poor.
Coal also created its own culture, its own web of life and self-expression for the people who worked, literally and figuratively, in the shadow of the mines. Coal towns, sometimes known as collieries or coal camps, sprang up in the creases of the mountains. Places with names like Stonega and Pardee; Derby, Dante, and Roda; Osaka, Imboden, Keokee.
These were polyglot communities where the miners and their families—Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Scots-Irish, African Americans from the Deep South—knew each other.
Music was at the center of this web of life; and coal, not surprisingly, runs through the music of the Appalachians like a wide, dark seam.
“Coal miners have shared a twin destiny—to violate Mother Earth by constant digging and to supply fellow humans with needed energy. Much of the tension in mine song springs from such duality….”
—Archie Green, folklorist
In 2006, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) was asked to support an ambitious effort, to distill the “Music of Coal” into two CDs, forty-eight tracks with accompanying liner notes that would tell the story of coal in all its variations and complexity. More than that, this compilation was designed to show how deeply coal and the music of coal have penetrated into American culture. VFH grants supported research, production, and free distribution of the publication to schools and libraries.
But how do you tell a story like this in forty-eight songs? First, by bringing skilled hands to the task. Paul Kuczko, the executive producer, was then serving as director of the Lonesome Pine Office on Youth. Paul is a legendary impresario and builder of coalitions. The project was his idea.
Jack Wright, producer, is a Southwest Virginia native, like Paul. He’s also a fine musician who knows the history and the music of the Appalachian coalfields from the inside out.
Alan Maggard, associate producer and owner of the studio in Big Stone Gap where the CDs were mastered. Joe Wilson, Archie Green, and VFH folklife director Jon Lohman—three of this country’s finest scholars of Appalachian traditional music—all wrote background essays for the publication.
There were many others. But in the end, choosing the team to bring on board was the easy part. The harder work was deciding which songs to include. An initial list of several hundred was first narrowed down to a “short list” of 160; and then, through an agonizing process, to the final 48.
They cover the range. From the earliest known American recording of a mining song—the Edison Orchestra’s “Down in a Coal Mine,” recorded on cylinder in 1908—to Natalie Merchant’s 2003 performance of Florence Reece’s “Which Side Are You On?”
“Fountain Filled with Blood” blends the a cappella style of Old Regular Baptist hymn singing with the voices of the oldest Black Appalachian gospel group in Southwest Virginia, the Evangelistic Choralaires.
The Carter Family’s “Coal Miner’s Blues” is here. So are “Dark as a Dungeon,” sung by Merle Travis, who wrote it; “Coal Miner’s Boogie,” by George Davis; the Reverend Joe Freeman’s “There Will Be No Black Lung (Up in Heaven)”; and Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.”
Songs by Jean Ritchie (“Black Waters,” about the effects of mechanized strip mining) and Dock Boggs (“Prayer of a Miner’s Child”) seem to rise up out of ancient ground. Others—like A. K. Mullins’ “Dyin’ to Make a Livin’,” sung by W. V. Hill and Foddershock—put a fresh twist on the irony that runs through many of these recordings, old and new.
Dale Jett, the grandson of A. P. and Sara Carter, leans into a haunting version of Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Coal Tattoo.” In “Miner’s Prayer,” the voices of Ralph Stanley and Dwight Yoakam weave together, threads of fine-spun bluegrass, in a song dedicated to Yoakam’s grandfather, a forty-year veteran of the Kentucky mines.
Ron Short’s “Redneck War” is a bare-knuckle retelling of the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, where 10,000 miners, many of them fresh from the trenches of World War I, fought for ten days against better-armed agents of the coal companies until the U.S. Army finally intervened, ending what remains the largest (and perhaps the least-known) armed uprising in American labor history.
Storytelling is every bit as native to the Appalachian Mountains as timber or coal, and each of the songs in this collection tells a story. Some are dark and stained with sorrow or regret. Others sing with joy, pride, and deep attachment to the mining life.
“Hopefully, the songs, pictures, and stories in this anthology will help illuminate…a major world industry that historically has been a blessing and a curse for those engaged in it….”
—Jack Wright, producer
For better and for worse, coal has left an indelible mark, a permanent tattoo on the American psyche, and you can hear it in these songs. Their source is in the Appalachian hills, but their meaning and impact resonate far beyond.
David Bearinger is the director of grants and public programs at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.