For many of us, it’s easy to take for granted the privileges and rights our jobs afford us. Laws, human resources departments, and unions all protect the worker from potentially egregious actions by our bosses or coworkers. Ideally, the rights attained for the modern worker value life and labor with equal measure, ensuring proper compensation and conditions in which we can fully contribute to society.
The coal miner’s struggle for equitable treatment is not just a story of one industry’s fight for humane conditions or the integral role it played in the development of unions. It is also the story of its influence on parallel movements, including civil and women’s rights. Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner’s Struggle is more than just a soundtrack to the 1976 Academy Award winning film (freshly released on DVD by the Criterion Collection). It is an exhaustive collection of songs that capture the anger, fear, desperation, and conviction of the miner’s fight not only by musicians, but by the people on the front line’s themselves.
For this 22-song collection, Rounder has gone into the archives and complemented the songs that appear in Barbara Kopple’s film with tracks from two earlier, out-of-print compilations: Come All You Coal Miners and They’ll Never Keep Us Down: Women’s Coal Mining Songs. What emerges is a stirring portrait of protest capturing the views of labor organizers, workers, and their families.
Given the subject matter, it’s no surprise the legendary Hazel Dickens appears no less than seven times on the disc. Born into a coal mining family, Dickens’ untrained voice and clear-eyed perspective add extra poignancy to her songs. Whether singing about the dreaded black lung (“Black Lung”) or detailing the murder of a labor organizer (“The Yablonski Murder”), Dickens’ readings are passionate and evocative. Though polished with a bit more of a professional sheen, and delivered with a honey-soaked voice, Merle Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon” is still remarkably devastating. With nothing more than an acoustic guitar and his voice, Travis sings unflinchingly of a day in the life of miner, working underground, never seeing the light of day, and whose life is in constant danger of being snuffed out. It’s easy to see how Travis’ sympathetic recounting of the life of the working man would later influence “outlaw” artists such as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. What is palpable in all these performers is the authenticity of the songs, written and delivered from a place of honest concern.
While the songs by professional musicians are certainly effective, it’s the tracks by the actual workers and organizers themselves that are the most haunting. Sarah Ogan Gunning, the daughter of a miner’s rights activist, was a protester first and artist second. She would appear at various rallies and events with her half-sister, and using the framework of traditional folk songs, sing passionate protest songs or simply convey the difficult life of the miner. “Come All You Coal Miners” and “Hard Working Miner”, recorded Alan Lomax-style presumably in her home (during the former track you hear someone coughing the background), capture the raw emotion from someone who has been on the front lines. Though it may be grim, there is an undercurrent of conviction and hope in Gunning’s slightly wavering voice that resonates clearly. However, Florence Reece’s “Which Side Are You On?” is simply the most inspiring song on the entire disc. The wife of a union organizer, Reece wrote this song in the early 1930s to the melody of the traditional tune “Lay the Lily Low”. The song has since been discovered by folk musicians, but this recording by Reece, decades after she wrote it, is no less powerful for the age. Her clearly elderly, weak, and unaccompanied voice still achingly urges workers to unite for a common cause.
Protest music has come back of late, attaining a certain vogue among contemporary musicians. No doubt, it’s a surefire way to create press. One has to wonder if Green Day would’ve conquered the music charts as effectively if their videos and music were stripped of their political posturing. And unfortunately, that’s what much of what passes for modern protest songs amount to: millionaire musicians taking up the image of “concerned citizen” while riding the press, carefully staged photo shoots, and radio play all the way to the bank. Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner’s Struggle is a sobering reminder of what real protest music is. Unprotected by agents and record deals, these are truly the voices of the people, singing and yearning for a better life for their families, colleagues, and ultimately, people everywhere.