Various Artists: Music of Coal: Mining Songs from the Appalachian Coalfields

[16 February 2009]

By Ben Child

Given all the recent discussion about the costs and dangers of energy consumption, Music of Coal, a two-disc set compiled by Jack Wright under the direction of the Lone Pine Office on Youth, feels uncannily prescient. It’s a wide-ranging, occasionally surprising collection of songs organized around themes of coal production, coalworker’s pneumoconiosis and poverty, coalworkers’ parties and prayers. Several obvious touchstones—including the Carter Family’s “Coal Miner’s Blues”, Dock Bogg’s “Prayer’s of a Miner’s Child” and Merle Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon”—appear with more revelatory offerings: Trixie Smith’s brassy “Mining Camp Blues” tears apart the purely white Appalachian model of mining music, and Aunt Molly Jackson’s a capella take on “Hard Times in Coleman’s Mine” offers a deep and haunting variation on familiar themes. Similarly, George Davis’ 1949 western-swing-inflected “Coal Miner’s Boogie”, an apocryphal cut from Davis’ out-of-print Smithsonian Folkways LP When Kentucky Had No Union Men, glows like hidden treasure.

Music of Coal also seeks to shine a light on deserving contemporary Appalachian artists, especially throughout the second disc. But the quality slacks a bit when the songs draw closer to the 21st century, as adherence to convention seems to be a virtue more admired by contemporary artists than their earlier counterparts. Thus, the gesture to unite an earlier tradition with its more modern progenitors isn’t altogether necessary, and few of the recent tracks make as deep an impression as their antecedents. “Coal Dust Kisses”, for example, is pleasant enough but too cloying to support repeated listening. W.V. Hill’s “Dyin’ to Make a Livin’” is affecting but also drifts dangerously close to bathos—“He hates missin’ work ‘cause he needs the cash / So he love his percocets”. While the song appropriately alerts listeners to the epidemic of prescription-drug use in contemporary Appalachia, Hill’s stilted delivery makes the track an unlikely novelty song, especially given the general tone of solemnity that prevails throughout.

Several brilliant performances from the second half of the century, including Dwight Yoakam and Ralph Stanley’s take on Yoakam’s “Miner’s Prayer”, Tom T. Hall’s “I’m a Coal Mining Man” and “There Will Be No Black Lung (Up in Heaven)” by Rev. Joe Freema honor tradition without getting too reverent about it.

Wright’s editorial vision resonates throughout the set, and his affection for the music is clear. The lengthy notes accompanying each track double as an anecdotal history of the Appalachian coal industry, and while these notes are occasionally uneven, they are always compelling. But it’s also hard to know whether Music of Coal’s more obvious omissions were deliberate or the result of copyright restrictions. No tracks get included, for example, by Clarence Ashley, Roscoe Holcomb or, in a turn towards the modern, Gillian Welch—all of whom have songs that would have fit the set nicely. This is a quibble, though, since the sheer volume of songs here ensures there’s plenty of material to sort through, much of which is exclusive to this set.

In the wake of O Brother Where Art Thou?‘s remarkable success, there’s been no shortage of collections of old-time music. Although Revenant, Dust-to-Digital and Tompkins Square might offer themed releases of old-time material with greater flourish and deeper academic scrutiny, it would be hard to beat this set for earnestness. Aside from the few odd tracks, The Music of Coal might not change anyone’s thinking about the music of coal, but it’s a thoughtful tribute, and one that bears traces of loving deliberation and topical concern.

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