Working in the Coal Mine and Singing About It, Too

Kathy Mattea
Captain Potato

In country music, being a coal miner — or a blood relative of a coal miner — is a bit like being an O.G. in hip-hop music: it gives you instant credibility as a badass, while still maintaining your role as a man of the people. Plus, abuse from the coal company gives you a legitimate reason to damn The Man. However, the majority of us aren’t coal miners, we don’t know coal miners, and should we ever have to work in a coal mine, wouldn’t last a week. This begs the question: are coal mining songs still relevant? After all, most of us listen to them (if we are listening to them) in the car or subway on our way to day jobs in which we’re unlikely to be buried alive.

Though most of us may not have any ties to mining, the songs remain an essential part of the country/oldtime/roots music canon due to their portrayal of mining in Appalachia as well as their strong sense of social justice — it’s this continuing focus on workers’ rights that continue to make this music pertinent in the 21st century, despite the decrease in mine production since the ’70s. In the ’30s, many mining songs featured strong socialist leanings, if not an outright embracing of these ideals, and the songs may have been sung at meetings, protests, or strikes. Interestingly enough, one of the most fervent singers of socialist mining songs is a woman: little-known Kentucky folk musician Sarah Ogan Gunning. Born in 1910, Gunning’s father and first husband (who died of tuberculosis when Sarah was 28) were involved with the United Mine Workers of America, and it is this involvement that most likely spurred Gunning’s focus on mining and unions.

Gunning’s songs border on zealotry as she pleads with miners to unite and “sink this capitalist system to the darkest pits of hell”. Although Gunning faded into obscurity in the late ’40s as she battled brown lung and later tuberculosis, the folk music revival of the ’60s brought her back into the scene as she began performing at folk festivals across the country.

Barbara Kopple’s 1976 film Harlan County, U.S.A. documents the infamous1973 miners’ strike against Duke Power Company (now Duke Energy, a company whose recent awards for ethics and renewable/green energy programs suggest that the violence of the miner’s strike is ancient history) as they fight for better treatment and higher pay. The accompanying soundtrack features Gunning as well as other reedy-voiced Appalachians; their songs play over footage of old men suffocating from black lung disease and hired goons firing shotguns at men and women on the picket lines. In a documentary full of tragic moments, perhaps the most tragic is the murder of striking miner Lawrence Jones, shot in the face by the company’s “gun thugs”, as the strikers call them. A fellow striker points out a piece of Jones’ brain matter on the gravel before Kopple cuts to footage of his grieving mother and teenage wife in the hospital.

Aside from the folk revival, songs condemning the capitalist mining system have more or less faded from public view since World War II. The socialist movement was strong in America during the 1930s among legendary folk musicians such as Woody Guthrie, so perhaps we can trace their elision in the American music canon to Cold War-era patriotism. After all, miners are the epitome of masculine, hardworking, self-sacrificing American men. Why, it just wouldn’t be patriotic to sing a bunch of pinko propaganda, would it?

In 2008, country singer Kathy Mattea (best known for her hits “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” and “Walking Away a Winner” in the late ’80s and early ’90s) paid tribute to her West Virginia heritage with a theme album. Coal covers some of the most famous mining songs, from Merle Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon” to Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” (the latter also covered beautifully by Patty Loveless). Mattea eschews pro-union songs in favor of those which focus on the tragedies of mining both personal and environmental, the most poignant of which is “Lawrence Jones”. Originally written by folksinger Si Kahn approximately a year after Jones’ 1973 murder, the song criticizes the violence committed by the company against the striking miners in the name of profit: “Oh a miner’s life is fragile, it can shatter just like ice / But those who bear the struggle have always paid the price / There’s blood upon the contract like vinegar in wine / And there’s one man dead on the Harlan County line.”

Though the coal mining song has faded from the public eye — Mattea’s album, critically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated, and a number-one hit on Billboard’s bluegrass charts, has received almost no airplay — they are still nearly as relevant as they were decades ago. Though miner deaths have decreased substantially since the golden age of the mines, coal mining is still the second most dangerous job in America. Furthermore, companies are still running roughshod over the citizens of coal country. Landscapes have been forever ruined, water sources poisoned, children and senior citizens made ill from coal dust and toxic byproducts made airborne. Perhaps it’s time for the music of Sarah Ogan Gunning to be revived for a second time. This time, take good notes.