Mining Songs from the Appalachian Coalfields

Two years in the making, the two-CD set Music of Coal: Mining Songs from the Appalachian Coalfields collects 48 songs addressing various aspects of coalmining history and culture, including black lung, union organizing, environmental impacts and the contribution of coal to the national economy. The CDs are accompanied by a richly detailed book of liner notes and lyrics, as well as striking historical photographs.
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"CD Celebrates Music from the Coal Mines"
All Things Considered, September 3, 2007
Melissa Block Interview with Jack Wright on NPR

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of song "Sprinkle Coal Dust on My Grave")

Mr. ORVILLE JENKS (Singer): (Singing) I am just an old coal miner and I
labor for my bread.

BLOCK: That song from 1940 from Orville Jenks, who started working in West
Virginia coal mines when he was 12. It's one of nearly 50 songs on a
collection titled "Music of Coal," songs from Appalachia about the rise of
the labor movement, about black lung disease, coal mine explosions, and the
pride of mining.

(Soundbite of song "Sprinkle Coal Dust on My Grave")

Mr. JENKS: (Singing) I'm a coal-mining man. I knew who I am and I wouldn't
have it any other...

BLOCK: The two-CD set was produced by Jack Wright. He grew up in a coal camp
in the southwestern tip of Virginia. He remembers being 5 years old,
listening to an injured miner who would hang around the company store with
his guitar.

Mr. JACK WRIGHT (Producer, "Music of Coal"): He taught me the first song,
the first, really, it was just one verse of coal mining song, which I never
heard again.

BLOCK: Do you remember what it was?

Mr. WRIGHT: But I remember it, yeah.

(Singing) I've been digging in this coal until I feel like I'm a mole.
But I'm going to be set free someday. Someday, some sweet day, I'm going to
be set free someday.

That's all I remember, but he made his living - he'd been injured and
couldn't work anymore and he made his living going around from place to
place playing music so...

BLOCK: One of the earlier songs here is sung by Aunt Molly Jackson. It's
called "Hard Times in Coleman's Mine."

(Soundbite of song "Hard Times in Coleman's Mine")

Ms. AUNT MOLLY JACKSON (Singer): (Singing) You sit down far rake,
(unintelligible), close down all you had to eat. These cornbread and bulldog
gravy without a bottle of mead. It's a hard time in old Coleman's mine. It's
a hard time for boys...

BLOCK: She's singing about a time in the '30s of a time of terrible poverty
and starvation.

Mr. WRIGHT: We just can't imagine today how bad the conditions were in the
'30s, especially where they were trying to organize.

Ms. JACKSON: (Singing) Life by union conditions boys, 70 cents a pound.
Stick together like big brothers, boys tell a big (unintelligible).

BLOCK: There's a song on here called "Thirty Inch Coal" which is very
specific about, specific mining techniques. It talks about riding a lizard
in 30-inch coal and, and I was wondering if songs like that would be just
designed to be for the community that they're from or would they be intended
for a broader audience?

Mr. WRIGHT: Hobo Jack Adkins, who sings that song, he worked in 30-inch
coal, which is pretty low. I mean, it requires muscles and looseness and,
these people are almost like yogis and Buddhist, they're so limber and able
to work in that low coal.

(Soundbite of song "Thirty Inch Coal")

Mr. HOBO JACK ADKINS (Singer): (Singing) Dear God, have mercy on a miner's
soul. Down on my pony in 30-inch coal.

Mr. WRIGHT: Some of these songs, they were probably written from a coal
miner's point of view just for other coal miners, perhaps, or for the
community they came from. They weren't written to become hits in Nashville
or any record charts.

BLOCK: Did you learn something new about mining, about the history of mining
when you were putting these songs together?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, I did. A lot of things that I learned were about how many
people have been killed or the huge legacy of people who get occupational
diseases from mining like silicosis and black lung, the huge number of those
people. But also it was brought home to me with - there's one song called
"Coal Town Saturday Night."

(Soundbite of song "Coal Town Saturday Night")

Mr. RANDALL HYLTON (Singer): (Singing) The 1920s just before crash, I was
working hard and living fast. We lived in central city and our future look
bright. Oh, coal town Saturday night. Kentucky coal...

Mr. WRIGHT: And I've never thought about coal miners going out and having a
good time on Saturday night and dancing all night into the morning and that
sort of thing just like other normal people would do.
So it was good to find those other jewels.

(Soundbite of song "Coal Town Saturday Night")

Mr. HYLTON: (Singing) If I will swing your partner to the left, I would
swing your partner to the right. Listen to that fiddle and hold your lady
tight. It's a coal town Saturday night.

Mr. WRIGHT: I had never heard our opening song, "Down in the Coal Mine"
by the Edison Orchestra.

(Soundbite of song "Down in a Coal Mine")

Unidentified Man: "Down in a Coal Mine" played by the Edison Concert Band.

BLOCK: This song, "Down in a Coal Mine," this was recorded in 1908, is that

Mr. WRIGHT: That's right. It was recorded in 1908, but the song was actually
much, much older than that. If you listen closely to it, it sounds like
there are people acting out the songs as they - as the music goes on. It's
very theatrical.

(Soundbite of song "Down in a Coal Mine")

BLOCK: Are there great coal mining songs being written today or is that, did
that time really come and gone?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, what I theorized is that miners don't write as much as
they used to partly because there aren't as many miners now but also partly
because of the working conditions. Miners don't have the quiet time between
hauls that they had in the old days. Like the singing miner George Davis
said, between loads, he would pull up a powder box and the powder box being
what they kept the dynamite in. So George, with his lamp on his head, would
pull out a piece of paper and a pencil and compose songs inside the mines
using that powder box as a desk.

(Soundbite of song "Coal Miner's Boogie")

Mr. GEORGE DAVIS (Singer): (Singing) You work inside all day long when you
come might you hear that song. It's a coal miner's boogie.

BLOCK: You picture wonderful images down there in that mine with a lamp
scribbling away.

Mr. WRIGHT: A lot of the songs now are written by family members. "Coal Dust
Kisses" by Suzanne Mumpower is a tribute to her, to two of her grandfathers
who both were coal miners. And more and more that's happening as people
outside of coal mining but are connected to it through the family or friends
have been fairly prolific in writing songs.

(Soundbite of song "Coal Dust Kisses")

Ms. SUZANNE MUMPOWER: (Singing) They worked hard in the mines. As a child I
thought it was a crime for men that have to work that way.

BLOCK: Well, Jack Wright, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. WRIGHT: It's been my pleasure, and you're certainly welcome.

BLOCK: Jack Wright produced the collection, "Music of Coal." You can hear
more songs and see photos of Appalachian miners at

Song List

Volume One
1. Down in a Coal Mine - The Edison Concert Band
2. Mining Camp Blues - Trixie Smith
3. Sprinkle Coal Dust on My Grave - Orville Jenks
4. Coal Miner's Blues - The Carter Family
5. Hard Times in Coleman’s Mine - Aunt Molly Jackson
6. He’s Only a Miner Killed in the Ground - Ted Chestnut
7. Coal Black Mining Blues - Nimrod Workman
8. ‘31 Depression Blues - Ed Sturgill
9. Prayer of a Miner's Child - Dock Boggs
10. That Twenty-Five Cents You Paid - Sarah Ogan Gunning
11. The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore - Jean Ritchie
12. Dark as a Dungeon - Merle Travis
13. Come All You Coal Miners - The Reel World String Band
14. My Sweetheart’s the Mule in the Mines - Mike Kline
15. Thirty Inch Coal - Hobo Jack Adkins
16. Black Waters - Jim Ringer
17. Roof Boltin’ Daddy - Gene Carpenter
18. Dream of a Miner’s Child - Carter Stanley
19. Coal Miner's Boogie - George Davis
20. The Yablonski Murder - Hazel Dickens
21. What Are We Gonna Do? - Dorothy Myles
22. Explosion at Derby Mine - Charlie Maggard
23. Blind Fiddler - Jim “Bud” Stanley
24. Loadin’ Coal - John Hutchison
25. Coal Town Saturday Night - Randall Hylton
26. It’s Been a Long Time - Sonny Houston & Roger Hall
27. Fountain Filled with Blood - Elder James Caudill & Choir


Volume Two
1. West Virginia Mine Disaster - Molly Slemp
2. Union Man - Blue Highway
3. Blue Diamond Mines - Robin & Linda Williams
4. Set Yourself Free - Billy Gene Mullins
5. Redneck War - Ron Short
6. Sixteen Tons - Ned Beatty
7. There Will Be No Black Lung in Heaven - Rev. Joe Freeman
8. Deep Mine Blues - Nick Stump
9. I’m a Coal Mining Man - Tom T. Hall
10. Dirty Black Coal - Kenneth Davis
11. Black Lung - A. J. Roach
12. Coal Dust Kisses - Suzanne Mumpower-Johnson
13. Coal Tattoo - Dale Jett
14. A Strip Miner’s Life - Don Stanley & Middle Creek
15. Daddy’s Dinner Bucket - Ralph Stanley II
16. In Those Mines - Valerie Smith
17. Miner’s Prayer - Ralph Stanley & Dwight Yoakam
18. Dyin’ To Make A Livin’ - W. V. Hill
19. You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive - Darrell Scott
20. They Can’t Put It Back - Jack Wright
21. Which Side Are You On? - Natalie Merchant © 2007
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