OF COAL -
Mining Songs from the Appalachian Coalfields
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
Celebrates Music from the Coal Mines"
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa
(Soundbite of song "Sprinkle Coal Dust on My Grave")
Mr. ORVILLE JENKS (Singer): (Singing) I am just an old coal miner and I
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
collection titled "Music of Coal," songs from Appalachia about
the rise of
the labor movement, about black lung disease, coal mine explosions,
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
Mr. JACK WRIGHT
(Producer, "Music of Coal"): He taught me the first song,
really, it was just one verse of coal mining song, which I never
BLOCK: Do you remember what it was?
Mr. WRIGHT: But I remember it,
(Singing) I've been digging in this coal until I feel like I'm a
But I'm going to be set free someday. Someday, some sweet day, I'm going
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
(Soundbite of song "Hard Times in Coleman's Mine")
Ms. AUNT MOLLY JACKSON (Singer): (Singing) You sit down far rake,
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
BLOCK: She's singing about a time in the '30s of a time of terrible
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.
together like big brothers, boys tell a big (unintelligible).
a song on here called "Thirty Inch Coal" which is very
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
which is pretty low. I mean, it requires muscles and looseness and,
are almost like yogis and Buddhist, they're so limber and able
to work in that
(Soundbite of song "Thirty Inch Coal")
HOBO JACK ADKINS (Singer): (Singing) Dear God, have mercy on a miner's
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."
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
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
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
(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
Mr. WRIGHT: A
lot of the songs now are written by family members. "Coal Dust
by Suzanne Mumpower is a tribute to her, to two of her grandfathers
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
thought it was a crime for men that have to work that way.
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 npr.org/music.