Songs and Ballads of the Anthracite Miners
Rounder CD 1502
There seems to have been an awakening among American folklorists and collectors, from the mid-1920s onwards, to the musical diversity flourishing within the almost infinite number of small communities which make up the United States. One explanation I've seen for this trend is that scholars felt that the American Child ballad repertory had been more or less fully notated, and simply looked around for new genres to study; for instance, the West Virginia Folklore Society (one of the most prestigious academic agencies in this field) only allowed collectors to deposit 'popular', non-Child stuff in its archive from 1924. Whatever the reason, however, this period saw a massive growth in the sheer number of people setting out to find traditional songs. The second half of D.K.Wilgus' valuable Anglo-American Folksong Scholarship Since 1898 (Rutgers University Press, 1959) details much of this single-minded and painstaking activity, much of it initiated by local schoolteachers. Occupational groups in particular became the focus of unprecedented attention from collectors: a significant example is the work on various local lumberjack traditions carried out by Franz Rickaby (Minnesota), Earl Clifton Beck (Michigan) and Roland Palmer Gray (Marine lumberjacks). American folksong scholars have long been intrigued by rumours of a collection, hidden away in a Kentucky miners' union library, of schoolteachers' songs, recorded in 1928 by local miners during lay-offs. They apparently made field trips to staffrooms and school corridors, and browbeat the teachers into transcribing hundreds of their own occupational songs, including 'Chalkdust Farewell', 'The Cruel Inspector', 'The Wild Pupil' and several marking shanties (including 'We'll all tick together-o'). The collection is doubly unique in being the only folkloristic initiative motivated entirely by revenge.
George Korson, by contrast, was a newspaper reporter when he collected the songs and music of the anthracite miners of Pennsylvania. Although he had worked for some time in the Schuygill Valley area, and had become familiar with the daily life of the anthracite mining community there, he was conscious of the lack of local occupational songs available in libraries. So he started collecting for himself. These initial enquiries eventually mushroomed into a lifetime's work, supported by the United Mine Workers, encompassing both anthracite and bitumous miners' songs across 20 states. He produced three major publications - 'Songs and Ballads of the Anthracite Miners' (1927), 'Minstrels of the Mine Patch' (1938), and Coal Dust on the Fiddle' (1943), - as well as editing a volume on Pennsylvania Songs and Legends (1949), all of which remain well-regarded. The introductory sleeve notes on the present disc are those originally written by Korson for the 1947 issue of these recordings from The Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture, previously available (first on 78rpm and then on LP) in the Folk Music of the United States series, which are part of the admirable reissue programme currently being undertaken by Rounder.
The singers recorded in the hard-coal region of Pennsylvania by what was the Library of Congress' first postwar field trip were twenty years younger when they first supplied songs for George Korson's notebook. Now almost all of them were over sixty, retired. The first thing you notice, however - even before you take in the quality of the material - is what fine voices they still have. Within these particular isolated mining areas, there were large Irish and Welsh communities, the influence of whose singing styles are overwhelming here. Pennsylvania was a magnet for South Welsh miners, technicians and engineers from the 1830's onwards, possibly due to a memory of the Welsh Quaker influence on William Penn back in the seventeenth century, and dissenting traditions survived (sometimes alongside the Welsh language) in these remote company-owned 'mine-patches'. Some even had their own Eisteddfod; in fact, Korson writes of the singers as "miner bards...brothers of the Celtic wandering minstrels of old, vagabonds with a distaste for the mining craft". Aside from the slightly queasy romanticism in that phrase, what I found remarkable in the songs on this disc is the lack of 'distaste' for the work: even the songs ostensibly about hardship and resistance often take Welsh and Irish forms - the hymn, the comic ballad - that seem to undermine the protest and foreground the celebratory.
Additionally, the sophistication of the texts of these songs often rule out any simplistic readings, bringing in ambiguities and ambivalences; whether the original songs were composed locally or adapted from elsewhere, the anthracite miners had some exceptionally skilled poet-singers among them. In that sense, then, maybe Korson's 'bardic' tag isn't far off the mark.
A case in point is The Old Miner's Refrain, magnificently performed here by Daniel Walsh of Centralia, (whose photo shows him to bear an appropriate resemblance to the late radical Welsh historian Gwyn A. Williams). In common with many songs collected by Korson, the text is superb. It deals simultaneously with the decline of an individual from childhood to old age, and with changes in the industry; the ultimate irony is that poverty leads the old miner to complain of the automation which prevents him working as a slatepicker till he drops dead. Although superficially resembling a parlour ballad in tune and format, with the emotional manipulation you'd expect, it is great poetry which allows one apparently conventional verse to combine as much pride, irony, wit (note that 'bent'), anger and regret as this:
In the chutes I graduated instead of going to school -Towards the end of the song in particular, as the miner goes towards the 'celestial shore', there are several hymn-like phrases. The overall message of the performance, though, seems to be about stoicism, about recognising strength and dedication in the face of these hardships. Daniel Walsh also had The Shoofly, with its highly-specific remembrance of local families' debts and obligations and its tune reminiscent of When I Was On Horseback, and a fine version of The Miner's Doom, the beautifully-constructed Welsh ballad about a lift accident, which describes the routine daily worry of the family as the miner leaves for his dangerous work, and their devastation after his death. Just one laconic line in the middle of the ballad notes the accident itself and divides the song between the two conditions of fear and grief:
Remember, friends, my parents they were poor;
When a boy left the cradle it was always made a rule
To try and keep starvation from the door.
At eight years of age to the breaker I first went,
To learn the occupation of a slave;
I certainly was delighted, and on picking slate was bent -
My ambition it was noble, strong and brave.
The rope broke ascending; her dear husband died.To give an impression of the variety of this collection, Daniel Walsh's final song on this record is The Celebrated Working Man (sound clip). A.L.Lloyd, in 'Come All Ye Bold Miners' and 'Folk Song In England', has related the story of how this sly piece was composed by an Irish Pennsylvanian miner, Ed Foley, in 1892 and reached County Durham sometime around the First World War. As you'd expect, Walsh brings out the pride implicit in the song, recognising that the bar-room boasting has substance behind it in the parallel real world.
But I don't want to give the impression that Daniel Walsh is the only great singer in this highly enjoyable set. Jerry Byrne of Buck Run (photo right) provides three comic songs of huge vitality, including two about a locally-famous union organiser and leader of the 1902 anthracite strike. On Johnny Mitchell's Train, with its Irish dance tune and verse-form, is a good-humoured solidarity song with some heart-warmingly gratuitous rhymes:
I met several operators,Me Johnny Mitchell Man, written by Con Carbon for the same strike, has an equally inspiring message. Its particular novelty, however, lies in the fact that it was written (and is sung here) in Slavic-American dialect, or a stagey approximation thereof, in order to win Slavs to the union cause and prevent strike-breaking, and to stop attacks by Irish and Welsh miners on Slavic fellow-workers. Jerry Byrne makes a characteristically breezy job of it, in his Fred Jordan-meets-John MacCormack voice, but the song is almost guaranteed to niggle contemporary listeners. Jerry's Greatest Hit for me is When the Breaker Starts Up Full Time (sound clip), despite it being his most stage-Irish performance. His voice scooping up to the notes far more than it does on his other songs, he handles the changes in pace and rhythm marvelously on this song which looks forward to the re-opening of the mine, after a long lay-off, in phrases that Gus Elen would have been proud of:
Assembled in a mob,
Along with Morgan's prisident,
I think they called him Schwab.
Cheer up, Mrs Murphy, we will all ate turkeyThere's a further example of the transplanted Irish comic song in William Keating's Down, Down, Down, which opens the record. Elsewhere, you will find a dramatic reading of The Avondale Mining Disaster, a fund-raising song for a blind miner-minstrel dating from the late 1880's, and what I take to be a forerunner to The Strawbs' 1970's anti-collectivist Part of the Union, in the shape of Albert Morgan's Union Man (sound clip), which was actually recorded inside the Newkirk Tunnel Mine, Tamaqua, in 1946. And as if that were not enough, you can hear a couple of fiddle tunes by James Muldowney, also recorded (with great clarity) underground - two of the photographs in the record's booklet show these pieces being recorded, with what must have been mostly retired miners standing around in their helmets and overalls while George Korson adjusts a microphone; on one track, you can hear one of them coughing, quietly...
And if I get a chance, I'll put Jamie in pants
When the breaker starts up on full time.
The world presented here is a very insular one. Partly, this sense of insularity is a result of the collector's occupational focus, exacerbated by the necessarily narrow confines of a single CD. It's also inevitable, given the need for these immigrant communities to build solidarity in the face of unemployment, poverty and isolation in tiny embattled single-occupation villages. However, given their discerning ears and eyes, it would be good to know what else the anthracite miners of Pennsylvania sang about. These are the songs used by working men of Irish and Welsh extraction to relocate themselves in new communities; did the Slavic miners, for example, have similar topics in their songs? What about women's songs? It's always a good sign when a record triggers off your curiosity. A very welcome collection, then. Well-presented. Excellent sound quality. And great art.
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