Songs and Ballads of the Bituminous Miners

Various performers

Rounder CD 1522

Bill Arnold, who became involved in arranging the rescue effort's logistics, said today he was elated by how everything had gone.  Arnold said he knew all the miners who'd been trapped.  "They're tough enough to chew cut nails for breakfast," he said.
Report on the rescue of nine miners in Somerset, Pennsylvania, from The Philadelphia Inquirer, 28 July 2002
George Korson's collection of Songs and Ballads of the Anthracite Miners was re-issued by Rounder in 1997.  Korson had collected those songs in north-eastern Pennsylvania during just one week in 1946, and they'd originally been released by the Library of Congress in 1947, as part of their Folk Music of the United States series.  Cover pictureNow Rounder have come up with this companion volume of Korson's earlier recordings of the music of the bituminous miners.  It's a joy.

George Korson had already published two books of miners' songs by the time he started work on a survey of bituminous (soft coal) miners' folklore in 1938.  The field-recording trip, which produced this record, predated the anthracite (hard coal) miners' collection by six years, but it too was funded by a grant from the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).  The excellent and detailed notes in the booklet for this collection were written by Korson himself for the original 1965 release by the Library of Congress.  (Why an eighteen-year gap, I wonder, between releasing the anthracite and the bituminous recordings?  Maybe it tied in with the second edition of Korson's book Coal Dust On the Fiddle the same year?)  The record reflects, Korson says, 'the folkways of bituminous miners of a generation ago before automation wrought its greatest social and economic changes'.

Unlike the anthracite trip, which was focused on one state, this collection contains songs from five of the states covered by the much larger bituminous coalfield; of the eighteen pieces here, nine came from West Virginia, five from Kentucky, two from Pennsylvania and one each from Ohio and Alabama.  Korson was dependent on union field representatives to gain introductions to singers in the isolated and remote coal camps which were often hundreds of miles apart - as he says in his notes, 'to follow up leads occasionally required overnight train rides or long drives over tortuous and hazardous mountain roads'.  However, Korson's relationship to the union was clearly far more than that of a funded researcher.  He had lived among miners since at least 1924, and must have proved his solidarity with their struggles in order to have won the union's trust in the first place; with their murderous company strike-breakers supported by anti-union lawmen, the coalfields of the south-eastern states during this period were not an ideal site for dilettante scholars hoping for cheap thrills without taking sides.  The UMWA must have recognised that Korson had integrity and courage.  (James Lee Burke's fine detective novels, such as To the Bright and Shining Sun, give some idea of the dangerous atmosphere which surrounded industrial action in the region even into the 1970s.)  The subject matter of many of the songs here gives a centrality to the union's role as a source of social justice, health, well-being and stability, as well as being simply a body of organised labour; at least one song posits the well-run union branch as a sort of utopia in microcosm.  And in a week when nine trapped Pennsylvania miners spent 3 days standing up to their waists in water 240 feet underground - apparently because a mining map was inaccurate - the themes of these songs take on an unexpected immediacy.

But what a great collection this is.  It's both more varied and more accessible than the anthracite miners' set, superb though that record was.  After the Irish and Welsh feel to many of the voices in last release, the most immediately striking aspect of this set is the preponderance of African-American musical forms and genres.  Only three tracks are by Black performers (as far as I can tell), but over half of the pieces are variations on the blues or spirituals, and even the one instrumental here is a fiddle tune, Payday at the Mine, with a definite western swing jazz tinge.  The second thing which struck me was the polish and verve of these performances, many of which are self-accompanied by guitar.  Neither of these points should have surprised me, of course, but it wasn't what I expected - partly because of the decidedly sombre cover photo on this disc, and partly because of the largely ballad and hymn-derived material of the anthracite volume.

Now, I certainly don't mean that anything here is slick or over-confident, but it does seem to me - to risk stating the obvious - that at least some of these singers had heard performers from backgrounds very like their own, singing songs very like ones they already knew, on gramophone records or on the radio.  Questions of influence are notoriously difficult to prove or disprove, but records of old-time music had been circulating since the early 1920s.  The Grand Ole Opry went from a regional to a national phenomenon from the early '30s, and imitation radio shows featuring local artists were also on air at that time (including the Wheeling Jamboree, broadcast from Wheeling, West Virginia).  There are confident and accomplished performances with smooth, proficient guitar accompaniment by Orville J Jenks (The Dying Mine Brakeman, Sprinkle Coal Dust On My Grave), for example, and a beautifully-harmonised duet by William March and Richard Lawson on That Little Lump of Coal, a wordy day-in-the-life song reminding listeners of miners' contribution to the war effort in the First World War.  The comparatively modern feel of this collection is also partly due to the recent composition of the songs here - I sense that contemporary 1930s influences are there in the forms and styles used.

My initial simplistic assumption was that the massive Jimmie Rodgers, already seven years dead by the time of Korson's field trip, was exerting an influence on many of the singers in this collection; that may be particularly so with the blue-yodelling Jerrel Stanley from Braeholm, West Virginia, who sings Coal Diggin' Blues with a high voice and a country-blues guitar sound.  But it's just as likely that much of the Black music influence was direct, not second-hand.  The bituminous coal camps were generally integrated, and slaves had been used extensively in bituminous mines in this region from the 1840s; Booker T Washington himself worked in a mine near Charleston, West Virginia as a boy.  Recordings of white singers from the area who were immersed in African-American styles were common by 1940 - for instance, both Frank Hutchinson and the Williamsburg Twins whose proto-Elvis 1927 recordings appear on the Harry Smith Anthology came from Logan, West Virginia (near the Kentucky border), and Dock Boggs - a miner himself - was born in neighbouring Virginia.

Six of the songs performed by white singers here are blues, including solemn unaccompanied versions of Mule Skinnin' Blues and Coal Loadin' Blues by Joe Glancy of Harlan, Kentucky, and Hignite Blues 'sung by Welsey J Turner at the foot of Shamrock Mountain in eastern Kentucky'.  (Turner apparently took some persuasion to sing this secular song, about a fairly confusing technical negotiation between the union committee and the foreman about dangerous conditions, as in his spare time he had become choirmaster at the Free Will Baptist Church and was no longer a "sinnin' man".  A similar crisis of conscience faced James T Downer, who wrote to Korson after his own song had been recorded, asking him to cut out the word 'hell' from his performance: 'I am sorry but I now see my mistake.  It will sound better with not so much h___ in it.  Try it.'  Korson didn't.)

Described by Korson as 'of pioneer Scots-Irish stock', George Davis of Glomawr, Kentucky sings the self-composed Harlan County Blues, a comic song about the casual imprisonment of union members which perhaps owes its jaunty tone to In the Jailhouse Now, a song much-recorded by both white and Black singers:

Then Kelly said, 'You can't do this to me,'
When they come to get his name;
'The hell they can't, the jailer said,
'You're in here just the same.'
Davis was apparently known all over eastern Kentucky as travelling singer of mining songs.  George 'Curley' Sizemore, by contrast was a rock driller suffering from silicosis, whose song Drill Man Blues is a nakedly direct summing-up of his situation, sung in a high, deceptively calm voice against a simple guitar backing:
It's killed two fellow workers,
Here at Old Parlee;
And now I've eaten so much dust, Lord,
That it's killin' me.
George Korson notes that recording the mine ballads in George Sizemore's home was 'an unpleasant experience'; 'he [Sizemore] said that new ballads take shape in his mind, but he cannot sing them spontaneously because he would get a mouthful of rock dust if he parted his lips'.

Blues is only one facet of this collection, however.  Although most of the songs on the record are relatively recent, and often sung by their composer (the 'bards', as Korson calls them, in recognition of the Welsh, Irish, Scottish and English roots of many in the coalfields), there are a few 'old' songs.  Two Cent Coal commemorates a major disaster on the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh in 1876, and is sung in fine come-all-ye-style by David Morrison, who was already 17 when the event took place: for one minute thirty five seconds, the record slips into a different era - an 81 year old sounding for all the world like a British traditional singer, even down to the spoken line at the end of the song.  The afore-mentioned hell-hating James T Downer gives himself up to the illicit pleasures of The Young Lady Who Married a Mule Driver, and probably through guilt makes the song sound far saucier than it actually is.  There's also Blue Monday, to the tune of Two Little Girls in Blue, suggesting (almost plausibly) that the solution to the post-weekend tristesse that upset Fats Domino, New Order et al is to sign the pledge and join the union; it's sung in a decidedly Irish accent by the engaging Michael J Barry.  I said that this was a varied album, but would you expect to find a Black gospel sextet here, performing a song called The Coal Loading Machine?  The splendid Evening Breezes Sextet of Vivian, West Virginia do just that, advising fellow miners to withdraw their labour in order to force out automation.

For sheer excitement though, despite all the pleasures provided by the blues, the ballads and the almost-country songs, it was three hard-hitting unaccompanied performances that did it for me.  The very first track on the record has the spine-tingling voice of G C Cartin singing The Hard Working Miner, in that direct, declamatory full-throated Appalachian hymn style that can stop you in your tracks.  The song's theme is a familiar one, asking for God's protection against all the dangers that miners face every day; there's a tiny but arresting irony in the text here, unintended I'm sure:

The boulder that crushed him,
It came from above.
God be with the miners
Protect them from harm.
Theologians, discuss.  God plays a central role in another favourite song here, A Coal Miner's Goodbye, sung by the Reverend Archie Conway, a 'bedridden' ex-miner paralysed by falling slates two years before George Korson recorded him.  Like the performance of George C Curley mentioned above, the song takes on an additional resonance because of the singer's condition, but here it's the novelty of the images which capture the attention, rather than the pathos.  The old miner will go to the local union branch in the sky and 'deposit [his] transfer in heaven', where 'no scabs ever mar or molest':
Our Saviour is on the committee,
He is pleading our cases alone,
For ages he's been on the committee,
Pleading daily to God on the throne.
This, I guess is the other side of the coin for the miner in Sixteen Tons, who couldn't answer St Peter's call because he owed his 'soul to the company store'.  Should've joined the union, pal.  (I wouldn't want to labour the point, but Merle Travis was himself born in the heart of the Kentucky coal fields in 1917, and knew whereof he wrote - he even put out a whole album of folk-revival-style mining songs in 1963.)

But I've saved my favourite track to last.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Uncle George Jones, from Trafford, Alabama, who George Korson describes as a 'Negro bard and folk minstrel'.  The 1940s progressive Korson seems to have come over all romantic and unnecessary on encountering Uncle George, who is portrayed breathlessly over two whole pages of the booklet.  He lived in a 'tumbledown cabin' with no windows.  ('Of what use were windows to a blind man?')  He walked with a crutch and, Korson gushes, 'with his white crinkly hair and stooped shoulders, he looked the image of the immortal Uncle Tom'.  Born in 1872, he'd worked on a cotton plantation before he'd worked the mines, and became a committed UMWA activist.  The veteran of many violent attacks by the employers, he retired through blindness in 1914, and subsequently kept busy as a deacon, an elder and a lay preacher.  Before every annual UMWA district convention, the committee visited him to commission a new ballad, which he always performed to great acclaim at the convention itself.  The man was clearly a saint.  He was lucky the Almanac Singers didn't kidnap him and unveil him in New York café society.  By the time I 'd finished reading Korson's description, I almost felt too humbled to listen to the song.  But all cynicism aside, This is What the Union Done is the best union recruiting song ever.  Ever.  I want to quote the whole thing, or even better have it sung at the TUC conference.  Uncle George Jones really is too good to be true.  Powerful voice, beautiful timing, wit, swing, inventiveness - the lot.  He bigs up Roosevelt for repealing anti-union laws, recalls the suffering when the miners and their families couldn't organise, then celebrates the new times.  Forget woolly abstract messages of solidarity and shared sacrifice - in Jones' song, the union is about making sure working people have good stuff and good times: decent food, fashionable clothes, money to spare, freedom from stress and worry and pennypinching.  The Big Rock Candy Union, if you don 't think working people should have these things - but this man has clearly been at the sharp end of resistance long enough to understand the relief of good times after bad.  Here's the chorus to whet your appetite:

Hooray!  Hooray!
For the union we must stan',
It's the only organization
Protect the living man.
Boys, it makes the women happy, our children clap their hands,
To see the beefsteak an' the good po'k chops,
Steamin' in those fryin' pans.
Are there any more recordings of Uncle George Jones anywhere?  This surely can't be the only one.

Friends, family and passing busybodies have invariably sneered in scorn and derision on seeing this CD around the house waiting to be reviewed.  The anthracite miners volume produced nothing like this reaction - apart from the occasional shake of the head and weary-but-indulgent smile which field music recordings in general seem to elicit from most normal people, the anthracite miners record was, by contrast, welcomed into our home with an indifference bordering on neutrality.  If owning the anthracite volume was viewed by loved ones as the musical equivalent of eating organic bran, then the very idea of listening to songs about digging up bitumen seems to be regarded as akin to drinking your own urine.  My guess is that it's the word 'bituminous'- sounds too specialist, too worthy, too perversely technical for musical enjoyment?  An obscurity too far?  Don't allow yourself to be fooled by Rounder's admirable but self-sacrificing devotion to Korson's original schema.  My plea: when you see this record, forget the title, even ignore the cover picture until you've bought it, got it home and played it.  If Rounder repackaged this CD as O Miner, Where Art Thou?: Blacks, Whites and Blues in the South-Eastern Coalfields, they could make a killing.  As I said, a joy.

Adrian Banham - 11.8.02

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