Coal-Mining and Protest Music

Updated: February 28, 2011

In the decades following the Civil War, technological advances and industrial modernization accelerated through- out Appalachia as the New South creed became the dominant ideology of the region’s political and economic elite.

In the decades following the Civil War, technological advances and industrial modernization accelerated through- out Appalachia as the New South creed became the dominant ideology of the region’s political and economic elite. As the twentieth century approached, the subsistence agriculture lifestyle and economy of much of Appalachia gave way to a wage-labor economy based on industrial production, particularly in coal and textiles, but also in timber and chemicals. With the rise of this new industrial Appalachia during the Gilded Age came an increase in social and environmental abuse, and the region’s working classes responded with protest music, creating a legacy that is arguably the best- known such repertoire in American labor history.

The difficult early days of the coal industry in Appalachia are well documented in protest-oriented songs. Common topics of songs composed during the early to mid-twentieth century include miners’ work-related concerns, safety conditions, the per-ton payment system and the company checkweighman, the quality of life for both men and women, and the difficulty of adapting to such standard coal-camp features as the company store and the scrip and wage-deduction systems. Many songs of the era reflect the often troubled lives of their authors, including Frank Hutchison’s “Miner’s Blues” (1928), Jim Garland and Aunt Molly Jackson’s “Hard Times in Cole- man’s Mines” (written c. 1910; variants recorded in 1924 and 1939), and Jackson’s “Kentucky Miners’ Wives’ Ragged Hungry Blues” (written c. 1931–32 and recorded in 1939). Three of the most famous songs of the era—Merle Travis’s “Dark as a Dungeon,” “Sixteen Tons,” and “Nine-Pound Hammer”— all had implications of protest.

Coal-mining protest songs have also chronicled work- place disasters that occurred in the region, especially the massive methane and coal dust explosions that sometimes took hundreds of lives. For example, C. L. Luallen’s “The Fraterville Mine Explosion” documented the 1902 Tennessee disaster that left approximately 200 dead; James Sinnott’s “The Monongah Disaster” (date unknown) and Hazel Dickens’s “Mannington Mine Disaster” (1973) documented West Virginia explosions that killed 362 and 78 people, respectively. The 1972 Logan County, West Virginia, Buffalo Creek flood, which took approximately 123 lives, became the subject of several songs, including Doug and Ruth Yarrow’s “Buffalo Creek” (1975).

The rise of the labor movement and the accompanying “coal mining wars” that exploded throughout Appalachia (especially from 1880 to 1940) are the subject of dozens of protest songs. Tennessee’s Coal Creek War of the early 1890s, which stemmed from the opposition of native miners to the state’s use of convict labor in privately owned mining operations, is the topic of a series of pre-twentieth-century song variants, including “Coal Creek Troubles,” “Coal Creek War,” and “Coal Creek Rebellion” (all authors unknown). Musicians who recorded songs about this uprising include Uncle Dave Macon, Pete Steele, and Dock Boggs. The West Virginia mine wars, from the 1912–13 Paint Creek–Cabin Creek strike to the 1920 Matewan Massacre and the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, are the topic of a number of well-known songs, including Ralph Chaplin’s labor movement anthem “Solidarity Forever” (1915) and “In the State of McDowell” (c. 1920s) by the prolific West Virginia songwriter Orville Jenks. The “Bloody Harlan” depression years in eastern Kentucky and the mine wars that raged there throughout the 1930s are the subjects of several famous protest songs of the Appalachian coal-mining labor movement. Among these are “Come All You Coal Miners” (c. 1931–32; recorded in 1937) by Sarah Ogan Gunning; Jim Garland’s “I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister” and “The Ballad of Harry Simms” (both c. 1930s); and Florence Reece’s immortal “Which Side Are You On?” (c. 1931–32; recorded in 1937).

The historical coalfield developments of the post– World War II era are similarly documented in protest song and music. Mine mechanization, job loss, union and industry betrayal and abandonment, and the roving pickets movement, in which miners protested corrupt unions by organizing strikes throughout the Appalachian coalfields from 1958 to 1964, are the subjects, for example, of Jean Ritchie’s “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” (1963) and “The Blue Diamond Mines” (1964), Malvina Reynolds’s “Clara Sullivan’s Letter” (1965), and Hazel Dickens’s “Clay County Miner” (1970). Automation, job loss, and out-migration are poetically treated in Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Coal Tattoo” (1963). Dickens’s “Black Lung” (1970) documents the black lung movement, a successful late-1960s grassroots effort by West Virginia coal miners to gain compensation for financial losses resulting from black lung disease; in “The Yablonski Murder” (1970), she recounts the 1970 killing of Joseph “Jock” Yablonski, a popular candidate for the presidency of the United Mine Workers, and his wife and daughter by three assassins hired by then-incumbent union president W. A. “Tony Boyle.” The female coal miner of the late twentieth century also found a strident and uncompromising voice in Dickens, especially in her feminist manifesto “Coal Mining Woman” (c. 1970s).

The even more environmentally disruptive practice of surface, or strip, mining—which began in the region as early as the World War II years but which dramatically increased during the period from 1950 to 1975 and which continued to be a source of controversy in Appalachia into the twenty-first century—is the subject of numerous protest songs. Among these are Ritchie’s “Black Waters” (1967), Wheeler’s “They Can’t Put It Back” (1966), John Prine’s “Paradise” (1971), Jim Wayne Miller’s “The Ballad of Jink Ray” (1971), and Gurney Norman’s “The Ballad of Dan Gibson” (1973). In 1999 Steve Earle’s “The Mountain” became a theme song heard often at rallies against mountaintop-removal mining. Even as the coal industry declined in terms of overall employment, Appalachia’s miners and coal-mining culture continued to exert a powerful hold on the consciousness of American musicians, both within and outside the region. Among the many songs about Appalachian coal-mining to appear in the past two decades or so are Dwight Yoakam’s “Miner’s Prayer” (1985), Earle’s “Hillbilly Highway” (1986) and “Harlan Man” (1999), Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’s “Miner’s Refrain” (1998), and Karen Poston’s “Lydia’s Song” (2000).

Despite the pervasive influence of coal-related issues in Appalachian protest music, numerous songs from the region have addressed occupations or social issues apart from coal mining. Many songs were devoted to the struggles of poor farmers during the 1920s and 1930s. For example, “Down on Penny’s Farm,” by the Bentley Boys (recorded 1929), lamented the poverty and powerlessness of tenant farmers exploited by dishonest farm owners working in tandem with corrupt banking, judicial, and political institutions. Another song, “Got the Farm Land Blues,” by the Carolina Tarheels (1932), articulated the impossibility of the poor farmer’s making a living, given the dishonest policies of landowners, banks, and sheriffs.

Better known are the many Appalachian protest songs addressing textile industry working conditions and strikes, such as those at Gastonia and Marion, North Carolina, and Elizabethton, Tennessee. Other songs of the textile industry documented aspects of cultural life. “Factory Girl,” said to be America’s oldest industrial ballad, was modified by South Carolina textile worker Nancy Dixon in the 1930s; the song voiced the desire of a working-class factory girl to marry a management-class man to escape her predicament.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is the subject of several protest songs associated with Appalachia. Guy Carawan, while working at the Highlander Folk School, then located in Monteagle, Tennessee, in the late 1940s and the 1950s, reworked the old African American sacred songs “We Shall Overcome” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” for striking textile and tobacco workers. Carawan’s version of “We Shall Overcome” was adopted by Martin Luther King Jr. as the official theme song of the March on Washington, a central event in the 1960s phase of the Civil Rights movement. Carawan’s achievement is indicative of the influential stature and unquestionable dignity of Appalachia’s rich legacy of protest song.

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"Coal-Mining and Protest Music," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2017, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 29 Mar 2017 <http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=55>

APA Style

"Coal-Mining and Protest Music." (2017) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved March 29, 2017, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=55

Florence Reece