If you were to attend a coal-mining music workshop at the Highlander Center in the late 1970s or early ’80s, what kind of music do you think you would hear? Protest songs and folk music, with some old-time picking and bluegrass, maybe?
Those styles are definitely represented in the three half-hour videos Guy and Candie Carawan produced to document the event, but the videos also reveal how culturally varied coal-mining communities can be. Square-dance fiddle tunes, Protestant hymns, black gospel and oratory, original country songs, Merle Haggard covers, and the inimitable voice of Nimrod Workman can all be heard in between stories from miners and their families. (A fourth video from the following year captures the kind of frank talk between the miners to which outsiders are rarely privy—discussing their fears and frustrations, music plays a much smaller role.)
Taken as a whole, the tapes make up an intimate document of a group of people bonded together by the hard conditions of life in coal-mining communities. Babies cry, people nod or laugh to acknowledge shared experiences, black-lung coughing persists throughout, and the Rev. Hugh Cowans frequently punctuates the storytelling by yelling “That’s right!” It has the feel of a small camp meeting.
Sarah Ogan Gunning’s several performances include the hymn “In That City,” a couple of painful autobiographical songs, and her masterpiece “Dreadful Memories,” an eye-openingly bitter coal-miner’s answer to Tennessee native J.B.F. Wright’s sentimental hymn “Precious Memories.” Recorded by Alan Lomax in the 1930s, Gunning was an early but often overlooked influence on 20th-century American folk music.
Hazel Dickens offers a stunning take on “Beautiful Hills of Galilee” and tells of singing familiar songs for West Virginia expats in the bars of “the hillbilly ghettos” of Baltimore. Lois Short explains that she doesn’t know the title of the Primitive Baptist hymn she remembers from childhood, and that she has never heard anyone else sing it. It’s a devastating song about saying goodbye to a dying mother, but Short is careful to expand its scope. “People sing a lot of songs about mothers, but you hardly ever hear a song about daddy,” she says. “Whenever I sing a song about my mother, I always include my daddy.”
It goes without saying that mining has always been a man’s world, so it’s heartening to see that women are given an equal voice here, testifying to their lives as miners as well as the daughters, wives, and mothers of miners. In addition to Julia Cowans, Dickens, Gunning, and Short’s songs and stories, the all-female Reel World String Band offers the overview of “Coal Mining Woman.”
The participation of African-American miners helps expand on the traditional image of the industry and its culture that most Americans probably have. Their stories and experiences vary little from those of the white miners, but several upbeat gospel performances offer a counterbalance to the mostly somber Protestant hymns. With rollicking piano accompaniment, Julia Cowans delivers a take on what she says is a favorite of black miners, “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again,” that brings everyone to their feet to join in singing and clapping.
Singing as both comfort and lamentation is most apparent during Nimrod Workman’s rendering of Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home.” Workman also delivers a powerful reading of “Mother Jones’ Will,” about his friend and union organizing ally Mary Harris “Mother” Jones.
There’s straight-ahead country music, too, most notably from a group led by Wayne Anglin. They offer a mining-themed original and follow up with Haggard’s “If We’re Not Back in Love by Monday.” A jump cut drops us into the middle of the group as they’re excavating the country roots of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” while Workman taps his toes and watches Gilmore’s spirited dancing with bemusement. After such tough tales and sad hymns, everyone probably needed a party, and it looks like a pretty good one.
Inside the Vault features discoveries from the Knox County Public Library’s Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound. Visit vimeo.com/tamisarchive to see the videos.
Eric Dawson is Audio-Visual Archivist with the Knox County Public Library's Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, and with Inside the Vault combs the archive for nuggets of lost Knoxville music and film history to share with us. He's also a longtime local music journalist, former A&E editor of the Knoxville Voice and a board member of the nonprofit performance venue Pilot Light.
Share this Post