Two 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 photographs.
Jack Wright, who produced the CDs and wrote the liner notes, explored the histories and the people behind the songs. They revealed some remarkable talents and stories both horrific and life-affirming.
"Aunt Molly Jackson, what a character," Wright says. "She was a real fighter. She just felt like if anyone was oppressed, she wrote a song about it and stood up to anyone and fought. She really sympathized with the miners."
Many of these old songs, including a majority of Music of Coal, were written from a coal miner's point of view for other coal miners or the coal-mining community. Hobo Jack Adkins' "Thirty Inch Coal" talks about specific mining techniques like "riding on a lizard."
"Hobo Jack Adkins worked in 30-inch coal, which is pretty low," Wright says. "If you can imagine working all day under your coffee table or under your kitchen table, you can imagine what it would've been like. It requires muscles and looseness. These people are almost like yogis and Buddhas — they're so limber and able to work in that low coal."
Death and disease also figure prominently in these songs.
"Many people have been killed in mining or occupational diseases like silicosis and the black lung, many of whom do not show up in statistics of death and disasters, but afterward live a difficult life just trying to get a breath," Wright says.
But not all was bleak and grim for these risk-taking workers, as Wright discovered when he heard the song "Coal Town Saturday Night" by Randall Hylton.
"I never thought about coal miners going out and having a good time on Saturday night, dancing all night into the morning and that sort of thing, just like other normal people would do," Wright says. "It was good to find those other jewels."
Today, miners don't write as many songs as they used to because there simply aren't as many of them as there used to be. In addition, the new machinery used in mines can be so deafening that the workers lack the quiet time they once had. In the past, the singing miner George Davis took those quiet times to scribble songs like "Coal Miner's Boogie" under a headlamp, using an empty powder box as a desk.
More and more, however, people who aren't coal miners are writing songs about it. They possess some connection through family or the community, and write these songs as a tribute to the history of the occupation and culture.