When I was a child growing up in an apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side during the 1940s, I remember going down to the forbidden boiler room, where a huge furnace sat burning coal. Rosie, the building’s superintendent, opened one of the round, black iron doors to reveal a roaring yellow flame. The furnace room, in the basement, was a place you didn’t go alone. Several days a week, Rosie would roll large metal barrels filled with the rough, cutting coal cinders out to the street where trucks came by to pick them up. When it snowed, trucks spread these cinders on the street to provide traction. In the immediate post-war period, sometime between 1945 and 1950, John L. Lewis led the United Mine Workers out on strike a number of times, prompting many industrial companies to switch to oil to fuel their factories and homes in developing suburbia to rely on it for the more efficient oil-burning furnaces.
If you haven’t seen the film Matewan, which details a 1920 strike in West Virginia and for which Hazel Dickens wrote and sang the title song and appears as an actress, you should take a look at it to gain an increased understanding of the role of coal in a changing America. As you might expect, coal is featured in many songs, from many, varied points of view. But few of them are happy or celebratory. Here’s the great Hazel Dickens singing “Black Lung,” an anthem to her brother.
The story of bluegrass music is the story of countless people leaving their isolated (and isolating) worlds in the mountains and hollers of Appalachia to make a living in a modernizing and changing world. They moved from their homes in the mountains where they lived on subsistence farms, brewed moonshine whiskey, worshiped in small, ecstatic churches looking to a brighter future, and worked, worked, worked. And they sang. They sang to forget the pain and deprivation. When they moved away to find work and subsistence, they brought their music with them to the mills, ship yards, oil fields, and factories. There they sang in remembrance of what they had left. The grinding, never-ending hard work took on a luster and helped define their worth and dignity, the value of their lives as well as the sweetness of their origins.
Meanwhile, these hard-working people from the mountains of Appalachia (as well as other refugees, whose story is not so much the story of bluegrass and country music but, perhaps, even more important), from the cotton fields and subsistence farms of the South, moved to where the work was: industrial cities around the Great Lakes, ship-building yards in the northeast, and steel mills. They continued to work, for that is what they knew, and built industrial America as it moved toward prosperity and changed beyond anything they could have imagined as they left farms and mines. Our interests and commitments changed. Rock and roll music emerged, with suburban spokesmen like Billy Joel and Simon & Garfunkel becoming icons, while Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald ruled the cities. The urge to fit in and change continued to be mixed with the resentment focused on others.
There’s a constant tension between our yearning for the gauzy past and the need to embrace an unknown future. This tension is represented in the US by the declines in the extractive industries and small farming coupled with the loss of industrial jobs to automation and foreign competition, to oversimplify only a bit. Nevertheless, the world of computers, robots, suburban living, and urban decay are not the stuff that generates bluegrass songs, composed of straightforward melodies and domestic themes countered by murder ballads and broken relationships. I can only think of one computer song, written by Tim O’Brien and called “Running Out of Memory for You.”
Rural life in America is continually being assaulted by modernity and change. This conflict is found in our politics, our music, and our lifestyles. We attend bluegrass festivals in our motorhomes and fifth wheels to hear the music of the days we think we yearn for, bringing our comfortable modern lifestyles to a setting in the midst of rural fields where we celebrate the “little cabin home on the hill” that most of us are at least a generation or two removed from. It’s little wonder that today’s fans find it hard to find soul in many contemporary bluegrass musicians, who only retain a hand-me-down memory of days gone by. In the 1920s and ’30s, George Gershwin caught the sound of the urban streets in his music. Later, Willie Nelson, George Jones, and David Allen Coe, among many others, caught the honky-tonk spirit in song. But it took rap music to encompass the spirit of the contemporary streets, though “The Streets of Baltimore” does a great job of it, too.
Our ambivalence will continue, as the unsettling effects of change permeate our lives. It’s a good idea, however, to keep it all in perspective.
Larry Cordle and Jenee Fleenor wrote:
I’m from West ‘by God’ Virginia
And the high Kentucky hills
I’m dirty but I’m honest
I pay a poor man’s bills
I’m prosperity and poverty
I’m a scoundrel and a saint
I’m loved, reviled, misunderstood
I’m hope in a hopeless place.
Hello, my name is coal
And around here I’m the queen
Some say I’m cheap and easy
Oh but they still bow to me
Be careful, I’ll break up your home
And I’ll steal away your soul
It’s dangerous to lust for me
Hello, my name is coal.