THROUGH THE LENS: Coal’s Story in Song
Mary Hott on Mountain Stage 2021 - Photo by Amos Perrine
Tomorrow, Aug. 25, marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain in Logan County, West Virginia, the largest labor uprising in this nation’s history. During a nine-day period, 10,000 armed miners confronted 3,000 “lawmen” and company thugs. Approximately one million rounds were fired, over 100 people were killed. It did not end until, by presidential order, the U.S. Army was sent in. More information can be found at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum.
What brought this to boil was the coal companies’ treatment of miners: European immigrants recruited from Ellis Island and African Americans who were drawn in with the enticing sales pitch of good jobs and housing for their families. But what they found was far removed from the American Dream.
The work was extremely dangerous and hazardous to workers’ health. Miners were paid in company scrip that could only be used to purchase items from company stores, and their rent was automatically deducted. There was no health insurance, no workers’ compensation, no 40-hour work week, no safety regulations, no environmental standards, no paid holidays or vacations. It was, as Tennessee Ernie Ford sang in “Sixteen Tons”:
You load 16 tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store
Songs, Albums, and Historical Record
There have been many songs, and entire albums, written about coal, with quite a few by native West Virginians, most notably Hazel Dickens’ “Black Lung,” and Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Coal Tattoo” and “Coming of the Roads.” John Prine’s “Paradise” in 1971 was about the destruction of the entire town of Paradise, Kentucky, by strip mining.
In 1977 Rich Kirby and Michael Kline released the hard-hitting album They Can’t Put It Back, songs on mining, black lung, and union organizing. The title song refers to strip mining, which today is commonly known as mountaintop removal.
In 1997 Darrell Scott released “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” And in 2013, in response to the state coal association’s catchy ad campaign “Coal Keeps the Lights On,” West Virginia’s Tim O’Brien, with Darrell Scott, wrote “Keep Your Dirty Lights On:”
Every time they have elections
They talk how coal is clean
Well coal is cheap but coal’s still black
It ain’t never turning green
In 2008, Grammy Award winning West Virginian Kathy Mattea released Coal, an album of coal songs that ND co-founder Grant Alden called “a brave beginning — a way to start a conversation without inviting a fistfight or slamming any doors. If anybody listens.”
Last year, in response to the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster that killed 29 miners in Moncoal, West Virginia, in 2010, Steve Earle released Ghosts of West Virginia, exploring coal in the state from a historical and humanitarian perspective.
Earlier this summer Grant Maloy Smith included “The Coal Comes Up,” about the 1907 Monongah disaster that killed at least 367 people, on his expansive album on the region in Appalachia: American Stories. AJ Lee and Blue Summit memorialize those who died, and their surviving families, in a song titled “Monangah Mine” on their album, I’ll Come Back, released last Friday.
Devil in the Hills
Released in June, West Virginian Mary Hott’s Devil in the Hills: Coal Country Reckoning may well be the definitive coal-themed album. With Hott’s crystalline voice and a pure, soulful tone developed during her days as a jazz singer, and the backing of the state’s premier roots rock band The Carpenter Ants, the album is a searing indictment of the many injustices and degradations — some of which have just recently come to light — done not just to coal miners, but also to their families, most egregiously to the miners’ wives and young daughters.
Following a brief spoken recitation by the album’s producer, Don Dixon, Hott and the band kick things into high gear with the rollicking “They Built a Railroad,” setting the scene for the coal industry’s domination in West Virginia:
Our ancient hills held a rich man’s treasure
They carried workers from Ellis Island.
They brought freed slaves to work the mines.
They trafficked girls for comfort and pleasure.
Total power over humankind.
The seed for the album was planted in 2015, when Hott first visited the Whipple Company Store and Museum in Fayette County, West Virginia, and spoke with its owner, Joy Lynn. Between 2007 and 2018, former coal camp residents who’d been children in the early 20th century told Lynn harrowing accounts of life in the coal camps, which she documented in the books Coal Camp Voices and Life in the Shadows.
These stories led Hott to write the album’s two most chilling songs. First, “Annabelle Lee,” where an impoverished family “rents” their 12-year-old daughter to coal company agents seeking “comfort girls” for company managers in remote coal camps.
Second, “Take the Esau,” which refers to a special kind of company credit. If a miner could not work, “esau” scrip was issued for food and other necessities. If it was not repaid within 30 days, the wife was expected to repay the loan through sexual favors as determined by the superintendent.
I spoke with Hott after her recent performance on Mountain Stage. “Taking the words of the people and expressing their stories through music was a catharsis for me,” Hott told me. “Growing up here, we were never taught the real reasons behind the mine wars. Powerful forces wanted to keep it hidden. And it occurred to me, when people are forced to hide their trauma, it causes deep emotional damage that can be passed through generations. I consider it generational trauma that still exists today.”
Hott, from a town called Paw Paw, continued, “I don’t come from a coal family, Paw Paw is an old canal and railroad town. But similar to the coalfields, we have our own unmarked graves and stories of the slave-like working conditions of the immigrants who dug the canal, built the tunnels, laid the track, all in pre-mining days. The working class everywhere has similar shared experiences, over multiple generations. I lost my own father from a massive heart attack after working three overtime shifts at a chemical company.
“I had to wonder, if we face what our ancestors endured, maybe we can overcome our own injustices, and make ourselves whole. I suppose that is my ultimate goal of making this album. Our history matters.”
This album also matters. Hott uses her concise songwriting skills and angry, yet consolatory, vocals in a way that does not preach but rather enlightens and uplifts, not unlike what Our Native Daughters have done. We will be unable to move forward as a country until we come to terms with the atrocities of our past. Roots music is at the forefront of that process by bringing our history, including mining history, into the light.
Now, the photos, all of which are new to the column. Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slide show.