"He's had more hard luck than most men could stand/ The mines was his first love but never his friend," opens "Black Lung," a tune penned by West Virginia bluegrass singer Hazel Dickens in 1969. In the weeks before writing "Black Lung," Dickens sat beside the deathbed of her brother, Thurman, watching him wither from the blight of the coal miner, black lung disease.
"He was born, lived and died poor. He didn't even have enough money to bury himself," Dickens later wrote of her oldest brother in the book Working Girl Blues. "His horrible death affected me and took a toll on the way I thought. I didn't hold anything back."
The United States consumes more than 1 billion tons of coal each year. The fossil fuel provided nearly half of the nation's electricity and nearly 200,000 jobs last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But as Steve Earle, who sang about the problem of coal on his 1999 tune "The Mountain," said last week during a solo concert in Carrboro, "Coal has always cost blood." Last year alone, there were 30 coal-mining deaths. In China in 2004, more than 6,000 workers died in mines.
Dickens' song—used as a calling card in the '70s for bringing the plight of the coal worker to the public—succinctly summarizes the history of the coal industry and a shift in the songs that have long chronicled it. We once saw our coal workers as heroes, it seems. Then we worried about their health. Now, though, we're worried about the broken terrain their work leaves.
Coal mining offers multiple layers of meaning: It's hard work for brave people willing to risk their lives for a day's pay. But these men who become miners eventually destroy their homelands to make that living. And just as gutting the earth displays masculinity, it also reveals the frailty of the land. After the mountain has been sucked dry by the coal companies, there's nothing for the used-up miner to go home to—that is, if he's managed to survive the work.
John Wallace Crawford composed one of the first American coal-mining songs, "Only a Miner Killed," in 1877. Crawford explored society's disregard for the lives of miners in a poem that soon morphed into a folk song, set to the tune that people might recognize as that of Bob Dylan's "Only a Hobo," which also addresses the tragically ignored commoner. Crawford's deceased miner is brave and humble, a pitiful figure whose pain, Crawford hopes, might be assuaged by the fact that we're all equal in the afterlife.
But working beneath the dirt helps develop a strong backbone, apparently, and the idea of the miner as a mountain of a man soon became the dominant image. Crawford's early lament was cast aside for songs about the strong. When coal miners in Harlan County, Ky., went on strike in 1931, for instance, riots and murders followed. After having her house ransacked by company men looking to kill her husband, a union leader, Florence Reece, wrote in "Which Side Are You On?" "Will you be a lousy scab/ Or will you be a man?"
That masculine vision of the miner was furthered by Merle Travis' popular 1946 tune "Sixteen Tons." Casting himself as a miner, Travis brags, "Fightin' and trouble is my middle name," ultimately describing how strong and murderous he can be. If the Spartans of the movie 300 were a coal-mining song, they'd be this tune. In coal songs, mining often provides "real" and transferable authenticity. In Loretta Lynn's autobiographical "Coal Miner's Daughter," for instance, Mama minds the children and reads the Bible while Daddy works all night and day to "raise eight kids on a coal miner's pay." Again, a strong backbone...
Kathy Mattea, another West Virginia native and country singer three decades younger than Lynn, doesn't seem so sentimental about her state's traditions: Last year, Mattea recorded Coal, a collection of songs by Jean Ritchie, Billy Edd Wheeler, Hazel Dickens and others. Mattea's a cappella version of "Black Lung" is husky, eerie, delivered with righteous anger. Mattea has long been campaigning for Pennies of Promise, a nonprofit with the goal of moving a West Virginia elementary school away from an almost 3-billion-gallon coal sludge pond looming over it.
And she's been fighting against mountaintop removal, the most destructive form of surface mining for coal, in which heavy equipment and explosives are used to flatten the ridge lines. "The Mountain," that Steve Earle tune, tells the story of a boy who was raised on a mountain "before they knocked down the timber and strip-mined the coal." He refuses to leave, even though there's nothing left. North Carolina consumes the second-largest amount of mountaintop removal coal in the nation. House Bill 2709, now being debated in the state's General Assembly, could outlaw the use of this coal in North Carolina.
By simultaneously loving the land, destroying it, and being destroyed by it, the miner has had an intimate if melancholic relationship with his mine and mountain. One works to destroy another, and sometimes revenge is an accident. Either way, it's big business versus the world or both, or as Dickens sang in the last verse of "Black Lung": "Down at the graveyard, the boss man came/ with his little bunch of flowers/ Dear God! What a shame/ Take back those flowers/ Don't sing no sad songs/ The die has been cast/ A good man is gone."
That verse can be as much about the mountain as it once was the man.
Kathy Mattea headlines Mountain Aid at Shakori Hills in Silk Hope, located outside of Pittsboro, June 19-20. Those Darlins, Donna the Buffalo and others also perform. Tickets are $22.50 to $30. For more information, visit www.mtnaid.com.