Folklorist Archie Green blows the dust off old coal-mining songs, revealing the souls of long-dead miners and their struggles to survive. With his book Only a Miner, folklorist Archie Green unearths the stories behind the great coal-mining songs of yore.
Books frequently deliver less than their titles promise. Archie Green’s delivers much more. Two decades ago–when he himself was a skilled worker on the San Francisco waterfront–Green began to compile a discography of coal-mining songs, which even then he recognized as a rich and evocative record of the consciousness and lore of American workingmen. The limited discographical project eventually matured into Only a Miner, which examines more than a century of the complex interaction between coal mining and the dynamics of American culture, and comments on the nature and socio-political implications of work itself, as well as on our habitual attitudes toward inherently dangerous work.
The hard-working miners, their dangers are great,
Many while mining have met their sad fate,
White doing their duties as miners all do,
Shut out from the daylight and their darling ones, too.
He’s only a miner been killed in the ground,
Only a miner and one more is found,
Killed by an accident, no one can tell,
His mining’s all over, poor miner farewell.
The undeniable fact is that we have chosen to trade human lives for coal at least since the first recorded major coal-mine disaster at Black Heath, Va. in 1839. Later bench-marks in the pattern of carnage are all too familiar: Monongah (1907, 362 dead); Cen-tralia (1951, 119 dead); Hyden (1970, seventy-eight dead). We can tolerate such deaths only if we dehumanize the victims. Huckleberry Finn, asked by Aunt Sally whether any-one was hurt in a steamboat explosion, replies “No’m. Killed a nigger.” “Well, it’s lucky,” she responds, “because people sometimes do get hurt.” In one sense, Archie Green’s book follows the reverberations of Huck’s laconic comment into the lives of millions of miners sacrificed upon the altar of the contemporary Baal, economic growth. The dead person is “only a miner” — lacking consciousness, lacking aspirations, and most cer-tainly lacking what the middle- and upper-class beneficiaries of his cramped and peril-ous labor are willing to call “culture?”
Only a Miner demonstrates that the culture of coal miners is vital, rich and sophisticated. The first known recorded coal-mining song was preserved on an Edison cylinder in, 1908. The first to emerge as a popular hit was The Dream of the Miner’s Child, recorded by Vernon Dalhart in 1925, shortly after he was transformed from a light opera tenor into, a guitar-playing “citybilly” by a record company that was sensitive to the possibili-ties of a new market. From among the hundreds of coal-mining songs eventually distributed by commercial recording companies, Green chooses about a dozen for special attention. Some are al-most universally known: Sixteen Tons, which Merle Travis wrote and recorded in 1946, reached millions of listeners through Tennessee Ernie Ford’s records and television show in the mid-1950s. Others, such as The Death of Harry Simms, have hardly been heard at all in forty years or more. Many have never been widely known outside the coal culture in which they were born. Yet the pattern of vital interchange between the largely regional coal culture and national culture is rich and important, as Green shows, for ex-ample, in following the odyssey of The Death of Mother Jones.