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.
The song was obtained from an unknown source in the North Carolina mountains by a record company A&R (“artist and repertoire”) man, who gave it to Gene Autry, who re-corded it in New York City early in 1931 — a year before he became a national celebrity with That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine. Autry’s records themselves found their way back into the five-and-ten-cent stores of the Appalachian coal fields, from which a labor orga-nizer, Tom Tippett, carried one back North again to be used his classes at Brookwood Labor College in Westchester County. Tippett later taught The Death of Mother Jones to Walter Seacrist, a miner whose singing of it in a Ward, W. Va. miners’ tent colony in 1932 was heard by a Hunter College graduate, Agnes Martocci, one of many idealistic volunteer teachers of mining-camp children. She in turn taught it to a union songster, Joe Glazer, who gave it wide currency through performances at miners’ conventions — adding to the Mother Jones legend, which has recently come to the surface again to bring strength to a new generation of miners and their families, struggling to rebuild their union and recover the stolen wealth of their colonized region.
The song’s repeated passage North and South, from class to class and from one occu-pational group to another, could be treated as an inert discographical detail. But to Green the history of the song’s transmission in folk and popular culture illuminates the manifold facets of his subject: the dynamics of cultural change, the interpenetration of folk and mass culture, the effect of recording technology upon folklife and upon mass taste, the neglected folklore of urbanization and industrialization, the economics and politics of resource exploitation in the Appalachian, coal fields, and ultimately the nature of American cultural pluralism and unity.
Thus chapters which at one level are case studies of single songs persistently spill over their announced boundaries. The chapter on the title song, Only a Miner — found among miners from the Kentucky coal country to the Colorado silver region — explores the capacity of occupational lore to move across political and geographical boundaries. The chapter on race and hillbilly records is also about the effect of the recording industry upon the social status and self-image of the folk performer. The chapter on Coal Creek Troubles, probably the finest in the book, explores the ramifications not only of the iniq-uitous convict lease system in the South, but also the apparently unalterable exploitative relationship between the energy-rich Appalachian resource colony and profligate use of energy in the rest of the nation.
There is profound, irony in the fact that Jock Yablonski’s killers were hired through the cooperation of local UMWA officials in District 19 (Jellico, Tenn.), for Coal Creek Trou-bles celebrates the heroism of 300 Coal Creek miners from the Campbell, Anderson and Union County area of east Tennessee who on Bastille Day (July 14, 1891) stormed the Briceville prison stockade of the Tennessee Coat and Iron Company (TCI). Their ac-tion liberated both their black fellow miners and themselves from the medieval burden of the convict lease system, and provided evidence (even yet steadfastly rejected by the nation at large) that mountaineers are not indolent, fatalistic, politically ignorant hillbil-lies.
Since 1866, the convict lease system in Tennessee had authorized a form of legal slav-ery for the benefit of coal mines, plantations, railroads and lumbermen. By 1889, TCI had taken over all 1,600 of the state’s leased convicts for $100,000 per year (about 20 or less per man-hour) most of whom were used in its mines around Briceville, Tracy City and Coal Creek-and all of whom worked under inconceivably cruel conditions. For two years following the Briceville battle, other stockades were burned, and liberated convicts were shipped to Knoxville and Nashville by the trainload. Governor Buchanan re-sponded to pressure by TCI (whose president, Thomas C. Platt, was a powerful Repub-lican Party boss in the state of New York) by enforcing “martial law,” actually a crude reign of terror, with 5,000 state troops supplied with ammunition from federal arsenals. Thus Coal Creek Troubles is not simply an artifact of a remote and localized “folk cul-ture,” but also an index to a tortuously complicated era in American life — an index as vivid as the “TCI, TCI, TCI . . .” pressed into the earth around the Briceville stockade by the shoes Tennessee Coal and Iron forced its rented convicts to wear.
Folklorists, historians, discographers, musicologists and other professionals whose ar-eas of specialization Only a Miner touches, can be expected to form their own judg-ments of its merits. But the reader whose aim is to view our national life whole is likely to find that the book will leave a mark upon him. Its effect is reinforced by more than a hundred sensitively chosen illustrations, ranging from the literalness of a record label to the suggestiveness of a Jackson Pollock lithograph –or the dreamlike photograph of a mine-rescue team.
Green dedicates his book to his father, for whom, he says, “the skills of hand and head are one.” The dedication could stand as a description of Green’s own method as both a skilled workingman and a scholar. When he was graduated from Berkeley in the late 1930s, he became a shipwright’s apprentice in San Francisco. After service as a car-penter’s mate in the Navy during World War II, he returned to work for another fifteen years in the building trades. His subsequent academic training as a folklorist merely formalized and extended a lifelong attempt to understand with his head the work his own hands had done; days of work as a carpenter and shipwright had long been fol-lowed by evenings of reading, collecting and writing as a practicing scholar. Thus Green brings to his subject not only the skills of a trained academician but also a sense–lit-erally worked into his mind and body –of the lives of working people, and therefore a profound respect for both miners add their rich lore.