Underground Man

Underground Man

Nimrod Workman’s craggy ballads of Mingo County coal country.


Harlan County USA, Barbara Kopple’s account of the 1973-74 miners’ strike in Brookside, Kentucky, opens with a spellbinding montage of miners working underground: a blast goes off; support beams are hammered into place; big machines spin and grind, mincing rock; an endless river of coal flows by on a conveyor belt. When the workday ends, some men ride the conveyor belt back to the surface. Others drive out of the shaft on wide, low, truck-like vehicles. From a distance, the camera follows two men carrying lunch pails as they walk down a gravel road, away from the mine. A song comes on. It is sung by one voice, unaccompanied. We can tell that the singer is male, old and has a heavy regional–if not precisely local–accent. Over footage of the men walking, and then some shots of company housing (which, at the time, did not have running water or heat), he sings:

For forty-two years
Is a mighty long time
I labored untold
Down in a coal mine

Down in a deep hole
Where the bright lights did glow
Back in a dark room
A-spadin’ up coal.

Only now do we get to see the man. He’s sitting in a rocking chair on a porch, wearing a jacket over a light blue shirt and a brown fedora with a band. It’s a sunny day. He looks even older than he sounds. He has sharp, deep-set eyes, an impossibly wrinkled face and a caved-in mouth showing no evidence of teeth whatsoever. Leaning forward in the chair, he continues to sing:

My bones they did ache me
My kneecaps got bad
Down on a hard rock
On a set of knee pads

The motors were shifting
I got sand in my hair
Both lungs were broke down
From breathing bad air.

This is Nimrod Workman, and “42 Years” is his own autobiographical composition. Born in 1895 in Martin County, Kentucky, Workman went into the mines at 14. As he tells it on the recently released and surpassingly excellent I Want to Go Where Things Are Beautiful (Twos & Fews/Drag City; $14.98), he sang to keep himself company while he worked. “When I went into the coal mines…be back in a dark room by myself…. Couldn’t hear nobody nowhere. Just nothin’ but me and my light in that dark place, and I’d be loadin’ my car, and I’d sing ’til it get loaded. And I learned to just sing and it don’t bother me.”

Workman toiled underground not in Harlan, but in nearby Mingo County, West Virginia, a region with a bloody and storied labor history all its own. After black lung and a slipped disc forced Workman to retire from mining in 1951, he focused more of his energy on his singing and became something of a legendary character in the regional folk scene. But he never lost his political edge–or savvy. The man who had marched with Mother Jones in the early ’20s spent the early ’70s working with a group of miners to petition Senator Robert Byrd. They were fighting for recognition of black lung as a serious trade hazard–coal operators and company doctors denied that coal dust was the cause of black lung–and compensation for their suffering. They eventually succeeded.)

Around the time of the Brookside strike, Jack Wright put out Nimrod Workman’s first recording, a 45 called “Lay Down My Pick and Shovel.” It was followed shortly thereafter by Passing Through the Garden, an LP recorded with his daughter Phyllis for June Appal Recordings, and then Mother Jones’ Will for Rounder Records in 1978. Though he continued to perform his unaccompanied music for nearly twenty years, he never released another record. But this is not to say that he was never recorded. In 1982 Mike Seeger paid two visits to Workman at his home in Mascot, Tennessee. Seeger stayed with Workman and his wife Mollie for three days in June, then two more days in November. He had an NEA Folk Arts grant and wanted to record “as much of Nimrod’s repertoire as possible without feeling that we had to make an LP.” Seeger later donated what he recorded to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where the tapes sat unreleased for more than two decades.

I Want to Go Where Things Are Beautiful is the first material from those sessions to see public release. Workman’s voice is wild and craggy and delightful. His accent and pronunciation occasionally swallow up whole syllables or words, and some of his locutions are so striking–even in the context of archaic mountain lingo–that on a first hearing I believed them to be whole-cloth inventions. One hymn describes the power of the Almighty this way: “Great big hand of God/You can’t do nothin’ with it.” I won’t even pretend to know what he’s saying on “Good Morning,” though I’m reasonably sure it’s a comedy routine. Then there’s Workman’s version of the folk standard, “Shady Grove,” which concludes with a piquant euphemism whose meaning is perhaps a little too clear: “She went down the big mule road/I went down behind her/She stooped over to buckle her shoe/And I saw the coffee grinder.”

This is a recording that rewards the close listener and the repeat listener, especially on those several tracks where the singing is supplemented with narrative. “War Whoops” is a fascinating explanation of Civil War-era hollers used by soldiers to figure out their friends’ and enemies’ positions. Elsewhere, Workman talks about learning songs as a child, from his grandfather and a man he called Uncle Peter McNeely, who had come over from England. Those men, as near as I can figure, were probably born sometime in the 1820s. History seldom feels so close, or so alive.

Workman added to, subtracted from and otherwise altered songs at will. This went for traditional as well as contemporary music–whatever he heard that struck his fancy, he made his own. He molded the songs “to fit my own category,” as he once put it (the phrase became the title of a documentary about him). One wry example of this fitting process is “Lord Daniel,” an ancient European lyric ballad about a nobleman, his unhappily married wife, her lover and the inevitable resulting tragedy. There are many versions of this song, some named for the nobleman and some named for the young lover, Mathie Grove, and they can vary greatly in terms of length and action. (Also, there are many variations on the names themselves.) But certain things have to happen to advance the essential plot, and it typically falls to a servant of Lord Daniel’s to report the wife’s transgression. In Workman’s version, Lord Daniel’s “little footpath” phrases his report to the boss this way: “another man’s in the bed with your wife/both of their hearts is one.”

That’s an illuminating, piercing little piece of poetry, but it’s also a fascinating mash-up of American vernacular and classical European language. Another comes later in the same song, when Lord Daniel confronts the adulterous couple in bed. He challenges Mathie Grove to a duel, but Mathie protests,

How can I fight you for my life?
You’ve two brand-new swords,
Me not much as a pocket-knife.

One suspects that the pocket-knife was not strictly de rigueur for English nobles, so it stands to reason that this was a change made later, by someone who perhaps spent a good bit of his time whittling on a porch, or at least around people who did. (In case you’re wondering, Lord Daniel gives the sharper of his swords to Mathie Grove so they can duel fairly, then he slays the cuckold with his very first blow.)

Nimrod Workman was born three years before the Spanish-American War. He died at 99, three years after the first Gulf War, in 1994. We are lucky to have this invaluable and deeply pleasurable artifact of his truly remarkable life.

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