CD Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner's Struggle (CD 145549),
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Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner's Struggle
1. Coal Tattoo - Hazel Dickens
2. Shut up in the Mines of Coal Creek - Old Home String Band - (featuring Tracy Schwarz)
3. Come All You Coal Miners - Sarah Ogan Gunning
4. Blue Diamond Mines - The Johnson Mountain Boys
5. Yablonski Murder, The - Hazel Dickens
6. Last Train From Poor Valley - Norman Blake
7. Black Lung - Hazel Dickens
8. Dark as a Dungeon - Merle Travis
9. Trouble Among the Yearlings - Country Cooking
10. Lawrence Jones - Phyllis Boyens
11. Coal Black Mining Blues - Nimrod Workman
12. Coal Miner's Grave - Hazel Dickens
13. Death of Harry Simms, The - Jim Garland
14. Mannington Mine Disaster - Hazel Dickens
15. Cruel Willie - Connie & Babe
16. Hard Working Miner - Sarah Ogan Gunning
17. Dream of a Miner's Child - Phyllis Boyens
18. And Am I Born to Die - Doc Watson
19. Clay County Miner - Hazel Dickens
20. One Morning in May - J.P. Fraley
21. Which Side Are You On? - Florence Reese
22. They'll Never Keep Us Down - Hazel Dickens
Manufacturer Part Number (MPN): 614 026
Ken Irwin (Compilation); Brad Martin (Compilation)
Personnel: Tracy Schwarz (vocals, tenor, fiddle); Eloise Klein Healy (vocals, baritone, guitar); Dick Staber (vocals, mandolin); Pat Enright (guitar); Jerry Douglas (dobro); Bob Salsmer, Bla Fleck (banjo); Roland White (mandolin); Blaine Sprouse (fiddle); Mark Hembree, Dewey Renfro (bass instrument).
Several of the songs on this intense collection were featured in Barbara Kopple's powerful 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA which followed a 13-month United Mine Workers' strike in Harlan County, KY in 1973. Rounder Records has also added related material drawn mostly from two earlier album releases, 1972's Come All You Coal Miners and 1984's They'll Never Keep Us Down: Women's Coal Mining Songs, as well as appropriately themed tracks from the label's extensive traditional catalog, and the end result is an incredibly desolate yet quietly hopeful set that illuminates both the powerful persistence of the human spirit and the ability of songs to enable and empower. Coal mining was -- and still is -- an extremely risky, dangerous, and difficult way to make a living, particularly when coal companies adopt a "kill a man, hire another" approach to labor relations. It should come as no surprise that the rich legacy of traditional music in the Southern Appalachians has been harnessed for specific political concerns by the coal miners and their families and supporters, and songs here like Sarah Ogan Gunning's unaccompanied "Come All You Coal Miners" and the similarly unaccompanied "Which Side Are You On?" (based on the melody of the traditional "Lay the Lily Low" by Florence Reece) resonate deeply because they bring the feeling of shared time, history, and community to bear on specific contemporary and political concerns. It's all pretty powerful stuff, and this isn't a collection you'd want to put on for a cheery morning of cleaning house. Bleak as it gets, though, this anthology still carries a kind of subliminal hope for the future, because by nature, labor strikes are about the participating strikers' deeply held belief in a better life, and the songs harnessed here share that view, even if they have to detail how bad things get in order to do it. Reece and Gunning's songs are stark, emotional, and unforgettable, and most of the tracks here carry those traits. Hazel Dickens' "Coal Miner's Grave" is sad and stately, while Doc Watson's powerful dirge "And Am I Born to Die?" has the mournful majesty of an old church hymn, helped by the eerie, scratchy fiddle played by Gaither Carlton, Watson's father-in-law. Not everything here is built directly on a traditional melody, but even the songs that aren't, like Merle Travis' "Dark as a Dungeon," feel like they could have been, which makes this set seem like it has years and years of tradition behind it, even as that tradition is given a utilitarian twist to point to specific contemporary goals. Do songs like this win the day? Maybe not in an obvious way, but they help build a shared community by giving strikers and their supporters something to sing, something that carries the weight of history as well as uniting and enabling those who sing them. Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner's Struggle ends up being, in its own way, more intense, harrowing, and real than any collection of angry punk or rap songs could ever be, maybe because these songs have actually been sung on the picket lines, where Florence Reece's "Which Side Are You On?" doesn't just have a metaphorical impact, it has a physical one as well, since on the line, where you stand is literally where you stand. ~ Steve Leggett
No Depression (p.102) - "What's remarkable about this set of 22 songs is how their subjects and themes have remained unchanged since most were written in the first half of the 20th century....Songs alternate between starkly poetic reportage and the escape to be found in music."
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