Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner's Struggle

Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner's Struggle

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Anyone who's paid attention has known well before the Sago mining disaster that the plight of the coal miner remains one of the most shameful and tragic in American industry. Many of the songs on this collection were on the soundtrack of Barbara Kopple's wrenching, Academy Award-winning documentary from 1976, Harlan County USA, and, sadly, have only become moreSee more details below

Overview

Anyone who's paid attention has known well before the Sago mining disaster that the plight of the coal miner remains one of the most shameful and tragic in American industry. Many of the songs on this collection were on the soundtrack of Barbara Kopple's wrenching, Academy Award-winning documentary from 1976, Harlan County USA, and, sadly, have only become more resonant and relevant with the mounting tally of mining disasters. Those tracks have been supplemented by related recordings by the likes of Norman Blake, Doc Watson, and Merle Travis (performing his own legendary contribution to the coal-mining song, the spare, stark, and sobering "Dark as a Dungeon"). Those who saw Kopple's film will remember Hazel Dickens's plaintive, earthy performances, which made her a one-woman Greek chorus signaling the hard times and struggles ahead. She's featured on 7 of the 22 cuts here, and those are all powerful, especially her a cappella cry of the heart, "Black Lung," about the physical ravages that left one miner questioning God's mercy. The daily drudgery and the daily exploitation by "the capitalist system" are explicitly detailed and cursed in Sarah Ogan Gunning's searing, a cappella activist anthem, "Come All You Coal Miners," and the violence visited on reformers is recounted by Dickens in "The Yablonski Murder," on which her outrage and anger are set against a loping, easygoing bluegrass arrangement that contrasts with the horror of the "cold-blooded murder" the singer describes. Country Cooking supplies a lighthearted moment via a sprightly mandolin-fiddle duet on "Trouble Among the Yearlings," but otherwise this collection brooks no frivolity -- after all, lives are at stake.

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Editorial Reviews

All Music Guide - Steve Leggett
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.

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Product Details

Release Date:
05/23/2006
Label:
Rounder / Umgd
UPC:
0011661402621
catalogNumber:
614026
Rank:
94069

Tracks

  1. Coal Tattoo
  2. Shut Up in the Mines of Coal Creek
  3. Come All You Coal Miners
  4. Blue Diamond Mines
  5. The Yablonski Murder
  6. Last Train from Poor Valley  - Norman Blake
  7. Black Lung
  8. Dark as a Dungeon
  9. Trouble Among the Yearlings
  10. Lawrence Jones
  11. Coal Black Mining Blues  - Nimrod Workman
  12. Coal Miner's Grave
  13. The Death of Harry Simms
  14. Mannington Mine Disaster
  15. Cruel Willie
  16. Hard Working Miner
  17. Dream of a Miner's Child
  18. And Am I Born to Die?  - Doc Watson
  19. Clay County Miner
  20. One Morning in May  - J.P. Fraley
  21. Which Side Are You On?
  22. They'll Never Keep Us Down

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Album Credits

Performance Credits

Norman Blake   Guitar,Vocals
Jerry Douglas   Dobro
Merle Travis   Guitar,Vocals
Doc Watson   Vocals
Hazel Dickens   Vocals,Vocal Harmony
Sarah Ogan Gunning   Vocals
Nimrod Workman   Vocals
Blaine Sprouse   Fiddle
Tom Adams   Banjo
Phyllis Boyens   Vocals
Gaither Carlton   Fiddle
Dudley Connell   Guitar,Vocals
Kenny Kosek   Fiddle
Bob Dalsemer   Banjo
Pat Enright   Guitar
Jim Garland   Vocals
Tommy Goldsmith   Guitar
Lamar Grier   Banjo
Mark Hembree   Bass
Dewey Renfro   Bass
Ralph Rinzler   Mandolin
Tracy Schwarz   Fiddle,Vocals,Tenor (Vocal)
Bob Siggins   Banjo,Guitar
Dick Staber   Mandolin,Vocals
Roland White   Mandolin
Earl Yager   Bass
Roy Huskey   Bass
Charlie Collins   Guitar
Connie Gately   Guitar
Fred Gately   Bass
Akira Otsuka   Mandolin
John Kaparakis   Guitar
Red Roberts   Fiddle
Florence Reece   Vocals
Béla Bleck   Banjo
Eloise King   Guitar,Baritone (Vocal)
Nancy Short   Cello
Lou Martin   Mandolin

Technical Credits

Norman Blake   Composer
Johnson Mountain Boys   Producer
Merle Travis   Composer
Guy Carawan   Producer
Hazel Dickens   Composer,Producer,Adaptation
Jean Ritchie   Composer
Mike Seeger   Engineer
Tut Taylor   Producer
Aunt Molly Jackson   Composer
Sarah Ogan Gunning   Composer
Nimrod Workman   Composer
Phyllis Boyens   Adaptation
Candie Carawan   Producer
Ronnie Freeland   Producer
Jim Garland   Composer
Ken Irwin   Producer,Adaptation
Toby Mountain   Mastering
Ralph Rinzler   Producer
Tracy Schwarz   Arranger,Liner Notes
Mark Wilson   Engineer,Liner Notes
Traditional   Composer
Florence Reece   Composer
Highlander Center   Producer
Shelly Romalis   Liner Notes
Brad SanMartin   Liner Notes
Eric Skillman   Cover Design

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