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

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Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble - David McGee
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 ...
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Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble - David McGee
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.
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: 5/23/2006
  • Label: Rounder / Umgd
  • UPC: 011661402621
  • Catalog Number: 614026
  • Sales rank: 107,214

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 Jr. 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
The 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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