Coal mining has a long and distinguished history in America. The story of coal in this country is one of hardship and triumph. Coal undoubtedly was the fuel that built America and the men who mined it worked under extremely hazardous and strenuous conditions. Many of those who entered the pits of this nation never returned due to slope failure, roof collapse, gas and explosions. Some of those that survived the hazards of the work itself only ended up victims of violent union busting that some coal companies practiced. Many that survived this lived only long enough to suffer a slow death brought on by coal miners' pneumoconiosis or “the black lung”, caused by inhaling coal dust.
The men that raised their families by doing the exhausting work of coal mining for very little pay deserve the respect of every free citizen in this nation. It was upon their back and upon their suffering that we enjoy so many things we take for granted today, like our highways and electricity. Live just one week without these comforts and you may have a newfound respect for the coal miner.
The history of coal mining and song goes back to the early 1900’s when workers made tunes up to help the hellish work pass a little easier, to blues and protest songs, which lamented the terrible working conditions and “slave-owner” mindset of some mining companies.
Other songs are real history lessons as told with the fine oral tradition of folk music.
Songs such as the “Ludlow Massacre” and “1913 Massacre” by Woody Guthrie tell the stories of those murdered at the hands of their employer.
The lives of those who suffered in the coalmines made for exceptional song material. These were real stories that contained the kind of heartache that no human being should have to face in life. Even though technology and unions have eliminated most of the horror, coalmining still holds a place in music today. New songs are still being written about the subject, most notably in the genres of bluegrass, country and folk.
Here are some interesting tidbits about some of the songs on this list:
“Sixteen Tons” was a hit record for Johnny Cash, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Merle Travis who originally wrote it in 1946.
Merle Travis’ brothers and father were coal miners in Kentucky
“Coalminers” by Uncle Tupelo is a remake of a traditional coal workers anthem
Dwight Yoakam, like Merle Travis also has deep Kentucky roots where coal mining was a part of life
“Ludlow Massacre” by Woody Guthrie is a true story of what happened on April 20, 1914 in Ludlow. Colorado. 20 men woman and children were murdered by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in an attempt to suppress the miner’s joining the UMWA (United Mine Workers of America)
Harlan County, Kentucky is a large and history-rich coal mining area
“Big Bad John” by Jimmy Dean was a huge hit in the US when it was released in 1961. Not only did it top the Pop charts for 5 weeks, but it was also #1 on the Country charts for 2 weeks, and #1 Adult Contemporary for 10 weeks
Yes, this is the same Jimmy Dean who started a famous line of sausage products. He also had his own TV series in the '50s and '60s.
“Coal Miner’s Blues” by The Carter Family was a real coal mining work song that the Carter Family learned from “several miners in Wise County, Virginia”
“Coal Miner’s Daughter” by Loretta Lynn was turned into a big hit autobiographical movie about Loretta Lynn’s life, released in 1980. Sissy Spacek won an Oscar for her role in the film
Mining is one of the most hazardous industries as it has to be performed under potentially unsafe and unhealthy conditions even with substantial technological improvements. The mine fatality rate which was at its peak during 1908 has been significantly reduced with the new technological developments and effective safety measures. Here is a link that might be useful: Coal Mining