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Coal Miners’ Daughters Sing Songs Of Solidarity

Steve Wishnia Apr 5, 2006

womanThey say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’re either with the union
Or you’re a thug for J.H. Blair
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

Seeing Florence Reece sing that song, “Which Side Are You On,” a cappella in a cracked old-lady voice was one of the high points of the movie Harlan County USA, a Barbara Kopple documentary on a 1974 coal miners’ strike in Harlan County, Ken.

Reece, a miner’s wife, wrote the song on the back of a calendar after police ransacked her home during a strike in the winter of 1931-32. She took the melody from a minor-key hymn.

“Which Side Are You On?” and other songs from the film’s soundtrack appear on Coal Mining Women (Rounder). The album comprises 1970s recordings by two generations of Appalachian women, older ones like Reece and Sara Ogan Gunning (who once wrote a song called “I Hate the Capitalist System”) and younger ones such as Hazel Dickens and Phyllis Boyens.

I was listening to this a lot over the winter, with the December transit strike and the spate of coalmining disasters in January. The most appalling thing I experienced during the transit strike was the complete lack of solidarity I saw from the office middle class, from ostensibly liberal people who voted against George Bush but had absolutely no sympathy for other working people. “We’re getting screwed over worse, so why are these people complaining?” was their logic. “We don’t get pensions, all we have is a shitty 401(k), and we haven’t had a raise in two years. The subway workers have it good.”

The logical answer to that is “Why don’t YOU join a union?” But these people are terrified even to think the word “union.” Compare that with the people of Harlan County, who stood up in the middle of a highway against gun thugs and cops trying to run them over. Yeah, they may have had bad seventies-era hillbilly-hippie haircuts and gotten pregnant at 15, but they had guts.

This music reflects that. It’s music of life and death. Often death. Of Lawrence Jones, a Harlan County miner shot in the face by a scab during the 1974 strike, a haunting dobro wafting under Phyllis Boyens’ lines about a life that “can shatter just like ice.” Of United Mine Workers dissident Jock Yablonski, murdered in 1969 by home invaders hired by the union’s corrupt leader, memorialized by Hazel Dickens in a sprightly banjo tune. Of Sara Ogan Gunning’s baby, who starved to death during the Depression; she changes “Precious Memories” to “Dreadful Memories.” Of the 78 miners killed in a fire at the Mannington mine in West Virginia in 1968, remembered in a mournful mandolin waltz. (That disaster inspired federal mine-safety legislation. Guess which president gutted its enforcement.) But this music isn’t fatalistic or nihilistic. It’s got a purpose, imbuing organizing with the righteousness and foursquare chord changes of gospel. “Let’s sink this capitalist system in the darkest pits of hell,” sings Ogan Gunning.

This music also comes from community. The “pickin’” tradition of people getting together to play acoustic is probably stronger in the Southern Appalachians than it is anywhere in the nation. Whether music of any emotional power and political validity can come out of the commercial music process instead of such a community has long been disputed by cultural critics. Well, it never was as impossible as the purists contend, but the accelerating concentration of ownership of music distribution, radio, and concert promotion has made it a lot harder. The cruel paradox of the music business is that it is extraordinarily difficult for musicians to have any cultural influence beyond a niche market (let alone make a living) without going through the corporate star system – and the corporate star system inexorably turns them into celebrity product.

And Harlan County is no longer a hotbed of labor radicalism. It voted 60 percent for Bush in 2004.

“I see a darkness,” Johnny Cash sang. There is a darkness in the land. And 74 years after Florence Reece scribbled on the back of her calendar, Texas country singer James McMurtry captures America’s darkness with a track called “We Can’t Make It Here.” It blows through my brain like a cold north wind through an empty prairie town, streets of boarded-up storefronts deserted but for a few emaciated tweakers, while out by the Interstate the fluorescent lights of the Wal-Mart blaze down upon piles of Chinese sweatshop goods. It’s a sevenminute jeremiad growled over a laconic, twangy three-chord groove, an apocalyptic epic like Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” only a lot more direct.

Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin?
Or the shape of their eyes or the shape I’m in?
Should I hate ’em for having our jobs today?
No, I hate the men sent the jobs away
I can see them all now, they haunt my dreams
All lily-white and squeaky-clean
They’ve never known want, they’ll never know need
Their shit don’t stink and their kids won’t bleed
Their kids won’t bleed in their damn little war
And we can’t make it here anymore

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