Monday, April 09, 2007


When activist-folk music became popular, one of the causes that singers championed was the plight of coal miners. The dirty, ill-paying work can turn anyone's lungs black, but it can also turn anyone's lights out. All it takes is a rumble of rock. You might remember "Big Bad John," the song about a miner who stood tall and made sure his buddies got out alive. Though supplies are being depleted, coal mining continues in this country, and at least one graphic accident seems to make headlines every year.

In 1958 a devastating collapse at the Springhill mine became front page news. Day after day, it was a life and death struggle to reach the men trapped under the earth.
"Ballad of Springhill" (aka "Springhill Mining Disaster") by Peggy Seeger is one of the darkest (no kidding) folk songs of all time. The E-shaped multi-level mine had "roads that never saw sun nor sky," and her dirge unsparingly tells us a truth about the doomed miners who never got out: "through all their lives they had dug their graves."
As horrifying and moving as the song is, it spares us some of the grimmest details of men bleeding to death and drinking each other's urine. For a full report, read Melissa Fay Greene's "Last Man Out," which manages a strange parallel story involving a racist politician monitoring the disaster so he could invite the survivors to come South and give him some publicity.
Several versions of the ballad are on this ten-pack download. Some use the original line "listen for the shouts of the black-faced miners." Others, perhaps concerned that the phrase might seem racist, choose "the bare-faced miners" which is not as dumb as it seems, because "bare-faced" means a miner has lost his oxygen mask or other protection against poison gas. Quite a few cover versions of the song have come from U.K. singers, which is no surprise considering the coal mining areas in Wales.

Here, MOR artist Barbara Dickson offers a surprisingly fierce rendition.
There are a few lyric differences between the versions of "Springhill," some leaving out the line or two. Peggy Seeger: "I am especially proud of “The Ballad of Springhill” (one verse of which was written by Ewan MacColl, for when I wrote it I had never been down a coal-mine. We both felt the song needed a verse that sounded as if I had). This song has actually entered the ‘folk tradition’ to such an extent that people either think that Ewan or ‘the folk’ wrote it. What a compliment!"

Also on the download, a different song about Springhill, recorded by Bill Clifton. It's more in keeping with the era's Disney-type theme songs, and doesn't have any of the stark drama of Seeger's lyrics. "But..." Shel Silverstein once sang, "waddya do if you're young and white and Jewish...And your mother says it's too dirty down in the mine?" One answer might be to sing a happy coal mining song, like the jolly "Cape Breton Coal Miners" song, sung to the tune of Villikens and his Dinah (ok, you know it as Sweet Betsy From Pike. Or do you?).
Lee Dorsey's "Working in a Coal Mine" is also pretty cheerful. No wonder Devo covered it with even greater glee. Sara Evans' "Coal Mine" is a grinning hoedown about how she can't wait for her tired, sweaty, dirty miner to get home. And just to round out the top ten, yeah, "Coal Miner's Daughter." It was that, or add the Bee Gees' "New York 1941 Mining Disaster." Couldn't quite go that low, but that song makes you wonder if the Gibb boys' nasal voices were due to being caught too long in a coal mine with a severe lack of oxygen.

TEN coal mine songs via RS

Update: Rapidshare's link disappeared...not unusual for them...and a reason why I stopped doing big compilations...too hard to find them all over again and re-up to someplace stable. None are very stable.

Hopefully I'll get around to adding at least a few of the tracks as single downloads via The Box.


Anonymous said...

This is great stuff! Thank you for posting these songs. I am very interested in Canadian disaster songs. The file which is named 'Ivy League' was this sung and written by the Ivy League?

Ill Folks said...

Fan of Canadian disasters? Does that include the Montreal Expos?

The download included The Ivy League Trio's version of "Ballad of Spring Hill," which was written by Peggy Seeger. I ripped it from the vinyl; forgot to put all the proper ID tags into it.

sully said...

There is a newer, modern ballad titled, "ANGELS", dedicated to the miners who lost their lives in the SAGO mine disaster...

Anonymous said...

The reference to "bare faced" miners having lost their masks is not exactly accurate. Indeed miners without the breathing apparatus (hence bare=faced miners) worked round the clock (along with those who wore gas mask protection) during the two Springhill mine disasters, searching for trapped fellow miners.

Hugo Xavier said...

Working on a coal mine is by Lee Dorsey, not Sam Cooke, you're probably mistaking it for Chaning Gang by Cooke.

Susie Davies-Lowe said...

Hi - I'm looking for a sonf about a coal mining in Robbins, Tennesee :

....... let me tell you a story about five men who went .... digging into the coal ..

I learnt it min summer camp in Vermont i the summer of 1979/80 and would like to pick out the chords - can anyone help and e-mail me :

Ill Folks said...

Thanks Hugo, I made the correction. Coal mine...chain gang...neither is much fun. Thanks again for giving a shout out for Lee Dorsey

Ill Folks said...

Hope somebody's been able to help Sue Davies-Lowe. All I know is there was a disaster down in Robbins: March 23, 1959, an explosion at the Phillips & West coal mine. It killed nine people. I'm not sure if a local Tennessee record label issued a song about it, or a song may have appeared via sheet music or a folk song book.

Reimer said...

Ach, missed it!!

Ill Folks said...

Sorry the download's got old and wandered away.
I hope to re-visit the old links and hopefully get some of the songs back, bandwidth permitting.