Music Monday: The Bells of Rhymney

The Bells of Rhymney is based on a poem by Welsh coal miner and author Idris Davies. American folk singer Pete Seeger turned the poem, originally titled Gwalia Deserta, into a song. Davis wrote that the poem was inspired by two major events in the Welsh coalfields: The Senghenydd disaster, and the 1926 general strike. The lyrics highlight the difficult and dangerous conditions that faced Welsh miners during the early twentieth century.

The Byrds made the song into a folk rock hit in 1965. Scroll down to compare their version with the original version from Pete Seeger and a version from The Alarm, a group from Wales during the 1980s

The Byrds:

Pete Seeger:

The Alarm:

Music Monday: Fire in the Hole

Fire in the Hole sounds like a traditional union anthem, but the song was written by filmmaker John Sayles and composer Mason Daring for the film Matewan (1987). West Virginia musician Hazel Dickens performed the song for the movie. Recently, Kentucky songwriter Brett Ratliff adapted the song to reflect present day struggles for working people. Here are video clips of two impressive versions of this vibrant song:

Hazel Dickens:

Brett Ratliff:

Tunes Tuesday: Blackleg Miner

Blackleg Miner is a traditional song from the northeast of England. Most folklorists trace the songs’ origin to nineteenth century labor battles. More recently, the song was performed to support the National Union of Mineworkers during their historic 1984-1985 strike. The video clip below features miners’ wife Lynn Dennett performing her version for the 1990 documentary From The Shadows of Power, directed by Jean Donohue. An excerpt of her song was included in soundtrack of the After Coal documentary, and the lyrics appear in the After Coal book. Scroll down for other versions of this traditional song performed by Richard Thompson as well as The Decembrists.

Black Leg Miner from AfterCoal on Vimeo.

Richard Thompson

Offa Rex (members of The Decemberists)

Music Monday: When Coal Was King

This song is part of the soundtrack of the After Coal documentary. It is an original tune from Foddershock, a self described “dysfunctional folk rock band” from Dickenson County, Virginia — where coal was king for most of the twentieth century. When Coal Was King is a nostalgic look back at the 1970s coal boom, when thousands of union miners worked in southwest Virginia.

This music video was recorded live at Wiley’s Last Resort on top of Pine Mountain in Letcher County, Kentucky on July 20, 2014.

When Coal Was King from Tom Hansell on Vimeo.

Musical roots of the Welsh and Appalachian exchange

In 1976 Appalachian scholar Helen Lewis was living in Wales and documenting coal mining culture. Lewis arranged for The Strange Creek Singers (featuring American musicians Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard, Mike Seeger, Tracy Schwarz, and Lamar Grier) to be part of a musical exchange between Appalachia and Wales. These two video clips provide a glimpse into this historic exchange, which inspired the After Coal project.

In the first clip, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard sing Coal Miners Blues to an audience of miners at the Onllwyn Miners’ Hall in the Dulais Valley of south Wales. The next clip features Cor Meibion Onllwyn, a traditional Welsh male voice choir, performing The Roman War Song. In 1976, when this video was recorded, most choir members were working miners. The choir still performs today and has travelled to the US as part of the Welsh and Appalachian exchange.

Coal Miner's Blues from AfterCoal on Vimeo.

A Medley of Mining Music from Appalachia and Wales

We are starting a regular feature of the After Coal blog called Music Monday.

To kick things off, we thought we’d share unreleased footage of a collaboration created by Welsh and Appalachian musicians for the After Coal project. In this video clip BBC Radio Wales presenter and folk musician Frank Hennessy works with Welsh fiddler Iolo Jones and Appalachian musicians Trevor McKenzie and Rebecca Branson Jones to create a medley based on the Welsh hymn Calon Lan.

Welsh and Appalachian musical exchange from Tom Hansell on Vimeo.

Frank told us how the Welsh migration to America brought the song Calon Lan across the Atlantic more than a century ago, where it evolved into Life’s Mountain Railway – a bluegrass gospel standard also known as Life’s Railway to Heaven. Eventually, the tune returned to Wales, and miners’ choirs changed the words, creating Miner’s Lifeguard (also known as A Miners’ Life), now a standard in the repertoire of Welsh male voice choirs. The musicians’ goal was to create a musical arrangement that that traced music across the Atlantic and back again.

This clip was recorded during a rehearsal in the BBC Radio Wales Studios on May 25, 2016.

Pre order the After Coal book

We are pleased to announce that West Virginia University Press is publishing a book
about the After Coal project.

The official book launch for After Coal: Stories of Survival from Appalachia and Wales will be November 1, 2018 and the publisher has created a special promo code for preorders. The code is AFTERCOAL. When entered on the West Virginia University Press website, it provides a 30% discount from the purchase price.

Feel free to share your ideas about how to use this book to help regenerate our communities in the comments section of this post.

After Coal now available for educational streaming

We are pleased to announce that After Coal available is now available for streaming from the online educational film distributer Kanopy

Educators and public library members can use this link to access the complete After Coal documentary.

Individuals can still purchase DVDs through the After Coal website or through our partners at Appalshop

Look for a companion book to the After Coal documentary to be published by West Virginia University Press in 2018.

John Gaventa remembers Terry Thomas

Remarks made at the celebration to honour miners’ union leader Terry Thomas’s life
Gorseinon Workingmen’s Club, South Wales
January 20, 2017

Thank you for the invitation to participate in this memorial for Terry today. I am deeply honoured to be included as part of this gathering.

John Gaventa interviews Terry Thomas at a miners' march in 1974.
John Gaventa interviews Terry Thomas at a miners’ march in 1974.
I first met Terry in 1974, when as a young American student at Oxford University, I came to the Welsh valleys to make recordings with Welsh miners to share in turn with miners in the Appalachian coalfields in America, using the then fairly new media of videotape. In both places this period was an important time: in Kentucky miners were engaged in the now famous Harlan County, USA strike – later the subject of an award winning film – and here of course, there was the 1974 miners’ strike, to which earlier speakers have referred.

That initial exchange, facilitated by Hywel Francis and the South Wales Miners library, led to a relationship between miners in America and those in Wales which continues to this day. The story of this 40-year exchange between the Welsh and Appalachian Valleys was documented recently in the film After Coal. In that film, Terry plays an important role, first shown sharing his stories and insights with me in 1974 in marches and in the miners’ library, and later shown visiting Harlan County to talk about the changes in the valleys following the closure of the pits in both places.

Terry was one of the first miners whom I met when I first came in Wales 43 years ago, and I saw him often in years following. Though we lost touch in later years, he continued to always welcome and support American visitors to Wales, and to be a leading ambassador of this important exchange. I learned a great deal from Terry, and others whom I met through him. Let me share at least three principles which I saw exemplified in Terry’s life – principles that continue to endure and to inspire.

Terry Thomas at the headquarters of the South Wales Area NUM in Pontypiydd
Terry Thomas at the headquarters of the South Wales Area NUM in Pontypiydd.
Terry was a working class man committed to education of others. I considered myself one his pupils. When I came to the Valleys in 1974, as a young American student, I was virtually ignorant of the rich history of Wales, and in particular its mining and labour history of which Terry was a part. The first time I met Terry was in Clydach Miners Club at the height of the 1974 miners’ strike. Terry and a few miners agreed to come away from their evening with other colleagues to a small room upstairs, where I asked naively, and in typical outsider fashion: ‘Tell me, what led up to this strike?’ Forty five minutes later the Chair, Evan John, was still lecturing me on Welsh history and we had only had only made it to 1947!

But Terry never seemed to mind my questions. Highly articulate and deeply knowledgeable, he always was willing to explain, to educate and to share, whether at the Miners Library, in the miner’s pubs, or on the picket line, Through him, as well through Hywel and others, I learned of the power of miners’ education, as a critical part of Welsh and working class history and culture, and as a force for social change and for social justice. Through sharing his knowledge with others, Terry also helped to inspire others.

Secondly, from Terry and others I also learned of the power of international solidarity. Within Wales, I learned of the long history of solidarity by the miners and others for social justice, whether that be in the struggles for liberation in Spain, or South Africa, or the links with Paul Robeson and the civil rights movement in America. In sharing his knowledge on video, in hosting countless visitors from American mining communities over the years, and even in taking time to share his stories in the After Coal film, Terry also lived the values of solidarity, comradeship and generosity to others. In a world today of rising isolationism, of loss of compassion for others, these values of solidarity and support – regardless of nationality – remain enduring legacies of Terry and those around him.

Looking forward in the struggle for social justice.
Throughout Terry’s life, from miner to NUM leader, to life after the pits closed, Terry always looked forward. He knew that his principles and values – while always constant – would also mean different forms of action and leadership in different points of time. In the 70’s it was a struggle for justice in the coal mines; forty years later it was a struggle of justice for the communities who now faced the challenge life after coal. In a rapidly changing world, where we must all look to the new challenges of social justice, he never gave up hope and the belief that if communities came together, the world could be a better place. These traits too are ones which will continue to inspire.

The filmmakers have sent some short clips from those early 1974 videos, and from the After Coal documentary made some 41 years later. Let’s listen for a few minutes to Terry’s words.
John Gaventa
Hassocks, UK

TerryThomasTribute from T. Hansell on Vimeo.

Remembering Terry Thomas

by Patricia Beaver and Tom Hansell.

This Friday, January 20, a ceremony will be held at the Gorseinon Workingmen’s Club near Swansea to honor the life of miner and labor organizer Terry Thomas, who died this fall at the age of 78. Terry was an important voice in the After Coal documentary.

Terry went into the coal mines in his native Wales in 1960, working underground, and became involved in the National Union of Mineworkers, as local branch secretary. Terry went on to serve as Vice President of the South Wales NUM between 1983 and 1989, coordinating strikes and difficult negotiations throughout the 1984-85 strike year. He then served as a chairman of the Wales Executive Committee of the Labour Party.

In After Coal we first see Terry in 1974, interviewed by John Gaventa, in the successful strike which brought in the Labour Government. Terry is also on screen responding to the exchange of videos between Appalachia and Wales on the Brookside strike in Appalachia.

TerryThomasTribute from T. Hansell on Vimeo.

We met Terry while researching this film. We visited his home in Gowerton, where we admired his lovely garden. As we toured South Wales mining sites he taught us about the solidarity of Welsh miners, about the strength of Welsh Labour, and the hardships and devotion of Welsh families.

We filmed Terry on an abandoned mine site, and with Hywel Francis at the Miners library. Terry also came to Appalachia, where he joined us for a presentation on After Coal at the University of Kentucky, speaking with fervor about the strength of communities and the hard organizing work of Welsh labor during the past century. Then he travelled to Harlan County, Kentucky, where retired miner Carl Shoupe met him for a spirited exchange and tour of mining sites in Benham, Kentucky.

Terry was a key figure in the NUM, then in the Labour Party in Wales over many decades. He was also devoted to his family. He travelled to California to winter with his relative, winning bowls competitions and arguing with republicans for the wisdom of socialized medicine.

Terry was wise, passionate, adventurous, and full of stories, and we will miss him.