Today’s Music Monday post is about the power of human voices singing together. This song by Kentucky native Justin Taylor was recorded during a performance of the Higher Ground of Harlan County theater group in 2013. The multitude of voices in this intergenerational, interracial choir adds strength to Taylor’s moving song. Although not specifically a coal mining song, Taylor wrote the song to reflect on the impact of prescription drug and opioid abuse in coalfield communities such as Harlan County, Kentucky. Justin Taylor: Better You Find My Devil, Lord Better You Find My Devil, Lord from AfterCoal on Vimeo.
Songwriter Chris King is from the former coal mining community of Merthyr Tydfil in south Wales. He wrote Salt of the Earth to honor his grandfather, Bill King, a Welsh coal miner who became a union leader. This music video is illustrated with footage from the historic 1984- 1985 miners’ strike recorded by After Coal project advisor Richard Davies. The end of the video features Bill King speaking to miners from the Merthyr Tydfil Lodge during the 1984 national miners’ strike. In 2016, Chris King came to Kentucky and performed Salt of the Earth at Appalshop’s Seedtime on the Cumberland Festival and in the Kentucky Theater in Lexington. The story of the Welsh / Appalachian music exchange is featured in the After Coal book, now available via West Virginia University Press.
Sixteen Tons is a classic coal mining song was written by Kentucky musician Merle Travis. Capitol Records released the song in 1947, and it quickly became a gold record. A recording by Tennessee Ernie Ford shot to number one on the Billboard charts in 1955. Since then, Sixteen Tons has been recorded by thousands of musicians. Today we are sharing three different versions of the song. Scroll down to watch Merle Travis’ original version of the song, followed by a version by Tennessee Ernie Ford and an unique recording of ZZ top and Jeff Beck performing Sixteen Tons at a benefit for trade unions in 2016. Merle Travis Sixteen Tons Tennessee Ernie Ford Sixteen Tons ZZ Top w. Jeff Beck Sixteen Tons
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:
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: