Guest Author - Chris Curtis
Singing a Tribute to the Miners of West Virginia
Sometimes events in the world move us in a way that inspires us to create a tribute. Such is the story of Pitch Black by the Ton. The song was written by Joe Ross – singer, songwriter and educator who resides in Roseburg, Oregon. Joe was so saddened by the tragedy of the Sago Mine that he wrote this tribute song for Martin Toler Jr., David Lewis, Marshall Winans, Alva Martin,'Marty' Bennett, Jesse Jones, George 'Junior' Hamner, Tom Anderson, Fred Ware, Terry Helms, Jerry Groves, Jim Bennett, and Jackie Weaver. Randy McCloy was the sole survivor.
I asked Joe what inspired him to write the song. He responded "pure emotion" and the way the company had handled it. He had read 6 or 7 articles which became the foundation of his ideas and thoughts about the tragedy. He then put his ideas together in a poetic arrangement. He wanted it to be a literary work. He wanted it to tell the story. In true folkloric fashion, he hopes that the story will be passed from generation to generation so that the miners are not forgotten. The song pays tribute and honors the memory of those who perished that fateful day. Perhaps the song will also help put a spotlight the safety issues in the mining industry. Any proceeds that he may garner from this song will go to a miner's trust fund or church organization in WV.
Joe describes the song as a "sad story as might be told by the ghost of Martin Toler, Jr." There are some powerful lyrics in this song. "It's a Tough and Dirty, Hard Way of Life", yet hundreds of miners face the challenge and hardship of working down below every day of their lives. Yet the words "I was so proud the day I was hired" explains the human need to be productive and to hold down a job no matter how hard or dangerous it might be. The question of why do they do it is answered by the chorus lines "It's what I do, what I've always done, to support my wife and kids." The men in those mines feel a compelling duty to provide the basic necessities to their families. In the hills of WV, there are not many options for employment and so with pride, these men accept their calling into the mines as their fate.
The remainder of the lyrics documents the actual events of this disaster. You can feel the agonizing wait of the families as they prayed for a miracle and the sadness of the miners trapped below knowing that the outcome will leave their loved ones devastated. You get the sense that the miners did not physically suffer or fear their death but rather ached emotionally for the loss their families would face. Then the song conveys the emotional jubilation with the false news of survivors followed by the horrible truth that twelve miners had lost their lives. How could the company have handled this tragic event so carelessly?
The recording of the song took place in a few sessions. Joe's vocals are complemented by guitar, bass, mandolin, hammered dulcimer and the triple fiddles of Tim Crouch who finished the song nicely with an inspired Appalachian type single fiddle tune ( of Tim's own composition) that epitomizes West Virginia and its hardy folk there. Tim is a 5-time Arkansas State Fiddle Champion and 2-time Natl. Fiddle Champ. Joe loves Tim's transition to the old-time Appalachian style fiddling which brings the song to its conclusion.
When Joe first went into the recording studio to mix the tracks, the engineer inadvertently left about 12 seconds of silence before the song begins on the disk. Joe felt this had significant meaning, perhaps as a moment of silence for those who gave their lives. Makes you wonder. The song's final mastered version found on Joe's May, 2006 album release entitled "Festival Time Again" has the standard 1-second of silence.
Joe kindly shared the recorded copy of the song with me. I found it haunting and beautiful. It has the flavor of bluegrass and a touch of a folk ballad feel to it. I told Joe that it would be so cool to someday hear his song from the stage of a bluegrass festival. I hope that Joe's vision is heard by the bluegrass world; but regardless, I think Joe has accomplished what he set out to do and that was to bring out the raw emotion of such a tragic event and to let the surviving family members know that others do care.
Joe submitted the song to the secretary at foreman Martin Toler's church in Tesla, W.V. He received a very nice 3 page letter from Dessie Miles, clerk at the Stump Chapel Church in W.V. where mine foreman Martin Toler Jr. was head Deacon, adult Sunday school teacher, and Bible study teacher. In the letter, Joe was told that the Toler Family had enjoyed hearing the song and wanted to thank him for his concern. Dessie also recommended that a dozen copies be sent to the other mining families touched by this tragedy, c/o Rev. Wease L. Day at the Sago Baptist Church. Joe has followed up on the suggestion. If you would like to hear a copy of the song, please pick up his all-original bluegrass album entitled "Festival Time Again" to be released in May, 2006.