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BellaOnline's Folk Music Editor


Songs of the Mines

Guest Author - Chris Curtis

The Death of Harry Simms (written by Aunt Molly Jackson and Jim Garland) This song tells the true story about Harry Simms who was a young union organizer instrumental in forming the National Mine Workers union. His life ended while he was bringing food and clothing to the striking Brush Creek miners near in Pineville, KY. The tune was originally popularized by Pete Seeger and can be found on the Smithsonian Folkways release "American Industrial Ballads." The songs tradition is being carried on by Pete's grandson Tao Rodriguez Seeger. Notice the fine fiddling from Laura Cortese.

The Death of Harry Simms

Dark as a Dungeon(written by Merle Travis)
While popularized by Tennessee Ernie Ford, this song was actually written by Merle Travis. Son of a coal miner, Merle understood the lament of a coal miner first hand. Dark as a Dungeon is a mournful song that speaks of the lure of the mines despite the obvious dangers. This song lives on within the bluegrass genre with many renditions. Here is another compelling rendition by John Cowan with Shad Cobb on fiddle. John's powerful tenor vocals evoke strong emotions paying tribute to those workers who have paid a high price in the mines.

Red Winged Blackbird (written by Billy Edd Wheeler)
Hailing from the coal camp of Highcoat, West Virginia, Billy Edd Wheeler writes from the heart of his experiences. Red Winged Blackbird is a powerful song depicting the sorrows of a coal miner's wife. It compares the red on the wing of the blackbird to the miner's blood spilled on the coal. The most recent recording is by Kathy Mattea on her recent release Coal.

Which Side are You On (written by Florence Reece)
This tune represents one of the most embittered struggles in the unionization of the mines workers in Harlan County, KY in the 1930s. Lasting a decade, this conflict between labor and the company was characterized by bloody violence and the loss of 13 mine workers lives. Written by Florence Reece, Which Side are you On has become an anthem for the mine workers and has been recorded by many artists including Florence Reece herself. Ani Defranco, Natalie Merchant, Pete Seeger, Utah Phillips, Drop Kick Murphy, and Hazel Dickens also recorded versions of this song.

This short historical trailer from the Movie Harlan County USA depicts the struggles of the mine workers of Harlan County, KY A brief clip from Florence Reece is featured in this trailer. Harlan Country USA trailer

You can hear Florence sing this song here: Which Side are You On

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Content copyright © 2018 by Chris Curtis. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Chris Curtis. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact BellaOnline Administration for details.


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