Thursday, October 14, 2010

Coal Miner Songs

The following is a commentary on my most recent research project, entitled "Oppression, Violence, and Unity: A Survey of Coal Miner Protest Songs." I wish I could post the entire paper, though I know very few would be interesting in reading it in this context. If you are, however, so included to give it a look, let me know and I will be happy to send you a copy.

The basic idea behind this paper is that coal miners were treated pretty terrible throughout (and well before) the labor movement. It was not uncommon for a miner's already meager wages to be lowered without just cause or due notice, if not withheld completely. Worse, still, was the practice of compensating miners, not in legal tender, but in company scrip that was only valid at over-priced company owned and operated stores. Miners were even forced to rent company housing, resulting in the constant threat of eviction.

Recognizing this as an unfair way to be treated, the miners unionized and subsequently went on strike. In response, companies often responded with physical threats--many gained the support of the state militias and some even hired gangsters from Chicago to serve as mercenaries. Faced with violence, the miners typically answered with "eye for an eye" tactics.

Throughout all of this, miners were composing songs in order to create a historical record of the atrocities they suffered, to commemorate those who lost their lives in the battle, and to rally support for the unions. During the course of my research, I discovered that, as time went on, the miner songs became less traditional (that is, broadside-esque) and more aggressive. The four I examine are: "The Avondale Mine Disaster" from 1869 in Pennsylvania; "Coal Creek Troubles" from 1891 in Tennessee; "The Ludlow Massacre" by Woody Guthrie, but about a 1914 strike in Colorado; and Aunt Molly Jackson's "I Am A Union Woman" from 1931 in Kentucky. They all are wonderful examples of our nation's rich body of occupational protest songs.

For your enjoyment, here is Woody Guthrie singing "Ludlow Massacre." (I was unable to find a YouTube version without the pictures going on)


  1. Tyler, I'd love to read it!

  2. Thank you for reading and thank you for your interest. I will get a copy to you as soon as I am able to get the musical exams in it.

    Keep up the good work at Sociosound. I always enjoy reading the page.