Harlan County USA
Protest songs are a time-honored method of American political expression. From Woody Guthrie’s Depression-era union anthems up through current fare by Neil Young and the Dixie Chicks, politics and music have long intermingled. Songs serve as vehicles for stating opposition, rallying support, and spreading news in a fashion more potent and poignant than any political broadside. In print, it’s merely news, but in music, it becomes poetic, powerful, and potentially anthemic.
Given this context, it’s no surprise that a rich legacy of protest music has emerged out of the bitter struggles of Appalachian coal miners against oppressive operators and coal companies. Rounder’s recently released Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner’s Struggle is a fine collection of this music, and is an expanded soundtrack to Barbara Kopple’s award-winning 1976 documentary, Harlan County, USA.
This is music born from struggle and loss, largely written and preformed by musicians with direct familial contact with coal mining. Hazel Dickens, who lost a brother to black lung disease, is featured on seven of these selections. Her chilling voice brings an urgency to her original tunes “The Yablonski Murder,” “Coal Miner’s Grave,” and “They’ll Never Keep Us Down.”
As a specific sub-genre of protest music, Appalachian coal mining songs include some classic selections that are well-known outside of the region. Many can be found on Harlan County, USA, including Sarah Ogan Gunning’s “Come All You Coal Miners” and Merle Travis’ “Dark As A Dungeon.” Strong pro-union themes dominate this collection, along with cries against injustice and the evils of capitalism. It’s hard to find a better song in this vein than and Florence Reece’s “Which Side Are You On?”
This is a fine introduction to Appalachian coal mining songs. Those familiar with the genre will note that many of these versions have been previously released on other Rounder offerings, including They’ll Never Keep Us Down, Coal Mining Women, and Come All You Coal Miners.