Only a Miner

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Only A Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Song.
By Archie Green.
University of Illinois Press.

edited from David E. Whisnant (http://thenation.com):

Books frequently deliver less than their titles promise. Archie Green’s delivers much more. Two decades ago–when he himself was a skilled worker on the San Francisco waterfront–Green began to compile a discography of coal-mining songs, which even then he recognized as a rich and evocative record of the consciousness and lore of American workingmen.

The limited discographical project eventually matured into Only a Miner, which examines more than a century of the complex interaction between coal mining and the dynamics of American culture, and comments on the nature and socio-political implications of work itself, as well as on our habitual attitudes toward inherently dangerous work.

Only a Miner demonstrates that the culture of coal miners is vital, rich and sophisticated. The first known recorded coal-mining song was preserved on an Edison cylinder in, 1908. The first to emerge as a popular hit was The Dream of the Miner’s Child, recorded by Vernon Dalhart in 1925, shortly after he was transformed from a light opera tenor into, a guitar-playing “citybilly” by a record company that was sensitive to the possibilities of a new market.

From among the hundreds of coal-mining songs eventually distributed by commercial recording companies, Green chooses about a dozen for special attention. Some are almost universally known: Sixteen Tons, which Merle Travis wrote and recorded in 1946, reached millions of listeners through Tennessee Ernie Ford’s records and television show in the mid-1950s.

Chapters which at one level are case studies of single songs persistently spill over their announced boundaries. The chapter on the title song, Only a Miner — found among miners from the Kentucky coal country to the Colorado silver region — explores the capacity of occupational lore to move across political and geographical boundaries.

The chapter on race and hillbilly records is also about the effect of the recording industry upon the social status and self-image of the folk performer. The chapter on Coal Creek Troubles, probably the finest in the book, explores the ramifications not only of the iniquitous convict lease system in the South, but also the apparently unalterable exploitative relationship between the energy-rich Appalachian resource colony and profligate use of energy in the rest of the nation.

Green brings to his subject not only the skills of a trained academician but also a sense–literally worked into his mind and body –of the lives of working people, and therefore a profound respect for both miners and their rich lore.

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