Dark as a Dungeon: the music of the miners

Sadieville final coverPart of The Fairies of Sadieville takes place in 1915, and involves two specialized occupations: making silent movies, which I’ll cover elsewhere, and coal mining. Sadieville is a new coal boom town, and I was determined to get it right. I did a lot of book research on it, to get accurate technology and terminology, but to get the feel, I turned, appropriately, to music.

The quintessential coal-mining song is “Sixteen Tons,” written in 1947 by Merle Travis but performed definitively by Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955. Everyone knows the first part of the chorus (adapted from a letter written by Travis’s brother John):

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.

It captures, in those fifteen words, the quintessential dilemma of the coal miner: working long hours with no safety gear or precautions,and paid in company scrip that could only be used at the company store. Since there was never enough pay to cover all the bills (also sent by the company), the miners ended up in debt to their employer. The second couplet of the chorus (from something said by Travis’s father) delivers the coup de gras:

Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store.

As part of the creative process, I listened to a lot of vintage country music that dealt with mining, most of it depressing, all of it dripping with authenticity. Like drinking, a life of hard and meaningless work is something country music is tailor-made to address. But by far my favorite collection is Dark as a Dungeon: Songs of the Mines, a 2010 compilation from Rebel Vault Masters. Ironically released less than a week prior to the the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, which killed 29, it musically depicts the trials, despair, and rare joys of the mining life.

The title, and the title song, also come courtesy of Merle Travis, and once again the chorus gives a perfect capsule summary of the miner’s lot:

And it’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew
Where danger is double and pleasures are few
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines
And it’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mines.

The CD Dark as a Dungeon concludes with this song, performed by James Alan Shelton. Some other gems include Larry Sparks performing Randall Hylton’s “Digging in the Ground,” a song about the effect of mining on a once close-knit community; Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs’ version of the classic “Dream of a Miner’s Child”: and Roy Dockery’s “Daddy’s Dinner Bucket,” performed here by Ralph Stanley II.

In an e-mail, the album’s producer, Dave Freeman, told me, “It turned out to be an easy topic to form an album around, as there was a healthy grouping of both old traditional songs like ‘Dream of a Miner’s Child,’ some items from the 1940s and 50s like ‘Dark as a Dungeon,’ and some quite new material like the David Davis song [‘The River Ran Black’].”

He added, “I can only guess why the subject has an appeal for many (especially many people from the mining regions of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia and other areas of Appalachia): because of the immediacy and reality of the subject, and the finality of life for so many of those who inhabit the mining regions. For those on the ‘outside,’ the subject is likely one of a fascination with miners and mining rather than a mere interest.”

These songs were my way into the heads of the miners, storekeepers, company men and hired law that were common at the time the story is set. Although the novel isn’t really about them, they deserve to be depicted as fully and accurately as possible, and I hope I’ve done that. For too long, workers like these were denied even basic human dignity; if nothing else, I wanted to make sure I took no more of it away.

If you have a favorite mining song, please let me know in the comments.

The Fairies of Sadieville will be released April 10; it’s available from all the usual suspects.

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