Songs for the mountain

November 13, 2012

Ben Silverman reviews a CD collection about the history of struggle at Blair Mountain.

Oh rock of ages, these hills were cleft for me
Old faithful mountains, now you've taken them for free
And filled the hollows of the people of this land
Poisoned our water, all at Old King Coal's demand
-- "Stream of Consciousness" by 2/3 Goat

LAST SUMMER, activists gathered at Blair Mountain in West Virginia to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain in which mineworkers fought a bitter battle for the right to a union 90 years before--and to protest the threat today that this historical site would be obliterated for coal mining. Out of that march, activist and artist Saro Lynch-Thomason began production on a musical preservation of that history.

Blair Pathways is a fantastic collection composed by more than 25 award-wining musicians, including Grammy-nominee band Jubal's Kin and banjo player Riley Baugus. The songs range from traditional Appalachian folk songs from the 19th century to early 20th century union songs, to contemporary music.

This album is a living, breathing, singing history.

Protesters demand a halt to strip mining on Blair Mountain
Protesters demand a halt to strip mining on Blair Mountain

Blair Mountain in Logan County, W. Va., was the site of one of the largest insurrections in U.S. history and one of the high watermarks for working-class struggle in this country. It was here in 1921 that the decades-long war between coal miners and coal companies reached its peak and where as many as 10,000 union miners took up arms against the brutality and poverty imposed on them by "King Coal."

The armies of labor and capital did battle around this mountain for a week before it was over, leaving Blair Mountain a gravesite for an unknown number of union miners and Pinkerton gun thugs.

When people talk about the hidden history of American labor radicalism, one of the things they're talking about is the Battle of Blair Mountain. But despite its rightful place as a historic landmark, Blair Mountain is on the chopping block for the environmentally apocalyptic form of mining called mountaintop removal.

If the coal bosses have their way, the mountain, with all of its historic importance and bio-diverse richness, will be blown sky-high to get at the coal seams underneath, leaving a wasteland in its place. This is becoming more likely as a recent court decision struck down another attempt to get the Blair Mountain battlefield site preserved as a national historic landmark.

"We are in a critical moment which will decide the fate of Blair Mountain," said the CD's producer, Saro Lynch-Thomason. "This CD is a call to action for anyone who is touched by its music."

To quote from the comprehensive historical narrative companion to the album:

Music makes up the backbone of this narrative because in many ways it was the backbone of struggles in the coalfields. Music communicated the complaints of workers, raised their sprits when in sorrow, and filled them with vindication when preparing for conflict.

THE 20 tracks on Blair Pathways are constructed as a progressing historic narrative that you follow with the help of a map, historical liner notes and the online companion. Each song is a traditional miner, union or Appalachian song of important musical heritage compiled from research at the West Virginia State Archives and the Folklife Center at the National Archives in D.C.--and with each is an opportunity to learn about specific events in that history.

Here is the formation of the United Mine Workers of America in 1890, the organizing efforts of the UMWA in Mingo and Logan counties, the plight of Italian and other immigrants to Appalachia, the work of Mother Jones, the Battle of Matewan and others.

Another narrative line runs through the album, which is like the story of a life, from a slipping away time and place. It's a life filled with sorrow, suffering and hope, nestled in-between the mountains. The music reflects its place of origin, with soaring vocals like the heights of mountains, deep blues like the depths of mines, crisp instrumentals from banjos and fiddles like mountain streams.

There's an aesthetic quality to these forms of country and bluegrass that is almost tactile. But this isn't flag-waving, saber-rattling Toby Keith. The stories are about strife and injustice, toil in mines and the kind of "law" that comes in the form of strike-breaking gun-thugs.

"The Pennsylvania Miner," performed by Jubal's Kin, tells that story:

They robbed us for our pay
They starved us day by day
They shot us down on the hillside brown
And swore our lives away
For years we toiled on patiently--they cut our wages down
We struck--they sent the Pinkertons to drive us from the town
We held a meeting near the mine, some hasty words were said
A volley from the Pinkertons laid half-a-dozen dead.

When asked what she wanted listeners to take away from this album, Lynch-Thomason said:

I would like people to recognize that a lot of the same conditions people were facing back 100 years ago are really the same problems working people are dealing with today. Industrial monopolies, anti-immigration sentiment, deathly working conditions, and the dissolution of civil liberties are all issues modern Americans, rural and urban can relate to.

I would like listeners to realize that these mining communities united across boundaries of ethnicity and language and race. They lived in strike camps together, fed their children together, and died next to each other. Since the Bush administration, xenophobia has increasingly hindered working-class peoples' ability to communicate with each other, and we do need to remember that this is possible--it's been done before and it can be done again.

THIS ALBUM is also the story of resistance, the most militant resistance imaginable through solidarity, unionizing, strikes and working-class insurrection. For example, Jason Shelton and the First UU Choir of Nashville, performs "Stand Out, Ye Miners" to the tune of an old gospel hymn, with the lyric, "But let us still march forward / With victory in our hand / May we never let the tyrant / Make us slaves in our land."

In sum, the album Blair Pathways is spectacular work coming at a critical moment. The music is beautiful, the songs are stirring, the musicians are talented, the story of personal suffering and struggle is gripping yet relatable, and the whole historical narrative it paints is worthy of preservation and an honored place in our working-class heritage.

The narrative line that the album draws between the Mine Wars of the 1920s and the modern fight against mountaintop removal in the end has important lessons for us about the right to dignity and the need to resist.

As Lynch-Thomason said:

The Mine Wars weren't just an attempt to get the union--they were about a collective demand for respect and dignified treatment. These people knew that they were worth more than the system had taught them. The same psychological battle is going on in Appalachia today.

When you see the land around you spoiled and destroyed, you get the message that you're not worth much either. Reclaiming Appalachia for a healthy future means regaining that inner spark in everyone that says, "You deserve a stable job, clean water and a healthy family, no exceptions."

Track 19 of Blair Pathways is a recording from the March on Blair Mountain protest in 2011: "We're gonna march our way to Blair; and we'll stand with our comrades there / Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on / Hold on, hold on! / Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!"

The album Blair Pathways: A Musical Exploration of America's Largest Labor Uprising can be purchased online. All money from sales of the CD will go to benefit Friends of Blair Mountain, a non-profit working to save the Blair Mountain battlefield site.

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