Wednesday 28 March 2018

Found onTROVE - Part 4. Ballads of Coal Miners (1939)

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thanks to Mark Gregory for sending the link to this article.

Ballads of Coal Miners (1939)

Lurid flashed the awful warning,

Down the depths of Pittston's gloom,
Dirgeful were the bursting firetongues
Ringing down the miners' doom.  

This is a verse typical of those which have been collected in the coal mining districts in America by George Korson and compiled in book form.

His book, "Minstrels of the Mine Patch,: has just been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. "Minstrels of the Mine Patch" is said to be the first collection of miners' ballads and songs to be made in America. Not the least interesting feature of Korson's book is his series of introductions to the several song groups.

He has interpolated a number of prose anecdotes of the mines, and these pages of prose make a vivid mise en scene unfamiliar to most.

In the era in which the collected ballads were composed men were exploited at pittance wages. They were mulcted in the company stores at which they were forced to buy. At night they went home to hovels, only less grimy than the pits they had left.

It is not to be wondered at that in America trade unionism began in the collieries. Nor is It to be wondered that the ballads of the mines should exhibit such uniform bravery. Their artistic accomplishment aside, the bravery of the ballads and songs collected by Korson is their most impressive characteristic. The miners' gratefulness to the union is celebrated in a ballad called "On Johnny Mitchell's Train," of which this is the chorus:

I'll bid you all adieu now.
Let you bid me the same
The strike is nearly o'er.
With Joy I'm near insane.
Heres health unto the union.
Which is very strong, they say;
Likewise the conductors
On Johnny Mitchell's train.

There do not appear to have been any ballads or songs peculiar to the mining districts in Australia. One song known on every field is the "Red Flag," but this, of course, was not composed here, and does not hold the significance of those songs written by miners in America. The writers of ballads and songs in America have usually composed their pieces following tragic disasters, or, as the ballad expressing appreciation to the union suggests, after long strikes. 

We have had long strikes in the industry in Australia, but our tragedies, numerous though they have been, and sometimes of considerable magnitude; are, happily, not to be compared with the major disasters in American mines. There have been, and are now, in the industry, those amateur poets who have composed verses about work mates and parts of the mines in which they are employed, but these have been purely personal, or of merely local interest.

We have coal-mine heroes here-the men who have braved black gas-filled mines following explosions, and who nave worked unceasingly for hours and hours to extricate men buried beneath tons of coal and timber, and facing extreme danger themselves. 
They are respected by their fellow men. No ballads or songs are written of their deeds. Perhaps it is not the Australian way.


Notes - From the NSW Newspaper The Newcastle Sun 7 Jan 1939 p. 5. 

The author of this review did not know of the collections of Australian mining songs we now have access to. The authors of those songs include the work of the Wollongong poet Melinda Kendall, the Newcastle poet Josiah Cocking, the poems and songs of Jock Graham, the wharfie poet Ernest Antony, the more recent work of Merv Lilley and Dorothy Hewett, and of course those of Don Henderson. The article does however show that a daily newspaper in Newcastle could carry such a review knowing that it would be read and appreciated by its local readers.
Warren Fahey and others "Man of the Earth ~ Songs and Ballads of the Australian Mining Industry" 1974 LP


Google Books - George Korson, Minstrels of the Mine Patch published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, 1938.

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1 comment:

  1. George Korson was a journalist who often met with local miners and became interested in their songs poems and attitudes. These he collected and they were first published in the Miners Journal published by the formidable miners leader John Lewis. Korson latched one of the first folk festivals in the US and his books raised the derision of those who couldn't imagine miners composing on the their own. The derision often invoked use of the term "Fake Lore" as a lofty dismissal of industrial vernacular song and poetry, a term taken up again in the British Folk Revival of the 1950s