First printed in United Mine Workers' Journal, Jan 1, 1936 (credited to J. N. York of Marion, WV); a version collected from William March and Richard Lawson, Kenvir, KY, Mar 22, 1940, was reprinted in George Korson's Coal Dust on the Fiddle, Hatboro, PA, 1965, pp. 123-125, and included on "Songs and Ballads of the Bituminous Miners," (Library of Congress, ADS L60), 1965.
A bituminous coal mine was like a city built underground where work was carried on in darkness. What to a confused visitor might look like an inextricable labyrinth actually was a systematically laid-out underground factory, cut out of rock and coal.
From the drift mouth (or from the bottom of a slope or shaft, whichever the entrance happened to be) there ran an avenue called a "main entry,'' wide enough for a railroad track;, this was the principal traveling way for the mine workers and for the transportation of coal. Driven off the main and at a right angle to it were headings or branch entries, like cross streets in a city. Off these branch entries were the "rooms,'' the daily workshops of the miners.
It was a miner's task to win the coal by advancing on the face of the seam until the room had been mined out, when he would move on to another room. The side walls, called "ribs'' were also of coal. They were left standing in columns to support the roof until all the rooms had been mined out. Then. one by one, they were retrieved by means of an extraordinarily hazardous operation called "robbing."
George Korson, liner notes for "Songs and Ballads of the Bituminous Miners," (Library of Congress, ADS L60), 1965.
The content of the song seems to me strongly reminiscent of the slightly earlier period following the First World War. In 1919 in reaction to intense inflation the United Mine Workers Union was on the verge of striking. Its delegate members voted to demand a 60% increase in tonnage and yardage rates and a six-hour day, five-hour week.
President Wilson declared the strike unlawful and extended a wartime directive forbidding the coal unions to strike. The UMW administration complied, but the majority of the union rank and file ignored them and struck, thereby tying up 71% of the nation's coal-producing capacity and successfully resisting the efforts of the federal troops who were sent into the nine states to drive them back to work.
The years that followed saw bitter and constant industrial struggles and warfare between union and management. Songs became useful tools in the hands of organizers in those intense times. They enticed people to join union marches and to come to organizing meetings. They helped recruit union members and they fortified solidarity.
My most vivid impressions of those times come from my father's descriptions of himself and his fellow organizers, who hired themselves out as miners and did their organizing secretly in the mine shafts, at the risk of being killed by company private police if they were informed on or otherwise discovered. The risk was not small and it was not unusual treatment when my father was beaten, thrown out of a car onto on road bank, and left for dead. Nor was it unusual for organizers that he assumed an alias and continued organizing.
Hedy West, liner notes for "Whores, Hell, and Biscuits for 2 Centuries" (Bear Family Records BF 15003), 1976.
Lyrics as reprinted ibid.
Oh, to those who know no better, and the ones who do not care,
I'll take this means of telling you what a miner has to bear.
So when your servant fires the furnace and the smoke and blazes roll,
Just stop, and think who suffered for that little lump of coal.
He gets up in the morning -- he's in the land of Nod --
And at the family altar he will kneel and ask his God
To care for and protect him from the dangers underground,
So he can come back in the evening to his family safe and sound.
He eats a hasty breakfast, fills up his carbide flask,
Picks up his lamp and bucket, and he's ready for his task.
Says good-bye to wife and baby, stops to kiss them at the door.
He doesn't know if he'll see them in this life anymore.
He's soon below the surface, gets his car up in its place.
As he swings his pick and shovel the sweat pours off his face.
He's tired, weak and weary -- two hours have rolled around --
But he's got six more to suffer till he gets above the ground.
He's got to set some timbers, and drill a hole or two,
And then he'll roll some dummies. Then there's something else to do,
So he stays, toils and labors, loads every car he can
To earn a meager living and to pay the clothing man.
When he lines up at the office with the others in a row
With their statements signed and ready for their little bit of dough,
And everything he's buying is away up in the air.
Do you think what he's asking for is anything unfair?
He only asks for wages that enable him to share
A part of mortal pleasure, and that is only fair.
It's a six-hour day, and Saturday stay at home and see
The sun rise in the morning like God aimed for us to be.
So brother, when you're knocking on the man who digs the coal,
Just stop, and think he's human, and he's got a heart and soul.
And don't forget the millions of tons he loaded out,
When the Kaiser tried to smear on us his lager beer and kraut.
You can tell your pals and neighbors, your servants and your wife,
That the plaster of your office room cannot crush out your life.
He's just a dirty miner, a sort of human mole,
Who takes these dangerous chances for a little lump of coal.