Friday, March 25, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Coal Miner's Daughter

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Coal Miner’s Daughter” by Loretta Lynn. The song is essentially autobiographical, telling the tale of Lynn’s experiences growing up in the grinding poverty of a coal town.

As I’ve been working through my list of “songs about work” (now sitting at 250), I’m surprised by how many touch on mining (and specifically coal mining). It is easily the most written about industry.

I’m not sure what that is about. Perhaps it reflects the lengthy history of coal mining (spanning the beginning of the industrial revolution to today), the dangers of mining, and the central place that mining plays in the history of many towns (where everyone would work for the mine, directly or indirectly).

One of the more interesting articles I’ve read about Lynn comes from her own website and examines how she broke ground by singing about the experiences of marginalized populations:
“She is telling the tale that a million other Appalachian American people never got to tell about their own life story, and how beautiful of a thing when someone who is in a position of power can relate a story for people who don’t have a voice.” 
…With songs like “The Pill,” and “One’s on the Way,” Loretta Lynn broke ground by speaking honestly from a woman’s perspective. White sees Lynn as the “ultimate feminist songwriter.”

“She told me 14 of her songs had been banned by country radio over the years,” White says. “And you know if you have your music banned, it’s probably got some deeper cultural meaning.”
Perhaps, then, hearing songs that recognize experiences of marginalization also helps explain the enduring musical legacy of coal. Someone has married the song with clips from the movie by the same name (below). This saves you having to sit through the film, which I recall as thoroughly depressing.

Well I was born the coal miner's daughter in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler
We were poor but we had love that's the one thing that daddy made sure of
He shovel coal to make a poor man's dollar

My daddy worked all night in the Vanleer coal mine all day long in the field hoein' corn
Mommie rocked the baby that night and read the Bible by the coal oil light
And everything would start all over come break of morn

Daddy loved and raised eight kids on a miner's pay
Mommie scrubbed our clothes on a washboard everyday
Why I've seen her fingers bleed to complain there was no need
She's smiled in mommie's understanding way

In the summertime we didn't have shoes to wear
But in the wintertime we'd all get a brand new pair
From a mail order catalog money made by selling a hog
Daddy always managed to get the money somewhere

Yeah I'm proud to be a coal miner's daughter
I remember well the well where I drew water
The work we done was hard at night we'd sleep cause we were tired
I never thought I'd ever leave the Butcher Holler

But a lots of things have changed since the way back then
And it's so good to be back home again
Not much left but the floor nothing lives there anymore
Just the mem'ries of a coal miner's daughter

-- Bob Barnetson