Friday, October 14, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Harlan Man

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Harlan Man” by Steve Earle. This bluegrass song is about coal mining in 1970s in Kentucky. During this time, the miners sought to unionize. The resulting strike went poorly for the miners. The strike is documented in an excellent film called Harlan County USA.

Mining (like construction) is a hyper masculinized occupation. There are very few female miners. I remember working a strike vote at a strip mine west of Edmonton in 2001 (or 2002?) and there were two (or maybe three?) women in the unit and some of the other miners immediately brought this up with me as an issue (it was completely unrelated to what we were talking about).

The hyper masculinity is evident in the lyrics which talk about doing dangerous work because the worker has to provide for his family. The singer grew up poor in rural Kentucky and goes down in the mine because that is the easiest way to make a living. Only later does the true cost of the decision become apparent but, by that time, the singer is caught because he has a family to support. This is a point of pride for the singer, carrying on a long family tradition based upon manual skill and stick-with-it-ness despite poor treatment by the boss.

I'm a Harlan Man
Went down in the mine when I was barely grown
It was easy then
'Cause I didn't know what I know now

But I'm a family man
And it's the only life that I've ever known
But I'm a Harlan Man
Just as long as my luck and lungs hold out

I'm a mountain man
Born in east Kentucky and here I'll stay
And if it's the good Lord's plan
I'll wake up in the mornin' and find

I'm lookin' at the end
Of another long week and I can draw my pay
'Cause I'm a Harlan Man
Never catch me whinin' cause I ain't that kind

I'm a union man
Just like my daddy and all my kin
I took a union stand
No matter what the company said

I got me two good hands
And just as long as I'm able I won't give in
'Cause I'm a Harlan Man
A coal minin' mother 'til the day I'm dead

-- Bob Barnetson

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