Follow us on:


Coal Mining Songs


01 Aunt Molly Jackson - I Was Borned and Raised in Old Kentucky (1:45)

1959-1960 Alice McLerran recordings, Sacramento (unissued)

Recorded in the last two years before Aunt Molly died. She frequently laments the state of her voice in McLerran's sessions, and that of her visage: "And to look at me a sittin here with not a tooth in my head, and I look like I'm a hundred and fifty in the place of bein 80."

02 Sarah Ogan Gunning - Come All You Coal Miners (2:15)

Come All You Coal Miners (Rounder)

Sung at a gathering of miners and their families hence the frequent coughing behind. Check out Appalshop's Dreadful Memories: The Life of Sarah Ogan Gunning.

03 Nimrod Workman - Black Lung Song (3:25)

Mother Jones' Will (Rounder)

There's only one song of Nimrod's available on CD at the moment, which is a high crime. But Appalshop's beautiful film of him - To Fit My Own Category - is available, and very worth seeing. Alan Lomax filmed him in 1983 and some of that footage appears in the American Patchwork series, Dreams and Songs of the Noble Old episode, available through Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop.

04 George Davis - When Kentucky Didn't Have Any Union Men (1:38)

George Davis: The Singing Miner of Hazard, Kentucky (Folkways)

05 Joe Glancy - Mule Skinnin' Blues (1:29)

Songs and Ballads of the Bituminous Coal Miners (Rounder)

06 Albert Morgan - Union Man (1:47)

Songs and Ballads of the Anthracite Miners (Rounder)

07 Evening Breezes Sextet - Coal-Loading Machine (2:42)

Songs and Ballads of the Bituminous Miners (Rounder)

African American miners from Vivian, West Virginia.

08 Jean Ritchie - West Virginia Mine Disaster (2:45)

Clear Waters Remembered (Geordie)

09 Annie Cosgrove - The Gresford Disaster (2:35)

Folk Songs of Britain, Vol. 3: Jack of All Trades (Topic)

An explosion at Gresford Colliery near Wrexford in North Wales killed 265 miners in 1934.

10 Coal miners' song from Joban, northeastern Honshu, Japan (2:44)

Traditional Folk Songs of Japan (Folkways)

"Listen, you young girls, wives of coal miners, you will become widows the moment the rocks fall."

11 Nimrod Workman and chorus - Don't You Want to Go to That Land? (1:20)

Come All You Coal Miners (Rounder)

12 Aunt Molly Jackson - I Love Coal Miners, I Do (3:00)

1939 Library of Congress Recordings (Rounder)

Note: The field recordings of George Korson, originally released in two albums by the Library of Congress and reissued by Rounder as two CDs - Songs and Ballads of the Anthracite Miners and Songs and Ballads of the Bituminous Miners - are the best sources of true miners' songs, by which I mean songs sung (and ostensibly composed) by miners themselves. But, as Archie Green points out in his sublime Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1972), songs such as the Carter Family's "Coal Miner's Blues" and those in the more overtly agit-prop repetoires of Appalachian miners' mothers/sisters/wives - Aunt Molly Jackson, Sarah Ogan Gunning, Florence Reece, and later Hazel Dickens - are also an essential part of coal mining folklore. In an industry so dangerous, politicized, proud, and violent, songs were born as vehicles for protest (as in the field holler and blues) and what might otherwise be typical tropes of occupational folklore took on radical connotations, in no small part thanks to the efforts of the UMW and the NMU. If it weren't for these more accessible, and accessed, singers and songs (as well as films like The Molly MacGuires, Matewan, and Harlan County USA), we probably wouldn't know so much of what we do about mining coal. How much in comparison do we know about the Southern turpentiners?

The Korson reissues do feature some topical and/or union material (his collecting was after all supported by a UMW grant), but for some reason none of the radical songs of Workman or Aunt Molly are currently available on CD. George Davis' "Harlan County Blues" is included on Songs of the Bituminous Miners (and his "Death of the Blue Eagle," lamenting the end of the National Recovery Act, is in John Cohen's expanded Mountain Music of Kentucky CD set), but Smithsonian Folkways has yet to reissue his LP, The Singing Miner of Hazard, Kentucky. Sarah Ogan Gunning's Girl of Constant Sorrow is available on cassette from Folk-Legacy, and four of her songs are on Rounder's Coal Mining Women collection, along with Florence Reece's bedrock anthem "Which Side Are You On?" and three topical tunes sung by Nimrod Workman's daughter, Phyllis Boyens.

It's worth giving a pitch for Korson's anthracite record. The songs are of heavy Celtic extraction, sung unaccompanied in parlor ballad style with sober voices heavily vibratoed, and the texts of the songs are determinedly linear and very illustratively detailed. You're surprised by the old-world quality of them, probably because when we think of coal mining songs we think of Appalachia and hillbilly music, but the blues ballad influence of southern African Americans that flavors and tunes and texts of mountain music never made it to anthracite country. Though it's not to say that it's totally forgotten - a family friend, now in his 80s, whose Jewish family ran a general store frequented by anthracite miners of Polish stock near Wilkes-Barre, Penn., remembers a bastardized couplet that made the rounds in the 1940s or so, hamming up the Slavic English: "Me and Buddy work in mine / Holy jeepers have good time."

Korson published several books of anthracite (hard coal) and one book of bituminous (soft coal) mining songs and lore. I can only vouch for Coal Dust on the Fiddle, but there's no reason to think the rest aren't worth the trouble, though - surprise - none are currently in print.

- Songs and Ballads of the Anthracite Miners (1927 - predecessor to the Library of Congress album)

- Minstrels of the Mine Patch (1938)

- Coal Dust on the Fiddle: Songs and Stories of the Bituminous Industry (1943)

- Pennsylvania Songs and Legends (1949) (Korson, ed.)

- Black Rock: Mining Folklore of the Pennsylvania Dutch (1960)

A book of miners' songs from the United Kingdom was compiled by the British folklorist A. L. (Bert) Lloyd. He too received support, in his case from both the workers and the bosses - the Workers' Music Association and the British Coal Board. Imagine the possibilities of nationalized industry...

- Come All Ye Bold Miners: Ballads and Songs of the Coalfields (1952, rev. 1978)

Finally, I'm wary of so heavily stuffing the playlist with Rounder releases, but for better or worse they're the only label that consistently released this sort of thing. The LPs Come All You Coal Miners, Jackson's 1939 Library of Congress Recordings, and Workman's Mother Jones' Will have yet to be reissued. -- NS


Goodbye Dear Old Stepstone


Traditional, folk, vernacular, endangered, and extinct music from America and elsewhere. Hosted by Nathan Salsburg, an archivist, producer, and writer based in Louisville, Kentucky.

He has worked for the The Alan Lomax Archive since 2000, for which he currently serves in the capacities of production manager, photo and video archivist, and general digital catalog editor. Salsburg maintains an index of online vernacular music resources at his blog,, contributes occasional music writing to the Louisville Eccentric Observer and the Other Music weekly update, and is curator of Twos & Fews, a vernacular music imprint in collaboration with Chicago's Drag City label.