Coal Miners and Singing

“Apart from the lure of prospecting,” historian Lewis Mumford wrote, “no one entered the mine in civilized states until relatively modern times except as a prisoner of war, a criminal, a slave. Mining was not regarded as a humane art: it was a form of punishment …” (The picture to the left is of a coal mining accident victim.)

When I first learned that coal miners and singing was a thing I wondered how that even got started. With all that coal dust day in and day out, their lungs must have been shot. And then the long hours doing back-breaking work in darkness, often over a thousand feet below the surface, how did they even have any energy left for singing? I read though, about how the mines were echo-less, that they absorbed all sound. I could see how that might have created the need to make a beautiful noise whenever they left them, one that would freely resonate instead of getting swallowed up.

Then I read about a terrible mining accident in Pennsylvania in 1919, and I found this quote from James J. Davis, a Welshman who became the Secretary of Labor two years after the disaster: “I think the reason I have never cared for drink is this: the ease from mental pain that other men have sought in alcohol, I always found in song … ”

Why did I ever wonder why coal miners sing? They sing for the same reasons I sing. Also, choral singing was hugely popular in Wales, and when the Welsh miners immigrated to America, they brought their singing ways with them.

A picture from the June 5, 1919 mining disaster in Wilkes-Barre, where ninety-two men died. So horribly sad. That is a lot of people to bury at once for one small town. I write about this accident and the choral group that formed shortly after in my book.

Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

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