Coal Miners and Singing

July 26th, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized

“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.

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