The labor movement has a rich heritage of music.

Sixteen Tons, composed in 1946 by Merle Travis, a miner, and most famously rendered by Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1956. Listen to its description of the exploitation of the miners by the mine owners:
“You load sixteen tons, what do you get?

Another day older and deeper in debt
… I owe my soul to the company store
…  I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal”

And listen to Jimmy Dean’s similarly popular 1961 song, Big Bad John, which imagines a mining disaster:   
… “Then came the day at the bottom of the mine when a timber cracked and men started cryin.’ Miners were prayin’ and hearts beat fast and everybody thought that they had breathed their last … Then a miner yelled out ‘there’s a light up above’ and twenty men scrambled from a would-be grave. … Then came that rumble way down in the ground. Then smoke and gas belched out of that mine. Everybody knew it was the end of the line for Big John…”

The image above is from the 1970 song, “Timothy“, by The Buoys, also about a mine collapse.

The August 20, 2021 edition of “Friday’s Labor Folklore” by Con Carbon, Minstrel of the Mine Patch, discusses this tradition as it relates to coal mining. His article has been edited by Helaine Silverman. A sample of the songs is included.

Songs have been an integral part of the labor movement. Songs have given workers courage to stand up and fight. Song has played an important role in building the labor movement. Indeed, there are more songs about coal mining than any other industry. Some are the greatest songs of the labor movement, such “Which Side Are You On?” and “Solidarity Forever.”

Coal miners were immigrants and they brought with them their music traditions when they settled in the U.S. Music broke down the ethnic isolation these diverse miners felt from each other. Miners sang regularly in union meetings, in their homes and churches and barrooms, as well as at funerals and in the mines. 

Song has acted as a history book with which to remember the labor past. Song has transmitted memory of labor struggles and mine disasters.

Songs have been passed down through generations. Prayer songs enabled miners to share grief over the loss of loved ones. Picket line songs helped miners face the powerful corporations whose drive for profits caused miners to lose their lungs, their limbs, their homes, their communities, and their lives. And marching bands fortified miners for long treks as they marched to demand their rights — indeed, as recently as August 2013 as we see immediately below in the UMWA vs. Patriot Coal-Peabody Energy struggle.

Tom Breiding, “Now It’s Here”

                “We are one. We are everywhere. We are Union”

It all begins with “U.” Unbreakable. Union.

sung by Bruce Springsteen


We thank Nick Krumwiede of Mt Olive for sharing with us the beautiful lyrics of his original song, “Price of Coal”, which is about the Battle of Virden:

As the train whistle blows, the shots they ring out
The echo hits me with fear, dread and doubt
Five hundred shots, with forty-five men down
Tell me how did you come to mine in this town?

D’ya have family here, or are you simply just mad
To align with those dirty and traitorous scabs?
I work my whole life, yet here I lay on the ground
Tell me how did you come to mine in this town?

Sheriff Davenport wired 100 were killed
To the governor: send troops, lest more blood be spilled
My deputies will stand with the miners for now
Tell me how did you come to mine in this town?

With 11 lives lost and 34 more hurt
And Davenport’s men being led off from work
Sheriff cried to convict these criminals of coal
Who ordered these men to mine for their souls

A day of riot and bloodshed, did we expect any less?
When the rich must get richer, they push us to test
Our pain and our suffering on deaf ears they fall
Then they send in the scabs to end the cash-stall

I will miss my brothers and sisters of war
But my love and my family I will miss most of all
For money and greed, my life shall end now
Tell me how did you come to mine in this town?