They Worked the Mines

Sometimes a flawlessly written song gets a flawless performance.

Patty Loveless, a Kentucky girl, has tinkered with the lyrics a little bit in her cover version – the original songwriter’s words are somewhat more immediately personal and autobiographical.

First released in 1997 by singer-songwriter Darrell Scott (who is also a sublimely gifted and much-in-demand session musician), the song deals with the despair and hope of people born in Southern Appalachia – particularly Harlan County, Kentucky – during the past century, when a community largely self-reliant for generations was inexorably forced into a newly emerging economy controlled by land and coal barons.

When people hear songs as hauntingly evocative as this, it is almost natural, and certainly the norm, to perceive such music as a continuation of old mountain traditions, and to view these traditions in terms of the “received understanding” of their roots and heritage.

The commonly received understanding of mountain and “Old-Timey” music is that this music arrived in Southern Appalachia with a group called the “Scots-Irish“.

This perception is essentialist, simplistic, and in many regards just plain wrong.

The music carried into the Appalachian frontier during the late 1700s was the combined result of a hodge-podge of traditions, the first and foremost being the “broadside ballads” of the 1600s and 1700s.  Broadside ballads were the pop charts of their day – lyrics printed on large posters hung in taverns and inns, with well-known “airs” or tunes recommended to accompany them.

These lyrical ballads were not especially Irish – in fact the most popular broadsides tended to originate in Scotland and Northern England.  It is probably most correct to view this music simply as the pop music of the entire British Isles during the 1600s and 1700s.

As to the instrumentation and playing styles of the tunes which accompanied these ballads, just about everything got thrown into the mix.  Donegal style fiddle, Cherokee and Shawnee beats and percussion, African banjo, Scandinavian-derived dulcimer – as well as musical styles brought by Jewish and Romani peoples.

That’s right. There were even Jews and Gypsies in early Appalachia.

Awareness of this historical ethnic complexity is important, because there are clear socio-historical reasons for so many Appalachian people choosing to claim a “Scots-Irish” identity – even when this identity is largely exaggerated, or even demonstrably spurious…

After the American Revolution, all things English had fallen into disfavor.

This is why “Charlestown” in South Carolina is now known as “Charleston”, or places once called “Middlesborough” became “Middlesboro”.  This had nothing to do with American illiteracy.  It was a conscious attempt to distance and differentiate the new nation from its recent past and English identity.

The archetypal back-country or frontier American in post-Revolution times wanted to be seen as being both “white” and Protestant, but not English.  So “Scots-Irish” became the ideal identity for the pioneers, settlers, squatters, and colonisers on the edge of the newborn USA.

There were certainly plenty of Northern Irish “Scots” in 1700s Pennsylvania who DID take the long gray trail south into Virginia and the Carolinas, eventually fetching-up in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.


For every “Scots-Irish” settler, there were at least two English-descended people.  And three Germans.  And Welsh.  Scots and Swedes.  New Amsterdam Dutch.  And of course the Finns (the ones who actually invented the log cabin).

But perhaps most of all, were the myriad “people of color” forged in the barbarous years of the 1600s in Virginia and the Carolinas.  The “brown people” of Portuguese, South Asian, Jewish, Romani, Malagasi, Shawnee, Creek, Choctaw, Saponi, Cherokee, Catawba, Gullah, Tuscarora, Angolan, Senegalese, Moorish, Turkish, Spanish, Minorcan, Seminole, and other descent.

The people who can only be discerned when we look past the essentialist tale of a “Scots-Irish” Appalachia.

I usually try to avoid writing about living people.  But I doubt that someone as thoughtful and gifted as Darrell Scott will mind it being pointed-out that many of the people who once sweated blood in Harlan County, Kentucky – Scotts, Hensleys, Blantons, Brocks, Heltons, Halls, Osbornes, among others – are the inheritors of a complicated and incredible history, far richer and surprising than most can even imagine.

The singer in the video here, the peerless Patty Loveless, is herself a descendant of similarly multi-ethnic mountain people like the Bollings, Moores, and Sizemores.

Country music is not just a “white thing”, hard as some try to make it so.

But I reckon Mr. Scott, Ms. Loveless, and a lot of other mountain folks already know this.







You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive

Darrell Scott

In the deep, dark hills of eastern Kentucky
That’s the place where I trace my bloodline
And it’s there I read on a hillside gravestone
“You will never leave Harlan alive”

Well my grandad’s dad walked down Catron’s Mountain
And he asked Tillie Helton to be his bride
He said, “Won’t you walk with me out of the mouth of this holler
Or we’ll never leave Harlan alive”


Where the sun comes up about ten in the morning
And the sun goes down about three in the day
And you fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you’re drinking
And you spend your life just thinking how to get away

No one ever knew there was coal in them mountains
‘Till a man from the northeast arrived
Waving hundred dollar bills, he said “I’ll pay you for your minerals”
But he never left Harlan alive

Well Granny, she sold out cheap and they moved out west of Pineville
To a farm where Big Richland River winds
And I’ll bet they danced them a jig, and they laughed and sang a new song
“Who said we’d never leave Harlan alive?”

But the times, they got hard and tobacco wasn’t selling
And old Granddad knew what he’d do to survive
Well he went and dug for Harlan coal and sent the money back to Granny
But he never left Harlan alive


Where the sun comes up about ten in the morning
And the sun goes down about three in the day
And you fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you’re drinking
And you spend your life just thinking how to get away
And the sun comes up about ten in the morning
And the sun goes down about three in the day
And you fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you’re drinking
Spend your life diggin’ coal from the bottom of your grave


#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #appalachia #CoalMining

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