Songs Of Solidarity: The West Virginia Mine Wars
The West Virginia Mine Wars were two decades of fighting between coal miners and their employers over the workers' right to belong to a union. In 1921, the conflicts culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain, when ten thousand armed miners fought several thousand company men in the remote hills of Logan County, West Virginia, before surrendering peacefully to the US Army. This August will mark the 100th anniversary of the battle.
Inside Appalachia Folkways reporter Rebecca Williams recently talked to Saro Lynch-Thomason, ballad singer and folklorist from Asheville North Carolina. Saro created the Blair Pathways Project, which tells the history of the West Virginia Mine Wars through music. Saro was also a Folkways Corps Reporter back in 2019.
Rebecca Williams: Saro, will you tell us about the song The Company Store?
Saro Lynch Thomason: It was very common for coal miners and their families to live in company run towns. And so the house that you rented, you paid rent to the mine owners for that house, and then the dry goods store or the store you would have gotten your food, your clothes , and your textiles, that was also run by the company.
Thomason: The song The Company Store was submitted as a poem to the United Mine Workers journal, which was run by the United Mine Workers of America, the union, back in 1895. And it was written by a coal miner named Isaac Hanna. And this poem is a long complaint about how criminal the mine operators were in running company run stores.
Williams: What other things were miners complaining about back then?
Thomason: Working as a minor in the coal industry in the late 19th and early 20th century was really dangerous work. Things like roof falls or exposure to methane gas, and then the risk of explosions. All of that was much more common than it needed to be. And we know that thousands and thousands of people died in the industry just during this period.
Williams: Why did you decide to include an Italian labor song on Blair Pathways?
Thomason: Storenelli D'esillio is written by an Italian anarchist named Pietro Gori. Many people don't realize that a large portion of the people who were mining coal in West Virginia in the late 1800s, early 1900s, were Southern and Eastern European immigrants. And those immigrant cultures and communities also brought far left politics.
Williams: There were also significant numbers of African American mining families in these coal camps, right?
Thomason: Yes. Some of these miners had come up from the deep south through recruitment campaigns or just looking to get out of sharecropping systems. Some of these African American workers had come into the state, helping to build a railroad. These workers were often also very invested in unionizing, and came into elected positions in the United Mine Workers of America.
Williams: One of the major strikes of the West Virginia Mine Wars took place on Paint and Cabin creeks in 1912 and 1913, where there were numerous deadly battles and skirmishes. Tell us about Walter Seacrist, who wrote the song “Law in the West Virginia Hills”?
Thomason: As a child, he actually lived in a strike camp. And as an adult, he joined the union and he started writing songs about his experiences of the Coal Wars.
Williams: The song mentions wives and children. So we know that it wasn't just male miners involved in these strikes. You included a song called Lonesome Jailhouse Blues written by a woman from Kentucky in 1932.
Thomason: “Lonesome Jailhouse Blues” was written by a woman named Aunt Molly Jackson. And she wrote this song when she had been organizing with the National Miners Union, which was a communist union. And was put in prison for that organizing work. Many women were organizers and were really the backbone of strikes.
Williams: So how were women involved in the Paint and Cabin Creek strike?
Thomason: Women would often go down to the train stations and harass or sometimes attack or at least shame the replacement workers who were coming in. And women would also hold down picket lines in front of the mines. On top of that they were doing things like committing sabotage. Women would go and tear up, you know, the rail lines so that trains exporting coal from the region couldn't run.
Williams: In 1921, these decades of conflicts boiled over into full-scale war during the week-long Battle of Blair Mountain, which is often called the largest armed insurrection in U.S. history since the Civil War.
Thomason: What strikes me about these conflicts is that you just have to get to a place where you feel like you have no other options. To do something like risking your life, essentially, by going to war really means that you have nothing else to lose.
Williams: I noticed that your album “Blair Pathways” doesn’t include a song about the battle. Why is that?
Thomason: You know, I think there's different reasons why there may not be a song. events like this are also traumatic, and people want to forget about them. People did die in this battle. It was a battle that people had to be pretty secretive about if they were involved. It's not something you necessarily wanted to let all your neighbors know about. So I think there would have been reasons to not talk about the fact that this enormous uprising had taken place.
Williams: One of the last songs on the album is called “Hold on.” It was one that you and others sang as you marched to Blair Mountain in 2011. Why were you marching to Blair Mountain?
Thomason: One goal was to promote the need for sustainable jobs in West Virginia. The other goal was to try and save Blair Mountain because Blair was endangered of being stripped mined for coal. And this really important, you know, historic battle site and it needs to be preserved. So the march took about a week, and we were in 90 to 100 degree weather, and music and song became a really powerful part of the march. People started to really understand how songs could bring people together, and really vindicate and enliven the work they were doing.
Rebecca: You helped lead the singing on the march. Why did you choose this song in particular?
Thomason: It's such a great song to sing in groups. And it's really structured in a way where you can create new verses.
Thomason: It comes from African American traditions, and in the civil rights movement, verses were adapted to be about that movement.
Williams: Saro, what did you take away from studying the mine wars and immersing yourself in this music?
Thomason: I think I came away with a better understanding of how complex these conflicts were. And how important it was that people know that they happened. Without that labor history. We wouldn't have things like the eight hour work day and safety standards at work. We wouldn't have any of those things if all these different labor movements hadn't taken place.
Williams: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about this and to revisit this history in time for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Blair mountain
If you want to learn more about the West Virginia Mine Wars, sample or purchase more music from the project, you can go to Blairpathways.com. There you’ll find a series of essays that accompany the songs and more information about the musicians playing them.
“The Company Store” Musician: Tim Eriksen (vocals) and Riley Baugus (banjo) Origin of Music: Isaac Hannah, 1895, United Mine Workers Journal
“Stornelli d’esilio” Musician: Il Nuovo Canzoniere Italiano Origin of Music: Pietro Gori, 1895
“Lonesome Jailhouse Blues” Musician: Elizabeth Laprelle (vocals) Origin of Music: Mary Stamos or “Aunt Molly Jackson,” 1930s or ‘40s.
“When the Leaves Come Out” Musician: Morgan O’ Kane (vocals, banjo) Origin of Music: Ralph Chaplin, 1913.
“Hold On” Musician: 2011 March to Blair Mountain participants, song led by Saro LynchThomason Origin of Music: African-American traditional, 20th century, words adapted by Alice Wine, Blair verses created by Saro Lynch-Thomason 2011
“Law in the West Virginia Hills” Musician: Samuel Gleaves (vocals, guitar), Myra Morrison (fiddle), Jordan Engel (bass) Origin of Music: Walter Seacrist, 1930s