Music Heritage: Songs of WV Coal Mining

Coal mining roots run deep in the ground of the New River Gorge and throughout the state of West Virginia. It's apparent throughout our culture, and it's well documented in the music that's sprung from our Appalachian heritage.

Here are a few coal mining songs that help paint a clearer picture about coal mining life:

Sixteen Tons - Tennessee Ernie Ford

This song is still widely covered by mining town troubadours, with crowds that chant along with the powerful chorus. It concludes with a gripping line of  "I owe my soul to the company store." Early miners' lives were completely tied to the companies throughout these company stores: miners were paid in scrip, which they could only spend at the stores, like the Whipple Company Store, which is now a coal mining museum.

Coal Miner's Daughter- Loretta Lynn

Lynn wrote this biographical song, which gives another perspective of mining life, as the child of a miner. "Daddy loved and raised eight kids on a miner's pay," Lynn says in the song.  That pay was not much, and she goes on to describe their poverty and how hard working her parents were, a point of pride for her.

Dark as a Dungeon- Merle Travis

This rallying song found fame when it was performed by Johnny Cash. Railing against the dreary and unsafe conditions of the mines, it croons out to young men to avoid the life of mining, lest they be forced to toil "till the stream of your blood runs as black as the coal." Miners worked long hours, breathing in dangerous coal dust, and often dying young of Black Lung or other mining ailments.

That Little Lump of Coal-  J.N. York

performed by William March

With a pang of the stigma poor miners faced, this song urges people to see the coal miner's personal strength and struggle. It pays respects to the hard working men of the mines, who were often taken for granted, despite the great sacrifices they war making for the coal we all use.

29- 600 Lbs. of Sin

A more modern interpretation of mining tragedy, Charleston, WV, band 600 Lbs of Sin wrote "29" after 2010's Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, which killed 29 miners. "“It’s not a protest song," they said of the tune during a performance. "It’s just  a narrative about this state, and just a reminder that people ain’t numbers.”

Those are just a few of many, many great coal mining tunes. What's your favorite?