One Camp Street
Cambridge, Mass. 02140
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
|"Down in a coal mine, underneath the ground, |
Where a gleam of sunshine never can be found;
Digging dusky diamonds all the year around
Away down in a coal mine, underneath the ground."
-- Down in a Coal Mine, as sung by Morgan Jones
Shortly after the second World War, former newspaperman George Korson set out to document the songs and lore of Pennsylvania's anthracite (hard) coal industry. With a cumbersome recording machine loaned by the Library of Congress' Archive of American Folk Song, Korson and his wife Rae traveled the rutted dirt roads to the isolated company towns and mine patches seeking the mostly older men of Irish and Welsh background who knew the "old" songs. The result was a piece of history eventually released by the archive in 1947 as AFS L16. Fifty years later, Rounder Records has re-released Korson's treasures, in stunning remasters that have removed virtually all of the surface noise inherent in the recordings of that acoustic era. (Let me pause to specifically credit Michael Donaldson of the Library of Congress; David Glasser and Bob Carlin of Rounder; and Lea Anne Sonnenstein.) They have restored a piece of our past to us. And we are the richer, oh, so much richer for it.
Here lie treasures for those who truly cherish folk music. Here is Daniel Walsh of Centralia, Pennsylvania, well past the age of sixty and still hewing coal from the dark seam, as fine a ballad singer as Ireland ever produced. Here is Jerry Byrne of Buck Run, ever the optimist, promising to pay off his debt at the company store. Here is Morgan Jones of Wilkes-Barre, "a jovial collier lad, as blithe as blithe can be," and fiddler James Muldowney of Tamaqua ripping through a pair of jig tunes while waiting for a shift change.
Here too are their ballads of economic fear (The Shoofly) and whistling-in-the-graveyard hope (When the Breaker Starts Up Full Time), and recurrent tragedy (The Avondale Mine Disaster ) -- in short, the dominant themes of miners' lives.
Walsh and Byrne and Jones and Muldowney, all long gone to their reward, sing for us once again -- thanks to George Korson and the people at Rounder. Listen closely, friend, and know what folk music is truly about.
Edited by David Schultz