(from the CD liner notes)">
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Various Artists - Harlan County USA

Songs of the Coal Miner's Struggle

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Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner's Struggle

Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner's Struggle

(© Rounder Records)
The struggle of the American coal miner is one of the most gut-twisting aspects of American labor history, and Harlan County USA does a fantastic job of capturing the "danger, determination, turbulence, and trumph that mark the Appalachian coal mining experience." (from the CD liner notes)

A Little Bit of History Through Music

If you're looking to learn more about American history and you're tired of reading dry books and listening to monotonous lecturers, it's no secret that there's plenty of history available by taking a listen to American folk music.

The songs on Harlan County USA are no exception. Some of the most important strides in the history of the labor movement have arisen out of America's coal mines. Conversely, some of the most compelling stories of survival and overcoming adversity lie in the history of coal mining in this country and around the world.

Sing It, Sister!

Traditional music isn't exactly teeming with a host of women singers, but Harlan County USA is absolutely chocked up with great women performing some of the most heart-wrenching songs of struggle in the workplace.

Some highlights include Hazel Dickens' "Black Lung," Sarah Ogan Gunning's "Come All You Coal Miners," and Florence Reece's "Which Side Are You On?"

What's so powerful about these performances is that you can just imagine the women of the coal miner culture singing out for the sake of their husbands and children, which is different from hearing someone sing for their self. It's perhaps more passionate and mournful than frustrated and angry.

Nostalgia With a Purpose

Although our coal mines are hardly safe these days, these songs are old songs. The artists on this recording are mostly singing about what happened generations ago, when children were dying early from the black young, and the technology wasn't quite as, dare I say, modern as it is now.

There is an element of this record that's paying tribute to the folks throughout history that have gone deep into the earth to mine coal; but there's also an element of timeliness here.

After all, miners have been getting trapped in mines at an alarming rate in the last year. It's become clear that some measures need to be taken to ensure the safety of our nation's coal miners, and this historical introduction to the plight of the coal worker is nothing if not poignantly well-timed.

The Bottom Line

Great folk music is as entertaining as it is informative. In my experience and opinion, great music is unforgettable and infectious, at the same time as being honest and forthright.

The songs on this record hold nothing back and leave little to the imagination. If you're not sympathetic to the coal miners' struggle before you listen to this record, you will be by the time you're through.

Harlan County encompasses one of the most powerful and purposeful labor struggles in American history, with a collection of some of the most important contributors to American folk music.

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