Today I have a treat for you- Award winning Appalachian Author and Historian Shirley Stewart Burns has written a guest post about her musical history especially for the Blind Pig’s Spotlight on Music in Appalachia.
Matthew, Shirley’s husband, and I met because of our shared determination to preserve and celebrate our rich Appalachian Culture-it didn’t take me long to realize Shirley held the same passion for our homeland.
It would take a while to list all of Shirley’s accomplishments-both in the literary world and in the music world.
Shirley has recently had 2 cd releases-one her critically acclaimed Coalfield A Cappela cd the 2nd Coal Country Music where she graciously added her song Leave Those Mountains Down (Ode To The Mountains) to contributions of other artists such as: Ralph Stanley, Gillian Welch, John Prine, Kathy Mattea, Willie Nelson, Tom T. Hall, Jeanie Ritchie and others-to make a companion cd to the movie Coal Country. (Shirley has donated each cd for a giveaway here on the Blind Pig-read below to see the details)
Musical Journey of the Coalfields by Shirley Stewart Burns
Greetings from the coalfields of southern West Virginia, the place I call home. I want to thank Tipper for inviting me to contribute a guest blog here on “The Blind Pig and the Acorn,” and thanks to all of you for taking the time to read my personal story about the music of Appalachia as seen from the heart of the coalfields. Appalachia is a place steeped in rich history and culture. Nestled into each corner of the region are wonderful stories and traditions that have been generations in the making. Singing and the passing of songs from one generation to another is one important part of our culture. I was lucky enough to be born into a family of storytellers and singers.
For as long as I can remember, music has been an important part of my life. My daddy was a first rate, top-of-the-line Southern Gospel singer. As soon as I could talk, I began singing along with Daddy’s gospel songs, old-time country and classic R&B, all of which were his favorites. My daddy sang in various gospel groups and toured all over our home state of West Virginia, as well as in all of the surrounding states and further south. I recall traveling along with my Daddy and Mom with the gospel groups, and would clap and sing along whenever they would rehearse or whenever they played in front of an audience. I remember at the age of 3, going with my Daddy, Mom, paternal grandmother and daddy’s gospel group to a huge singing convention down in South Carolina. It was reputed that only the best southern gospel singers would be there, and my daddy had been invited to be among them. His clear, strong voice had the crowd clapping along, jumping to their feet and shouting “hallelujahs.” Many a soul found their way to the Lord while listening to my daddy’s beautiful voice sing stories of Jesus, home and heaven. Around this same time, I honed my own showmanship by entertaining people when I would stand up in the middle of a room or sit on the laps of family friends and sing “This Little Light of Mine,” “Joy in the Morning,” or one of numerous gospel songs that I had committed to memory.
About a year after our South Carolina trip, we were at a gospel sing at an old time church way up in a holler in West Virginia. I don’t exactly remember the location, but I do recall it was far off from home and was out of the coalfields. I especially remember this trip not because of the music that was being performed there, but because of something I hadn’t before witnessed. You see, the old time church didn’t have indoor plumbing and furthermore, for refreshments they had a water bucket with a lone dipper in it. If a person got thirsty at the church, then you just walked up, got a dipper of water and drank it right out of the dipper. There was well over a hundred people there that evening, so you can imagine how many people shared the dipper. I remember it was a long trip from our home and it took quite a bit of time to arrive there. When we did arrive, I was very thirsty. I wanted some of that water. Mommy told me before we got out of the car not to ask for any of that water because “we do not drink after others.” Nothing would do me. To me, it looked like great fun so the first thing I did after getting out of the car was run straight for that water dipper. Mom saw me heading for the water bucket and caught up with me just as I was about to take a drink from that cool dipper. After that, Mommy kept a very close watch on me the rest of the evening and kept me close by her side. Traveling from place to place, watching and listening to my daddy and others sing, was how I spent most of my weekends for the first eight years of my life.
When daddy wasn’t performing with his gospel groups, weekends at home often revolved around our extended family visiting and gathering around the piano where we would sing old hymns and other southern gospel favorites. I grew up singing and listening to others sing – and sing well. I was ten years old before I realized that not everyone could sing. While spending the night with a friend, a very strange and onerous sound escaped from her mouth. I looked at her in a puzzled manner and asked her what she was doing, I was just sure that she was carrying on like some sort of animal. Imagine my surprise when she told me that she was singing. I was still not sure that she wasn’t carrying on, so I innocently said, “No you’re not. That’s not singing.” I was shocked when she looked at me indignantly and told me that she was, indeed, singing. I just couldn’t believe it. I very nearly had an emotional crisis when I discovered that, indeed, not everyone could sing! Before that time, I had never heard someone sing that could not, at the very least, “carry a tune.” I went home and told my Daddy and Mommy about the horrible sounds that came from my friend, and how she actually said she was singing. Well, they both burst out laughing until mommy finally confirmed for me, “Honey, not everyone can sing.” As I got older, and my circle of friends grew, it became very revealing about how special those family sing-alongs really were.
My Daddy was a coal miner by vocation, he worked as a brakeman on the motor and he would sing while he worked. He would regale his co-workers with all of his favorites and take requests from them. I have had men that worked with my daddy come up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed working with him, especially his singing, and how he brightened the working conditions in the mines with his voice. Years later, after my Daddy came out of the mines, my brother found himself working alongside some of the men that used to work with Daddy. They recognized him because he looked like a more youthful version of our daddy. These men would tell my brother how much they enjoyed hearing our daddy sing and they figured that my brother had inherited Daddy’s gift, so they asked him to sing for them. Well, as my brother puts it, a first few verses out of his mouth soon alerted them that he had not inherited Daddy’s gift. To be fair, though my brother cannot sing as well as Daddy, I can honestly say that both he and my other brother can in fact, “carry a tune.”
My Daddy’s family grew up singing together. It was a way that the struggling family could be entertained for free. Blessed with an abundance of good voices, the entertainment could last into the wee hours of the night. It is how they coped and entertained themselves, and it was something that my Daddy willingly passed on to his children. Daddy would sing to us the stories of “Barbara Ellen,” “Rose Connely,” and how it was “Dark as a Dungeon way down in the mine.” Then there were the spirituals. Stories of “Old Noah” and “Run on” — “Let me tell you God almighty’s gonna cut you down.” Daddy would sing songs of faith, hope, redemption and warning. I always sat back in amazement at the crystal clearness of his voice and the various emotions it could convey.
When my Daddy joined the Army in the 1950s, it was popular for soldiers to record messages for family back home on a phonograph recording. This was during a time when anyone could record a song or a letter on an LP. On one side of the album, my dad had recorded a letter telling his family when he would be in on furlough. On the other side he had recorded my grandmother’s favorite song, “Roomful of Roses.” The family enjoyed hearing the message that Daddy had recorded for them, but everyone loved hearing Daddy’s beautiful voice again, and they played the recording of him singing “Roomful of Roses.” They sang along with him, just like he was home with them. I still have that recording, and it is among my most prized possessions.
I remember Daddy spending years trying to teach me how to harmonize with him. In fact, in the days leading up to his final open heart surgery, Daddy was still trying to teach me the intricacies of that fine art. I always seemed to fall for the same trap when it came to harmonizing; I always kept going into the same key as the other singer. To help me along, Daddy told me that he would harmonize with me, rather than me trying to harmonize with him. But of course, I went right into singing in the same key as him, again and again. After a few hours of this, daddy just patted me on the back and told me to keep at it and eventually it would come to me. Years later, when I finally mastered the art of harmonizing, I remembered those countless hours of practicing with Daddy. I just knew that he would be very proud of my accomplishing that feat.
After high school, when I went off to college in Morgantown, West Virginia, I discovered that the churches up there were different than the ones we had at home. Until that time, I just didn’t know that the culture in the coalfields wasn’t the same as everywhere else in the country. The way church members worshiped was less demonstrative than the churches of home, and the way they sang hymns was far, far more reserved. Even though Morgantown is still in West Virginia, there were stark differences with the churches up there and the churches of home. Now, there wasn’t a thing wrong with the Morgantown churches, I just found them to be different than what I was used to. For example, even the way they sang “Amazing Grace” was different. That was probably the thing that stood out to me the most. In Morgantown, “Amazing Grace,” I later realized, actually sounded like the way it was transcribed in the hymn books. The “Amazing Grace” that I had grown up with had a bending of the notes and a swelling of the chorus that was just not present in the Morgantown churches. Years later, I would find myself recording an acapella version of the song the way I had always sang it. When I sang the first line of the song, the producer of my CD thought I had started the song too low and asked me to begin again. I did. Twice. He kept saying I was starting out too low. Finally, I asked him to just let me sing the first verse of the song, and see how it sounded. When I began to sing the song, he shrugged his shoulders, looked a bit shocked, and with a smile on his face, motioned for me to continue. We finished it with one take!
Continuing Daddy’s rich musical legacy, I myself began writing songs at the age of 10. Those first few songs I wrote were about the people who were closest to me. As with most writers, I wrote what I knew. My gift of songwriting came in especially handy one year when I was attending college. That year I found myself in a situation where I couldn’t afford to buy Mommy a Mother’s Day gift. I really wanted to give Mommy a gift to show how much she meant to me and how much I appreciated her. Since Daddy had died, I had grown especially close to Mommy, and it really weighed heavy upon my mind that this would be the first year that I wouldn’t be able to give her a gift. Then one evening, about a week before Mother’s Day, while I was still trying to figure out a way to get mommy a gift, a tune came into my head, followed by some words. The words quickly came and kept coming, so I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote them all down. In short time, I had written my mom a Mother’s Day song. I had some connections with a fellow who owned a local music studio, so I went in recorded it for her. Although I couldn’t play an instrument, when I wrote the song I could clearly hear the instrumentation in my head, so I knew how I wanted it to sound. The end result was quickly accomplished, and it was complete with a haunting mandolin, acoustic guitar and some drums. “I Thank God for Mamas” was loved by my mother and all who heard it. Folks particularly like the chorus,
“I thank God for Mamas. God’s gentle helping hands.
The love He stores inside their hearts is hard to comprehend.
But, I thank God for Mamas, A precious gift to see.
But most of all I thank Him for the mom He gave to me.”
Even today, I get requests to sing that song at church nearly every Mother’s Day. It still holds special meaning to both me and Mommy, as it represents the love we have for each other and our special connection.
On another occasion, I wrote a song about my Grandmaw Minnie, who was my Daddy’s mother. Grandmaw Minnie passed away about a year before Daddy did, and I titled this song, “I Remember Grandmaw.” The entire family truly enjoyed the song, and I was especially happy when they told me that it really captured her warm spirit. The chorus says:
“I remember Grandmaw and how she used to smile.
She could light up a room and make the day worthwhile.
I remember Grandmaw and now I understand that love
Was the most important thing to Grandmaw.”
In the mid-1990s, I began writing songs about what was happening in my beloved home in the coalfields of southern West Virginia. I also wrote ballads based on family stories that I had heard throughout my life. Today, many people would say my songs are activist or protest songs, and I suppose some of them could be depicted that way; however, they are quite simply songs about what I have seen and how me and my family have lived and continue to live. It just so happens that the most pressing issue in the coalfields today deals with mountaintop removal coal mining, so many of my songs represent what I have seen firsthand and what my family has experienced.
One night I was awakened from a sound sleep with words and a melody in my head. I quickly jotted down the words to “Leave Those Mountains Down (Ode to the Mountains),” sang a few words into the tape recorder I kept beside of my bed, and as quick as that, I fell back to sleep. The next morning, I thought it was a dream and wished I could remember the words. However, there by my bedside was a piece of paper with the scribbled out words on it, and when I listened back to the tape recorder, there was the tune. I began the song with the chorus, and followed it with the first verse that goes:
“Leave those mountains down, boys, leave those mountains down.
Don’t tear up what the heavens bore, and leave those mountains down.”
“My Daddy was a miner, and my Granddad’s too,
They crawled inside the bowels of Earth
Digging coal and paying Union dues
They’ve long since died for King Coal,
Lay buried in the ground.
But if they were here they’d tell you
Leave those mountains down.”
To this day, I consider that song a direct gift from above. Years later, I was receiving an award at Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for my academic work. The emcee at the function was a friend of mine who knew of my musical passion. So, as I finished my acceptance speech, he asked me to sing a song for the audience. With the sparkling marble and gilded opulence of the music hall surrounding me and a larger than life statue of Andrew Carnegie behind me, I sang “Leave Those Mountains Down”. I could literally feel the presence of my daddy with me as I sang that song in a building built by an industrial baron. Several dreams were realized that day. The dreams of two parents who told their baby girl who grew up in the coalfields that she could be anything that she wanted to be, and the dream that a coal miner’s daughter could perform a song about destructive coal mining practices in one of the most respected musical venues in the country. The audience gave me a standing ovation, and that experience remains one of the highlights of my life.
Other songs that I have written reflect the hard realities that my family has experienced in the rugged mountains of home. “Ode to a Miner (Song for my Father)” and “Ode to a Miner’s Wife (Song for my Mother)” were both inspired by my parents. In “Ode to a Miner” I asked myself what my daddy – and really, so many men like him — would say if he could talk to us again. It took around 5 minutes for me to write the answer in the lyrics of my song. The chorus to it goes:
“Black lung, black lung, black lung’s took my life.
Now I leave behind my children and wife.
I tell all you young ones don’t go underground,
‘Cause if the minin’ don’t kill you black lung’s still around.”
Each verse of the song tells his story. From his youth and early marriage to the time he first became sick and to the time he died. It is really a story song, let me share with you the first and last verses of the song to further illustrate that:
“When I was a young man, seems just yesterday,
Two choices I had were to leave or to stay.
My kin lived and died here, left one choice for me,
To go underground, coal mining it would be.”
This is followed by the last verse, which shows the progression of Daddy’s life after working in the mines:
“I can’t walk in the valley, the mountain is too high,
Every breath that I take seems to be a goodbye,
My life’s all but over, and what do I show,
But 30 years of hard labor and this Hell that I know as.”
Around this same time, I decided it was only fitting that I write a song where I attempted to see things from my mother’s point of view. When I first sang “Ode to a Miner’s Wife” for my mom, I was very nervous. I didn’t want her to think that I thought her life was entirely melancholy. She understood what I was trying to do and really loved the song. “Ode to a Miner’s Wife” remains a favorite to many who have heard it. Please allow me to share a few verses with you.
“I came to this valley forty years ago,
a young miner’s bride to have and to hold.
I was barely 16 so scared was I,
To leave Mommy and Daddy, my family behind.”
“It’s a lonely life, to be a miner’s wife
Such a lonely life, to have and to hold goodnight.”
“I watched as my Neely gasped for his breath,
His lungs were infested, the pain in his chest.
We’d grow old together he told me once,
But the mining did kill him, dead at 51.”
As most people are aware, coal is an integral part of the reality in central Appalachia. So naturally, it would be the songs of the coalfields and the coal culture of home that I would record for my latest CD, “Coalfield Acappela.” My music has continued to tell the stories of what I see around me and the stories I grew up hearing. For example, though my mother’s daddy, my Grandpaw Dave, worked in the mines his whole life, it was known in the family that his lifelong dream was to be a farmer. I was lucky to capture the story of Grandpaw Dave in my song, “Long Time On This Mountain,” which begins,
“I’ve been a long time, on this mountain,
And I’ve been a long time, in the mines,
And the dreams, I once did have them,
But they grow dim, as time goes by.”
Though Grandpaw Dave was never able to fully realize his dream of being a farmer, he was able to keep a few horses and they were his passion. His responsibility to his family prevented full-time farming, as the song says in the lines, “but mining paid when farming didn’t, so my dreams began to fade.” The song progresses as Grandpaw Dave grew older, and looked back upon his life in the next verse.
“Now, I’m old and I’m through with mining,
But how I long to still till the land,
Those faded dreams, they still can haunt me,
These choices made, by which I stand.”
Appalachian songwriters – and the best storytellers — find their inspiration in what they know best. For me, that is family and home.
Rooted in the musical heritage of my Daddy, my songwriting and singing are merely a continuation of the tradition of writing and singing about what you know best and what you have experienced. These traditions have been passed down to me through generations of my family who have lived and died in these rugged mountains of the southern West Virginia coalfields. Putting stories to song is what I have always done and is what I will continue to do for as long as I am able. For me, this naturally means my musical legacy will be one of home, of faith and of family. Through music, we have the ability not only to entertain, but to tell the stories of the people, places and events that have meant so much to us. Just as my Daddy gave me the gift of music, a gift that he got from his mother, and a gift she got from ancestors long since passed into the hills of yesterday, I hope to someday continue this rich heritage by giving these gifts to my children and grandchildren. And, if along the path of my musical journey, I’m able to share with some folks the stories and unique culture of the people and places of home, then that is just icing on the cake.
I hope you enjoyed Shirley’s post as much as I did. Coming from the Southern Highlands of Appalachia-I know nothing about the coalfields of WV-but through Shirley’s work I’ve learned much about the hardships the area faced in the past-and continues to face today.
If you’d like a chance to win one of her cds-leave a comment on this post. The giveaway ends on Saturday July 17, 2010.