Mountaintop mining mobilizes coalfields musicians

By VICKI SMITH Associated Press Writer
The Associated Press
LOGAN, W.Va.

When Elaine Purkey sings _ in a lonesome voice that is twangy, angry and thoroughly haunting _ she sings for her people. She channels their rage as mountaintop removal coal mines flatten their beloved West Virginia hills to supply the nation with cheap electricity.

“They’re tearing up our mountains. They’re taking away our hills,” she belts out with eyes closed, the sound rising from her belly, ringing through the trees.

“They’re taking away our homeland _ and making valley fills.”

Music _ honest, unfiltered, often made one person at a time _ is once again a weapon in the coalfields.

Though it began with largely unknown folk artists like Purkey, even big-name entertainers are embracing its power in the war over a particularly destructive form of strip mining that forever reshapes the land.

And they’re choosing opposite sides: While Kathy Mattea headlines an “I Love Mountains” show at the Kentucky Capitol, Hank Williams Jr. and Ted Nugent star at an industry-sponsored “Friends of America” gathering on a former West Virginia strip mine.

On May 19, under a “Music Saves Mountains” banner at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, Emmylou Harris, Dave Matthews and eastern Kentucky native Patty Loveless will raise money for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s battle to end mountaintop removal.

“If we have a big rally with live music, they have a big rally with live music,” says Lora Smith, who helped the citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth produce “Songs for the Mountaintop” in 2006.

“This is an incredibly complex issue, so it’s hard to talk about it in a two-minute song,” she acknowledges. “But it’s great for organizing people and doing that movement-building, to feel like you’re part of this bigger continuum of people.”

Music has always been a form of solidarity and political protest, a medium often more memorable and more tolerable than a speech. It has a way, through authentic voice or vivid imagery, of connecting places, events and ideas to people hundreds or thousands of miles away.

“We Shall Overcome,” a gospel hymn sung by striking South Carolina tobacco workers in 1945, morphed into the defining song of the civil rights movement. In 1985, “We Are the World” raised more than $30 million for African famine relief. Toby Keith’s angry, post-Sept. 11 rant “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue” helped galvanize support for the Iraq War.

In the coalfields, it’s been more than a distraction, more than the foundation of a Saturday night dance. Since the late 1800s, when men dug in the darkness with pick and shovel, music has educated the illiterate, identified the enemy, mourned the dead.

Today’s songs might be powerful, too. If they could get beyond the echoing hollows.

Now, only the most successful commercial artists reach the masses. The songs toted around on iPods, cell phones and laptops are the catchiest, the most clever, the best marketed.

Coal country musicians are singing about a problem that’s difficult to explain and about enemies, shielded by the endless paperwork of multilayered corporations, who are difficult to name.

If they could find a way to crystallize their message, the Internet would be there, waiting to carry it.

And people would hear in Elaine Purkey more than one voice.

“So many people are singing this song,” says the 60-year-old wife of a former underground miner. “This is about so many people and so much destruction and so much pain. Until you come here and see this thing … this monster they call MTR, you cannot imagine what it’s like.”

Mountaintop removal is, after all, about perspective.

To companies, it’s the most efficient or only way to reach coal reserves. To folks living nearby, it’s the destruction of majestic scenery and the pollution of air and water. To surface miners, it’s food on the table and money for the mortgage.

“The places where mountaintop removal has taken place, we don’t call that mountaintop removal. We call that development,” says miner and musician Jessee Mullins of Seco, Ky., who wrote and recorded “Hey, Tree Hugger” with wife DeAnna Kaye.

“As the song says, this is where Wal-Mart and Lowe’s and everything else moves in,” he says. “It creates usable land.”

Mullins’ country-rock tune celebrates the strip miner, pokes fun at environmentalists and portrays President Barack Obama as anti-coal, out-of-touch royalty as his Environmental Protection Agency gives MTR new scrutiny.

To spread its popularity, the Virginia Mining Association posted Mullins’ song on its website. The West Virginia Coal Association lets visitors download free pro-mining ring tones.

Before the Internet, though, music was a medium the people could control. They created it even as coal companies manipulated nearly every other aspect of their existence _ renting company houses, paying workers in company scrip to shop in company stores.

Songs educated workers, decried dangerous job conditions and preserved oral histories of mine disasters, strikes and shootouts in long, detailed ballads like Woody Guthrie’s “Ludlow Massacre.”

“Music is the grave marker of events and the keeper of history,” says Dorothea Hast, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Connecticut. “Just because someone isn’t in the mainstream doesn’t mean the music doesn’t have great power.”

But in the 1930s, when Sarah Ogun Gunning sang “I Hate the Company Bosses,” protest music didn’t have to reach the masses. Battles were, for the most part, fought and resolved locally.

Mountaintop removal is another matter. Fair or not, state governments that depend on tax revenue are often perceived as indifferent to individuals and sympathetic to industry. If the practice is to be stopped, it will likely be through federal intervention.

The first step toward that, says singer-songwriter Ben Sollee, is a nationwide conversation.

The 25-year-old from Lexington, Ky., doesn’t expect people to hear him plucking a cello on “Flyrock Blues,” softly crooning about the fears of people who live near blasting sites, then sign a petition or hoist a banner.

“Music itself,” he acknowledges, “is only as powerful as the audience that listens to it and makes it their own.”

To spread beyond the mountains, seep into the collective consciousness and help shape public opinion, a song about mountaintop mining must be more than funny or pretty, says Annie Randall, musicology professor at Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University and editor of “Music, Power and Politics.”

It needs a short, catchy melody, simple lyrics and a strong visual image, all wrapped up in something memorable and easy to learn. It needs a high-profile champion like Bruce Springsteen or Loretta Lynn. And it needs someone with the savvy to make it mainstream.

“It’s one thing to be a lovely song, and another thing to be a pop song where people can learn it in two seconds and start singing it,” Randall says.

Beyonce did it with “Single Ladies,” wrapping a conservative message _ if you like it, put a ring on it _ in a hip-hop hit that instantly polarizes Randall’s classroom: When the music starts, boys cringe and girls wave their hands.

But what is the lone, searing image of mountaintop removal? A treeless, unpeopled mountain-turned-moonscape? The dusty, boarded-up home of a family who’s fled? A wallet stuffed with cash?

Until someone figures that out, musicians will continue to believe in their potential power. As they always have, they will sing about what they see, where they’ve been and where they want to go.

And they will keep trying to bring others along.

___

On the Net:

Virginia Mining Association: http://www.virginiaminingassoc.com/

W.Va. Coal Association ring tones: http://www.wvcoal.com/media/ringtones.html

Aurora Lights Music: http://auroralights.org/music-projects

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