Coal Tattoo

Coal mining songs make up a significant and powerful contribution to the bluegrass and folk music repertoire. The Merle Travis classic “Dark as a Dungeon” has become a bluegrass standard and never fails to affect the listener with its grave image of a miner digging at the bones of those who worked the mine before him. The great West Virginia singer/songwriter, Hazel Dickens penned many songs about the coal mines and miners and was featured in the 1976 Barbara Kopple film, Harlan County, USA. And one of my father’s very favorite songs to sing, and one that I often heard as a boy, is “Coal Tattoo” by Billy Edd Wheeler.

While bluegrass and traditional country music are often appreciated by listeners for their link to the past, it would be a mistake to think the dangerous work of coal mining and the need to sing about it are themselves things of the past.

The current state of coal mining in the U.S. and around the world is being covered in great detail by reporter Ken Ward, Jr. of The Charleston Gazette on his blog, Coal Tattoo – a blog that takes its name from the Billy Edd Wheeler song mentioned above. Just today, Ward reported on the new report on the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster which claimed the lives of 29 workers.

Ward quotes the reports overall finding which is, “…if MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration) had engaged in timely enforcement of the Mine Act and applicable standards and regulations, it would have lessened the chances of — and possibly could have prevented — the UBB explosion.” The report has been posted in its entirety here.

Ward goes on to quote the MSHA’s own internal report that found the mine operators guilty of a host of violations:

“The Operator concealed its highly non-compliant conduct in a number of significant ways. The Operator provided advance notice of MSHA inspections, allowing foremen to correct violations before inspectors arrived underground to detect them. It concealed several occupational injuries by failing to report them to MSHA as required…. Finally, it intimidated miners into not reporting hazards to MSHA, compromising miners’ ability to participate in the identification and correction of hazards, as provided by the Mine Act.”

In spite of all of these obstructions on the part of the Upper Big Branch Mine operators, NIOSH found the principle fault to lie with MSHA for failing to execute its duty of protecting the health and safety of the miners. The panel wrote that even with all of the efforts to conceal violations from the MSHA inspector, “the mine operator did not, and could not, conceal readily observable violative conditions such as flat dust accumulations throughout the UBB and missing supplemental roof controls.”

Below is a clip of the song “Coal Tattoo” as sung by Hazel Dickens on the album, Coal Mining Women – a great record well worth checking out. Also below is the trailer of Harlan County, USA featuring the song “Dark as a Dungeon” by Merle Travis. They’re great songs by great singers, and just as important now as they ever were.

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