Coal Mining Songs

In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the
soil. He is a sort of caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported.

–George Orwell

Whatever the downsides of coal mining have been, Orwell was certainly correct about its importance to the building of our civilization.

And coal mining has also inspired an extraordinary number of good songs…indeed, coal seems almost up there with the sea as a source of musical inspiration.

Some of the songs that come to mind include…

Coal Tattoo, Billy Edd Wheeler

Dark as a Dungeon, Tennessee Ernie Ford

Coming of the Roads, Billy Edd Wheeler

The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore

Daddy’s Dinner Bucket, Ralph Stanley

Last Train from Poor Valley, Norman Blake

Paradise, John Prine

Coal Mining Man, The Roys


23 thoughts on “Coal Mining Songs”

  1. I recalled “with a big[sic] tattoo on the side of my head/left by the number 9 coal” from Judy Collins.The Judy Collins Concert (1964) Part 3 (Full Album). Turns out those lyrics came from the first song you mentioned: Coal Tattoo, bu Billy Ed Wheeler. This Judy Collins album has another Billy Ed Wheeler song about coal: Red-winged Blackbird.

    I recommend other songs in that Judy Collins Concert album, such as Tom Paxton’s The Last Thing on My Mind. Rambling Boy. Back in the day, I wore that album out.

    In the intro to Red-winged Blackbird, Judy Collins mentions the hopes for the newly announced War on Poverty- or for the study commission for same. So much for government programs and hopes. But at the time, I shared her hopes.

  2. Gringo…yes, I first heard ‘coal tattoo’ as the Judy Collins version. Also ‘coming of the roads’, Peter Paul and Mary…they messed with the lyrics a bit, for some reason.

  3. I remember from childhood a folk song about the 1958 Springhill mine disaster. According to Wikipedia there were several versions or different songs about this event.

  4. The worst mining disaster in U.S. history was actually in a copper mine. 168 men died in a mine fire in Butte, Montana. There’s a great outdoor museum there with a monument to the over 2500 miners who died in accidents over the years. Woodie Gurthrie recorded a song about a similar disaster that happened in a coal mine:

    Guthrie wrote several mining-related songs. Here’s one about the massacre of strikers at a Colorado coal mine:

  5. “Judy Collins mentions the hopes for the newly announced War on Poverty”
    lol because war is the answer to every problem!

  6. Nine Pound Hammer

    This nine pound hammer
    Is a little too heavy
    Buddy for my size
    Buddy for my size

    So I’m going on the mountain
    Just to see my baby
    And I ain’t coming back
    No I ain’t coming back

    Roll on buddy
    Don’t you roll so slow
    how can I roll
    When the wheels won’t go
    Roll on buddy
    Pull you load of coal
    how can I pull
    When the wheels won’t roll

    It’s a long way to Harlan
    It’s a long way to Hazard
    Just to get a little brew
    Just to get a little brew

    And when I’m long gone
    You can make my tombstone
    Out of number nine coal
    Out of number nine coal

  7. You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive (Patty Loveless version)
    My Father’s Son (Skaggs)
    Anna Mae (Gene Mills)
    Dark Black Coal (Halstead)
    Miner’s Prayer (Yoakam)

  8. “Working Man”- made famous in Canada in the 80s by Rita MacNeil but quick googling did not produce her best recording of it. Though I only now learn that she was the actual songwriter, so all others are interpreting her song.

    Here are a couple of other takes:

    And the Dubliners:

    David Alexander, unknown to me but here helpfully identified as “the Welshman David Alexander”, so definitely from a coal country.

  9. Hmmmm…how has nobody suggested Uncle Tupelo? Their entire album “March 16-20,1992” is a coal mining song.

    “Coalminers” (trad., but this version by) Uncle Tupelo

    The incredible original song “Shaky Ground”

    While you’re already depressed, might as well add the traditional “Moonshiner” (hey, it rhymes with “coalminer”!), this version and arrangement are definitive:

    One could say that Uncle Tupelo broke up after a few years, essentially because Jeff Tweedy wanted to get married and try some new musical things, wheras Jay Farrar just wanted to sing more songs about coal miners dying of alcoholism….


    PS — unrelated but also from that album, their cover of “Atomic Power”:

    The song is disturbing and hilarious, but the original by the Louvin Brothers is also completely un-ironic, and also you have to hear Ira Louvin’s astonishing high tenor to believe it:–T4EYis

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