This is a special episode researched and written by one of our interns, Olivia Langa.

To find out more about the everyday lives of women in coal mining families we must look at the songs of less popular female Appalachian singers from the 1930s. One such place to look is in Depression-era Harlan County, located in the southeast corner of Kentucky, situated within a valley between the Pine and Black Mountains on the Kentucky/Virginia border. Most of the folklore that came out of Harlan County tell stories of the horror faced by the miners under the foot of the elite. However, three women, Aunt Molly Jackson, Florence Reece, and Sarah Ogan Gunning, wrote songs in response to the Harlan County upheaval and about the lives of coal mining families. Their work differs from that of the coal mining men because they were not directly involved in coal mining as their occupation. Instead, they occupied spaces within the home and family unit, bearing the responsibility of domesticity. However, with no money, no food, and the constant threat from outside forces, they carried a tremendous burden. Looking at their songs provides a look into their lives as coal miners’ wives and daughters and gives us a look into the devastation they witnessed.

Transcript for Domesticity and Depression: Kentucky Coal Mining, Song, and Organizing During Bloody Harlan

Propaganda or proper goose; the truth is what matters.”

-Aunt Molly Jackson[1]

Written and Researched by Olivia Langa

Produced by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD and Olivia Langa

Introduction

Most people, when thinking about coal mining songs, likely think about Loretta Lynn’s 1970 song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Born in Kentucky in the 1930s, Lynn sings about what it was like to grow up a coal miner’s daughter. Her father worked for a “poor man’s dollar,” while her mother stayed home looking after the children and performing household chores. But, as Lynn states, the family did not complain because they shared an abundance of love toward one another. [2]

Lynn’s song provides a romanticized version of the lives of women in coal mining families. Her song is true to her, but it does not provide a universal narrative of Depression era wives and daughters in Kentucky. To find out more about the everyday lives of women in coal mining families we must look at the songs of less popular female Appalachian singers from the 1930s.

One such place to look is in Depression-era Harlan County, located in the southeast corner of Kentucky, situated within a valley between the Pine and Black Mountains on the Kentucky/Virginia border.[3] In the early spring the Dogwood, Sarvis, and Redbud trees bloomed along the dirt pathways that ran up the mountain, and climbing roses grew along gates and fences of farmhouses.[4] However, the political landscape of Harlan County beginning in spring 1931 did not reflect the beauty of the physical space.

As the Great Depression swept the nation, freight prices rose, disrupting “Harlan’s steady industrial progress.”[5] In 1929, the Harlan miners produced $24 million worth of coal, and in

1931, only $13.5 million. That year, annual wages dropped from $1,235 to $749.  The decrease in wages, unemployment, and irregular employment caused “poverty, hunger, and disease.”[6] Nearly four thousand miners working and living in Harlan County, Kentucky lost their jobs in the Great Depression. Those that kept working made less than 80 cents a day and only worked select days out of the month.

After many failed attempts at unionization, the miners and their families created a Communist Party labor union, called the National Miners Union (NMU). Local elites despised this action and sought to take down the union. Policemen worked to “disrupt the flow of aid to the miners and their families.”[7] Soup kitchens burned, men were attacked in their homes, newspapers labeled the strikers as “Anti-American’, and union workers lost many first Amendment rights. The issue became a bloody war: elites, policemen, and mine guards versus poor mining families.

Skirmishes between the groups occurred until 1939 when a mining union promised “safety at work and an escape from the poverty that had consumed generation after generation.”[8] These  skirmishes became known as “The Bloody Harlan Incident” or simply, “Bloody Harlan.”

Most of the folklore that came out of Harlan County tell stories of the horror faced by the miners under the foot of the elite. However, three women, Aunt Molly Jackson, Florence Reece, and Sarah Ogan Gunning, wrote songs in response to the Harlan County upheaval and about the lives of coal mining families. Their work differs from that of the coal mining men because they were not directly involved in coal mining as their occupation. Instead, they occupied spaces within the home and family unit, bearing the responsibility of domesticity. However, with no money, no food, and the constant threat from outside forces, they carried a tremendous burden. Looking at their songs provides a look into their lives as coal miners’ wives and daughters and gives us a look into the devastation they witnessed.

The biographies and songs of Reece, Jackson, and Ogan Gunning have not been viewed as individual and complex narratives alongside The Bloody Harlan Incident. Historians often use their songs as background or “fun fact” information for the strike. However, each women has her place in the history of Bloody Harlan. An analysis of Depression Era coal mining, women’s political participation in the early twentieth century followed by a discussion of the works of the three women, their motivations behind their actions, and the impact of the use of song in political movements help establish their place in 20th century American history.

Why Women and Why Song?           

In her piece “Gender Issues and Organized Labor in the Twentieth-Century American South,” Mary E. Frederickson discusses women’s roles in organized labor strikes. She claims that women in the twentieth century south who had motherly characteristics could militarize both men and women into a specific movement. Because of their proximity to men and women, and their ability to act in ways that allow men to “save face,” maternal women were extremely useful in leading labor strike and movements. [9] The appearances and lives of Reece, Jackson, and Ogan Gunning reflect Frederickson’s thesis. Each women possessed typical “maternal” appearances, with soft features, and compassionate dispositions. Each had many children of their own, as well.

Moreover, the use of song can be extremely effective in bringing people together. Folk music historian Alan Lomax explains

song most frequently takes the place in speech in highly charged situations…Singing brings order in the crowded human space, where people join to dance, work, worship, make war, [or] follow a leader… Here, regularized the response of the gathered individuals and to produce, or better, to reproduce—group consensus.[10]

Therefore song, especially a folk song, serves to communicate a common message to a large group. The themes of unity and comradery are pronounced to rally a distinct group of people under a shared cause. Reece, Jackson, and Ogan Gunning, through their gender and forms of communicative expression, possessed a unique ability to unite others under a collective effort.

“Bloody Harlan”

Before the incident formally began, the conditions in Harlan laid the foundation for a labor strike. In 1870, a Philadelphia businessman named Edward M. Davis bought eighty-six thousand acres of land in Harlan and the neighboring Bell County to be used as coal fields. By 1910, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad entered Harlan. The presence of the railroad led to the rapid development of the county’s coal industry, as operators could transport coal faster and more efficiently. “Between 1911 and 1930, the number of employed miners expanded from 169 to 11,920”.[11] Additionally, Henry Ford purchased fifteen coal mines in Harlan County to have his own dependable supply of coal.

During this time coal mining wages were lower in Harlan than in other coal fields because of the lack of competition and union pressure. “Harlan coal loaders earned 42 percent less per day than an Illinois miner, 35 percent less than an Indiana miner, 24 percent less than an Ohio miner, and 5 percent less than a Pennsylvania miner.”[12]  The United Mine Workers (UMW) dominated unions in the North and had attempted to organize the Kentucky workers at various points in time. The Kentucky coal operators, however, steered the miners away from the union claiming they only sought additional union due payments from their members.[13]

Additionally, because the Harlan miners were paid so little, coal operators could afford to ship their coal at an extremely low rate.  During World War I, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) “imposed a minimal freight rate differential,” (the minimum rate railroads must charge to operate). [14]  This appealed to northern coal consumers; they could purchase Harlan coal for less than they could from the northern coal fields because of these low shipping rates. [15]   However, in 1927, the northern  UNW successfully petitioned the ICC for a higher southern freight rate differential. As a result, the differential in Harlan was raised from twenty-five to thirty-five cents per ton, effective in January 1929;[16]  Northern consumers no longer had an incentive to purchase coal from Harlan County thus decreasing Harlan’s total profit.

Additionally, the coal operators “had a vital interest in numerous functions of county government.” They sought control over the levying of taxes, the location of highways, the circuit court’s decisions in labor cases, and operations of the sheriff and his deputies.[17] To accomplish this, they corrupted the county’s political system: “votes were bought, ballot boxes were stuffed and stolen, and fraudulent returns were submitted.”[18] Such practices allowed the coal operators to control nearly every aspect of the county’s political and economic proceedings.

Furthermore, operators controlled the living conditions of the miners and their families. Coal camps or “company towns” housed almost two-thirds of the county’s population. The operators agreed to provide a “reasonable amount of social security” only if the miners and their families did not engage in prostitution, drunkenness, or unionization. To ensure they did not violate any of these provisions, sheriff deputies hid in treehouses, erected near the entrance of the coal camps, and watched the residents every move. Those who acted against the operators were violently removed from the camps. Additionally, the operators controlled what newspaper entered the company towns, prohibiting the popular Knoxville News-Sentinel because it was critical of the mine owners.[19]            

Located in the coal camps was a “company store.” Most coal operators required their workers and residents to purchase groceries, clothing, and other supplies only at the company store. In 1931, a New York Times reporter found that miners gave nearly all their profit to the company store, while the operators made 170% of their profit back in the store that year.[20]

After the Great Depression began, coal miners were required to work overtime, without receiving any additional pay. On average, the men earned seven hours pay, after working nine to twelve hours.[21] By March of 1931, operators officially reduced wages by 10%. This coupled with the “un-union activity” and the operators control of local irritated the Harlan County miners. However, it was not until UMW vice-president Phillip Murray came to Harlan and urged organization that the miner’s considered going on strike.

Murray held a rally in which Harlan and Bell County miners attended. The mine operator’s spies, though, also attended, and wrote down the names of the attendees. The next morning, the mine’s foremen ordered these miners out of the camp, leaving them without proper provisions. Most of the miners took their families to a town called Evarts. As a result, Evarts population soared from fifteen hundred to five thousand. The evicted miners “occupied vacant houses, garages, barns and sheds provided by sympathetic miners, farmers…[and] independent merchants” who hoped unionism would bring an end to the company stores’ monopoly.[22]

A small union formed in Evarts and the members marched to surrounding coal camps on the weekends to recruit new members. Thousands of miners then were fired or went on strike in sympathy with the evicted miners.[23] As more joined the movement, the county’s poverty rate rose. Coal is purchased by the ton, so with less people mining, less coal was produced. As a result, operators paid their workers even less than before. The local government called in the Red Cross for assistance, but the organization did not give food to union members or affiliates.[24] The Red Cross and the coal operators felt the striking miners and their families did not deserve any relief because they refused work.[25] As the striking miner’s hunger grew, they looted grocery and company stores. The presence of mine guards and Sheriff J.H. Blair’s deputies or “gun thugs,” as the miners called them, served to increase tensions even further.


To showcase their frustration, the miners attacked the deputies that arrested union men. However, on May 5th, 1931, the miners instigated what became known as “The Battle of Evarts.” Attempting to stop a group of mine guards from transporting miners’ personal effects out of the town, a group of seventy-five miners stormed and fired upon the company vehicles. The miners shot and killed the drivers of the three cars leaving town. J.H. Blair sent deputies to Evarts, ordering them to arrest any many bearing arms. Anarchy continued through the town, as the miners tore through in search of “gun thugs.” Thousands of shots were fired; many of the miners were left to bleed out. [26] The Battle of Evarts reflected the miner’s frustration and desperation. Their families were starving, the coal operators refused to recognize the union, and the deputies abused the powers given to them.

After the Battle of Evarts, other Harlan miners joined the strike; within one week, fifty-eight hundred miners went on strike, leaving less than one thousand working.[27] These striking miners united under the Communist lead National Miner’s Union (NMU). For the remainder of the decade, town elites believed unionization was synonymous with violence. Miners continued to fight for the recognition of their union, while coal operators and local government officials ignored their pleas.

The number of miners murdered by the mine guards or sheriff’s deputies remains unknown.[28] However, we have the records and experiences of those who lived through the strike and terror to gain insight on what happened in Harlan and how it affected the common people.

Florence Reece and “Which Side Are You On?”

Florence Reece’s “Which Side Are You On?” quickly became the anthem to the union movement in Harlan County.  She was inspired to write the piece after deputy sheriff ransacked her home in search of her husband, Sam. In anger, she ripped a sheet out of her calendar and wrote the lyrics “Which Side Are You On?”[29]

Come all you poor workers
Good news to you I’ll tell
How that good old union                     

Has come in here to dwell

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

We’re starting our good battle

We know we’re sure to win
Because we’ve got the gun
Thugs are looking very thin

Chorus

You go to Harlan County
There is no neutral there
You’ll either be a union man
 Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Chorus

They say they have to guard us
To educate their child
Their children live in luxury

Our children almost wild

Chorus

Gentlemen, can you stand it?
Oh, tell me how you can

Will you be a gun thug or will you be a man?

Chorus

My daddy was a miner

He’s now in the air and sun
He’ll be with you fellow workers

‘Til every battle’s won

Chorus

Now all of you know which side you’re on
And they’ll never keep us down

Florence Reece was born in 1900 in a small Tennessee coal mining town. Her father died in a coal mining accident when she was fourteen years old. The following year, she met Sam Reece, a young miner from Tennessee. Her mother opposed the marriage, but the young couple ran away from home, crossed state lines into Kentucky, and married without her mother’s blessing.[30]

By 1931, the year the strike began, Sam and Florence Reece lived on the side of Big Black Mountain, in southeast Kentucky, with their seven children. Sam was one of the lead organizers for the United Mine Workers of America, which made him a target for Blair and his henchmen. Sam knew the risk to his life and his families if he stayed in the house with them, so he ran off to hide in the mountains.

 In search of Sam, five carloads full of sheriff’s deputies arrived at the Reece home, where Florence and her children were alone.[31] The deputies ransacked into the home with rifles, in search of Sam and his “radical literature.”[32]  In response to this incident, Florence wrote “Which Side Are You On” to the tune of the Baptist hymn, “Lay the Lily Low.”[33] Later, Reece recalled the confrontation in an interview with Mountain Life & Work;

When the thugs were raiding our house off and on, and Sam was run off, I felt like I just had to do something to help. The little children, they’d have little legs and a big stomach. Some men staggered when they walked, they were so hungry…. We didn’t even have any paper, so when I wanted to write “Which Side Are You On?” I just jerked the calendar off the wall and sat down and wrote the words down on the back.[34]

Reece recorded the song officially later in life, her voice shrill and tired, unaccompanied by any instrumentals or harmony. Her song is more of a declaration with a clear message: the miners must join the union and fight against the oppressive forces. Although she is asking the listener, “which side are you on?” she makes it clear that the decision is one of life or death. The miners must join the union or meet a sorrowful end as her father did.     

Although the sentiments present in the song are based on her personal trauma, her message appealed to both men and women involved in the strike. First, she rallied the miners by stating the “thugs are looking thin,” suggesting that union miners were making strides in the movement. However, her next stanzas evokes a sense of pity and misery that do not directly relate to the battles themselves. She painted a picture of the “wild” children of the miners, juxtaposing their lives to that of the luxurious upper class. For their children to be “wild” suggests that they are dirty and hungry, scrounging around the county for food and clothes, while the children of the elites received educations. Reece then brings in the image of her father who died in a mining accident; although he is “in the air and sun,” he will fight alongside the union workers until their goals are achieved. [35]

Again, her song is rooted in highly personal experiences, however, many of the women in Harlan similarly experienced her pain. With their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons working in the coal fields, these women lived with the constant fear of mining related accidents, while attempting to care for a family on extremely low wages.

Map of Kentucky, highlighting Harlan County

Aunt Molly Jackson and “Poor Miner’s Farwell”

As Aunt Molly Jackson walked the streets of Harlan three weeks after one of her brother’s died in a coal mining accident, she ran into three of his children begging local stores for food. After their father’s death, the family ran out of money  and had no means to obtain food and groceries. The youngest looked up at her and asked, “Aunt Molly, will you get us some food to eat?” [36] The heartbreaking plea inspired  her to compose “Poor Miner’s Farewell:”

Poor hard-working miners, their troubles so great,

So often while mining they meet their sad fate.

Killed by some accident, there’s no one can tell,

Their mining’s all over, poor miner’s farewell!

Only a miner, killed under the ground,

            Only a miner but one more is gone,

            Only a miner but one more is gone,

Leaving his wife and dear children alone

They leave their dear wives and little ones too,

To earn them a living as miner all do.

Killed by some accident, there’s no one can tell

Their mining’s all over, poor miners farewell!

Chorus

Leaving his children thrown out on the street,

Barefooted and ragged and nothing to eat,

Mother is jobless, my father is dead,

I am a poor orphan begging for bread.

            Chorus

When I am in Kentucky so often I meet,

Poor coal miner’s children out on the street.

“What are you doing?” to them I have said,

“We are hungry, Aunt Molly, and we are begging for bread.”

            Chorus

“Will you please help us get something to eat?

We are ragged and hungry, thrown out on the street.”

“Yes, I will help you,” to them I have said,

“To beg for food and clothing, I will help you get bread.”

            Chorus

            Aunt Molly Jackson was born Mary Magdalene Garland in 1880, in Clay County, Kentucky (directly northwest of Harlan). Her father Oliver Garland worked in the mines but brought home little to support the family. Consequently, her mother, Deborah, died of starvation in 1886. Stricken by the loss, her father became a union organizer with his young daughter Molly at his side. Molly accompanied her father to union meetings and strikes, and at ten years old, she went to jail for her association with the union organizers.[37]

 In 1884, she married a miner named Jim Stewart. The pair lived in Clay County and raised two children. She worked as a midwife in Clay County for ten years before moving to Harlan. Aunt Molly and her husband moved to Harlan County in 1908, where she continued her work as a midwife, while he worked in the mines. In 1917, Jim Stewart died in a slate fall in the mines. Later, she remarried miner, Bill Jackson.[38]

During the strike of 1931, Aunt Molly continued to work as a midwife, eventually delivering over 800 babies. Unfortunately, in a three-month period in 1931, thirty-seven children died in her arms as she attempted to nurse them to health.[39] She blamed “cholera, famine, flux, stomach trouble, [all] brought on by undernourishment.” Aunt Molly claimed that families that were out of work only received beans fried in lard from the Red Cross, if they received anything at all. The Red Cross did not provided parents with babies milk or food products that an infant stomach could easily digest. [40] Twenty year later, she claimed she “could still hear the hungry children cry.”[41] 

Meanwhile, separate mining accidents blinded her husband and a brother, and another accident killed another one of her brothers.[42] Her personal experiences and heartache not only inspired her songs, but they also radicalized her political views. Communist group leader Theodore Dresier, (dry-zer) just back from a winter visit in the Soviet Union, took an interest in Aunt Molly in November 1931. Dresier sought individual testimonies from Harlan residents to develop the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners led by the Community Party of the United States.  After she provided the information above, Dresier invited Aunt Molly to raise funds for miners across thirty-eight states. The “tour” took her to New York City, where she was exposed to more members of the radical left. In this group, she met folksingers and song collectors like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger who learned and performed her songs.[43]

Like Reece, Aunt Molly’s songs are founded on the events and devastation she witnessed in Clay and Harlan Counties. Her experiences may seem extreme and individualized, but her work spoke to hundreds of wives and daughters suffering the same heartaches. For every woman who lost a father, brother, or son, the coal operators viewed him as “only a miner” with little to offer but his ability to serve the coal mining system. But to the women and children in his life, he was not only a miner; he was a father, a husband, a brother, a son, and his departure from the world left them to suffer at the hands of the coal operators.

Sarah Ogan Gunning and “Come All You Coal Miners”

Sarah Ogan Gunning differs from the other two women because she did not start writing her own songs until 1936, after leaving Harlan. Stricken by heartbreak and suffering, after her husband’s death, she wrote “Come All You Coal Miners”:

Come all you coal miners wherever you may be
And listen to a story that I’ll relate to thee
My name is nothing extra, but the truth to you I’ll tell
I am a coal miner’s wife, I’m sure l wish you well.
l was born in old Kentucky, in a coal camp born and bred,
I know all about the pinto beans, bulldog gravy and cornbread,
And I know how the coal miners work and slave in the coal mines every day
For a dollar in the company store, for that is all they pay.

Coal mining is the most dangerous work in our land today
With plenty of dirty, slaving work, and very little pay.
Coal miner, won’t you wake up, and open your eyes and see
What the dirty capitalist system is doing to you and me.

They take your very life blood, they take our children’s lives
They take fathers away from children, and husbands away from wives.
Oh miner, won’t you organize wherever you may be
And make this a land of freedom for workers like you and me.

Dear miner, they will slave you ’til you can’t work no more
And what’ll you get for your living but a dollar in a company store
A tumbled-down shack to live in, snow and rain pours in the top.
You have to pay the company rent, your dying never stops.

I am a coal miner’s wife, I’m sure l wish you well.
Let’s sink this capitalist system in the darkest pits of hell

Sarah Ogan Gunning (Garland) was born in a coal camp in 1910, just west of Harlan County. Her father Oliver Garland worked in coal mines and joined workers unions immediately after miners started to organize. He held union meetings in the family home, witnessed by his fifteen children.[44] Her mother brought traditional ballads, hymns, and love songs in the home which influenced Ogan Gunning’s love for singing. As a child she, her brother Jim, and half-sister Molly (Aunt Molly Jackson) sang songs on their porch, drawing a crowd in their neighborhood.[45]  As a coal miner’s daughter, she lacked “personal amenities and formal education” so most of her perspectives came directly from the influences of her parents.[46] At fifteen years old, she met and fell in love with her first husband, miner Andrew Ogan, thus becoming a coal miner’s wife in 1926.

Ogan Gunning describes her life as a coal miner’s daughter and wife in “Come All You Coal Miners”; she was born in a coal camp and survived on little resources. She watched as the coal miners performed “slaving work” for almost nothing. In her song, she establishes that “they” are the enemy as men are cut off from their families, leaving their wives and children to starve. She speaks directly to the audience, calling on coal miners and their wives to revolt against the capitalist system of which they slave. She claims that together they can “sink this capitalist system in the darkest pits/ of Hell”.[47]

By the time the strike hit in 1931, Andrew and Sarah Ogan had two children. The younger of the two, a baby girl, died of starvation. She recounted the incident in her song “I Hate the Capitalist System;” “I had a blue-eyed baby, the darling of my heart, but from my little darling, her mother had to part, the rich and mighty capitalist dressed in jewels and silk while my darling blue-eyed baby, she starved to death for milk.”[48] At first, she was not affiliated with the NMU nor did she any radical views. However, her husband Andrew and brother Jim worked in the mines  and brought home the news of protest in the mines. The pair soon joined the NMU.  Through, their union affiliation exposed the pair to radical left views preached by the union leaders.[49]

In 1935, the Ogan family moved to New York City. Life in the city, however, did not fare much better for the family. They lived a small apartment the east part of the city. Her husband fell ill with tuberculous, a disease common among miners. While her husband laid dying, she wrote “Come All You Coal Miners.”[50] Ogan Gunning did not write the piece as a protest song, instead, she wrote it as a reflection of her “deepest feelings and sorrow.”[51] She is explicit and raw in her imagery, leaving little to imagination. Her voice in her 1967 recording, sounds hollow and dry, as she reflects on the painful memories.

From the Male Perspective

Not all the folk songs that came out of Harlan County reflected the sentiment of Reece, Jackson, or Ogan Gunning. This piece, titled Harlan County Blues, written by a man named George Davis, shared a “loose episodic account of a single event.”[52] Although his song is deeply personal, as it includes the names of the targeted union men, it contains a sense of sarcasm and humor. Whereas the women intensely share their thoughts and observations, Davis attempts to make light of the situation:

Harlan County Blues

A bunch of fellers the other day
O’er to Harlan went;
They told me about the fun they had–
All the time in jail they spent.

Most of the fellers were like me
Who didn’t go along;
If you want the story, boys,
Just listen to this song.

“You didn’t have to be drunk,” they said,
“To get throwed in the can;
The only thing you needed be
Was just a union man.”

None of the boys didn’t like it much,
They said they’s treated bad;
They took their knives or pocket books,
Or anything they had.

They throwed Bill Wheeler in the can,
With all his poison gases;
He had no money to pay a fine
So they just took his glasses.

Then Kelly said, “You can’t do this to me,”
When they come to get his name;
“The hell they can’t,” the jailer said
“You’re in here just the same.”

Walter he’s a funny chap,
With me you’ll all agree;
He wants someone to hold to him,
When he gets on a spree.

Delmos he went down the street,
To a restaurant was bent;
When two fellers picked him up
And to the jail he went.

Put Bill Sheets in the jailhouse,
For reckless walking, so they say;
They can’t hold Old Bill for that,
‘Cause he always walks that way.

Sam Ward went to the jailhouse,
And the jailer twirled his keys;
Sam said, “Mr. Jailer,
Now won’t you listen, please.”

Everything grew quiet, boys,
You couldn’t hear a sound;
“Turn ’em out,” Sam Ward yelled,
“Or I’ll turn this jail around.”

When they all was freed again,
You could hear them all take on:
“Just think of the fun that we’d a missed,
If we hadn’t come along.”

Then our president he asked our vice:
‘How’d you get along so well?”
And Taylor Cornett laughed and said,
“Why, I was drunk as hell.”

Lloyd Baker went over there,
To dodge the jail, he did;
He said, “They’d all stayed out of jail,
If they’d kept their buttons hid.”

Now my song is ended,
And I hope no one is sore;
If there is, then please speak up
And I won’t sing no more

He claims the arrested crowd had “fun” in the jail, making it seem like their reasons for being in jail were trivial and frivolous. Davis claims that the men were only guilty because of their union affiliations; he does not discuss the strike, starvation, or violence that plagued the county. Even his tone of voice while singing is light and humorous, suggesting the event was not as devastating as the women make it seem. Also, in contrast to his feminine counterparts, Davis does not mention anything about the effects the incident had on the women and children of the arrested men.

Likewise, Jim Garland, brother of Ogan Gunning and half-brother of Jackson, wrote “The Death of Harry Simms”, a song that tells the story of a nineteen-year-old union organizer’s death:

The Death of Harry Simms

Come and listen to my story,

Come and listen to my song;

I’ll tell you of a hero

That now is dead and gone;

I’ll tell you of a young boy.

His age, it was nineteen;

He was the bravest union man

That ever I have seen.

Harry Simms was a pal of mine,

We labored side by side,

Expecting to be shot on sight

Or taken for a ride

By some life-stealing gun thug

That roams from town to town

To shoot and kill our union men

Where e’er they may be found.

Harry Simms and I was parted

At five o’clock that day.

“Be careful, my dear brother.”

To Harry I did say.

“Now I must do my duty,”

Was his reply to me;

“lf I get killed by gun thugs

Don’t grieve after me.”

Harry Simms was walking up the track

That bright sunshiny day;

He was a youth of courage,

His steps was light and gay;

He did not know the gun thugs

Was hiding on the way

To kill our brave young hero

That bright sunshiny day.

Harry Simms was killed on Brush Creek

In nineteen thirty-two;

He organized the miners

Into the N. M. U.;

He gave his life in struggle,

‘Twas all that he could do;

He died for the union,

He died for me and you.

The thugs can kill our leaders

And cause us to shed tears,

But they cannot kill our spirit

If they try a million years;

We have learned our lesson

Now we all realize

A union struggle must go on

Till we are organized.

The song lays the event out quite clear; gun thugs killed Harry Simms as he walked home from work in 1932. Simms was born to a Jewish family in Connecticut but moved to Kentucky to organize with the Communist Youth League and the NMU. Because of his kindness and courage, he won the respect of the NMU and their families, and eventually served as a leader in the organization.

 A mine guard named Arlan Miller shot Simms in the abdomen and left him for dead. The next day, his body was found beside the train tracks, clear that he bled out. His body was sent back to NYC, with a red flag draped over his coffin.[53] 

Unlike, “Harlan County Blues,” “The Death of Harry Simms” speaks to the devastation that took place in Harlan County. Jim Garland sought to immortalize the noble and heroic character of Simms. Again, the song is meaningful and significant, but it only shares the specific story of one union man. The piece gives no mention to his direct family members or those he left behind.

Conclusion

            Despite the popularity of their songs among the folk circles in New York, Florence Reece, Aunt Molly Jackson, and Sarah Ogan Gunning, died with nothing. They lived in poverty; Jackson and Ogan Gunning in New York, and Reece in Tennessee.  Leaders of the folk revival, like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, performed and recorded their songs, and made a profit while doing so.

Florence Reece, Aunt Molly Jackson, and Sarah Ogan Gunning’s  power to communicate, organize, and inspire is known to few outside of the miners and their families. Even the two principal books used for this paper, Which Side Are You On? By John Hevener and Only a Miner by Archie Green, phrases devised by Reece and Jackson, respectively, neglect to discuss the women and their impacts in detail. Henvener’s Which Side Are You On? examines Reece on two out of two hundred sixteen pages. Likewise, Green discusses Jackson on eleven out of five hundred.

Their songs are more than rallying cries or catchy tunes; they represent an ignored narrative in a complex history. Their experiences reflect that of thousands of women that witnessed the devastation in Harlan. Husbands, fathers, and brothers suffered at the hands of the capitalist elite, while women and children starved. Florence Reece, Aunt Molly Jackson, and Sarah Ogan Gunning share with us their pain, opinions, and desires for all effected by the labor strike. Their songs reveal the powerful forces that drive the feminine spirt and the ability of woman to demanded change in an otherwise male dominated movement.

A barge hauling coal in the Louisville and Portland Canal

Discography

Davis, George. Harlan County Blues. Library of Congress AFS L 60, 1967.

Garland, Jim. The Death of Harry Simms. Folkways Records FW05457, FH 5457, 1961.

Jackson, Aunt Molly. Poor Miner’s Farewell. Folkways, 1961.

Lynn, Loretta. Coal Miner’s Daughter. Decca Records, 1970.

Ogan Gunning, Sarah. Come All You Coal Miners. Library of Congress AFS, 1944.

Reece, Florence. Which Side Are You On? Smithsonian Folkways, 2006.

Bibliography: Secondary Sources

Appalachian Center & Appalachian Studies. “Background to the 1931-32 Strike.” appalachiancenter.as.uky.edu. Accessed September 21, 2021. https://appalachiancenter.as.uky.edu/coal-strike/background-coal-strike.

Association of American Railroads. “Freight Railroads & Differential Pricing.” Association of American Railroads, August 31, 2020. https://www.aar.org/article/freight-railroads-differential-pricing/.

East, Elyssa. “‘I’m Going to Organize, Baby Mine.’” main.oxfordamerican.org, 2017. https://main.oxfordamerican.org/magazine/item/1379-im-going-to-organize-baby-mine.

Frederickson, Mary E. “Gender Issues and Organized Labor in the Twentieth-Century American South.” In Organized Labor in the Twentieth-Century South. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

Grattan, Virginia L. American Women Songwriters: A Biographical Dictionary. Greenwood Press, 1993.

Green, Archie. Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs. University of Illinois Press, 1978.

Green, Archie. Liner notes to “Girl of Constant Sorrow.” Sarah Ogan Gunning. Folk-Legacy Records. (1965)

Green, Archie. Liner notes to “Tipple, Loom, & Rail: Songs of the Industrial South.”Mike Seeger. Folkways Records. (1965).

Greenway, John. Liner Notes to The Songs and Stories of Aunt Molly Jackson. 1961.

Hevener, John W. Which Side Are You On? : The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931-39. Urbana: University Of Illinois Press, 2002.

Dreadful Memories: The Life of Sarah Ogan Gunning (1910-1983). Appalshop Films Inc., 1988.

Lomax, Alan. “Special Features in Sung Communication.” Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts: Proceedings of the 1966 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society, 1967.

Seeger, Pete. The Incompleat Folksinger. Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Serrin, William. “Labor Song Writer, Frail at 83, Shows She Is Still a Fighter.” The New York Times, March 18, 1984, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/1984/03/18/us/labor-song-s-writer-frail-at-83-shows-she-is-still-a-fighter.html.

Winslow, Cal. “A Brief History of Harlan County, USA.” Labor Notes, August 14, 2019. https://labornotes.org/blogs/2019/08/brief-history-harlan-county-usa.

Bibliography: Primary Sources

Jackson, Aunt Molly. “Testimony of AUNT MOLLY JACKSON, Straight Creek, Kentucky, November 7, 1931.” In Harlan Miners Speak: Report on Terrorism in the Kentucky Coal Fields. University Press of Kentucky, 2008.

Jones, G. C. Growing Up Hard in Harlan County. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2004.


[1] Pete Seeger, The Incomplete Folksinger (Simon and Schuster, 1972), 91.

[2] Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner’s Daughter (Decca Records, 1970).

[3] John W Hevener, Which Side Are You On?: The Harlan County Coal Miners, 1931-39 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 1.

[4] G. C. Jones, Growing up Hard in Harlan County (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2004), 13.

[5] Hevener, Which Side Are You On?, 10.

[6] Hevener, Which Side Are You On?, 10.

[7] Appalachian Center & Appalachian Studies, “Background to the 1931-32 Strike,” appalachiancenter.as.uky.edu, accessed September 21, 2021, https://appalachiancenter.as.uky.edu/coal-strike/background-coal-strike.

[8] Cal Winslow, “A Brief History of Harlan County, USA,” Labor Notes, August 14, 2019, https://labornotes.org/blogs/2019/08/brief-history-harlan-county-usa.

[9] Mary E. Frederickson, “Gender Issues and Organized Labor in the Twentieth-Century American South,” in Organized Labor in the Twentieth-Century South (Knoxville: University Of Tennessee Press, 1991), 85.

[10] Alan Lomax, “Special Features in Sung Communication,” Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts: Proceedings of the 1966 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society, 1967, 119.

[11] Hevener, Which Side Are You On?, 3.

[12] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 5.

[13] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 9.

[14] Association of American Railroads, “Freight Railroads & Differential Pricing,” Association of American Railroads, August 31, 2020, https://www.aar.org/article/freight-railroads-differential-pricing/.

[15] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 10.

[16] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 10.

[17] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 15.

[18] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 16.

[19] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 20.

[20] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 22.

[21] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 21.

[22] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 34-35.

[23] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 37.

[24] Aunt Molly Jackson, “Testimony of AUNT MOLLY JACKSON, Straight Creek, Kentucky, November 7, 1931,” in Harlan Miners Speak: Report on Terrorism in the Kentucky Coal Fields (University Press of Kentucky, 2008), 279.

[25] Jackson, “Testimony of AUNT MOLLY JACKSON,” 280.

[26] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 43-45.

[27] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 46.

[28] Winslow, “A Brief History of Harlan County, USA,”

[29] Hevener, Which Side Are You On?, x.

[30] William Serrin, “Labor Song Writer, Frail at 83, Shows She Is Still a Fighter,” The New York Times, March 18, 1984, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/1984/03/18/us/labor-song-s-writer-frail-at-83-shows-she-is-still-a-fighter.html.

[31] Serrin, “Labor Song Writer, Frail at 83, Shows She Is Still a Fighter.”

[32] Hevener, Which Side Are You On?, x.

[33] Serrin, “Labor Song Writer, Frail at 83, Shows She Is Still a Fighter.”

[34] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 61.

[35] Florence Reece, Which Side Are You On? (Smithsonian Folkways, 2006).

[36] Liner notes, “Poor Miner’s Farewell,” 2.

[37] Virginia L. Grattan, American Women Songwriters: A Biographical Dictionary (Greenwood Press, 1993).

[38] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 66.

[39] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 66.

[40] Jackson, “Testimony of AUNT MOLLY JACKSON,” 279.

[41] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 66.

[42] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 66.

[43] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 66; Grattan, American Women Songwriters, 154.

[44] Archie Green, Liner Notes to “Girl of Constant Sorrow”, Sarah Ogan Gunning, Folk-Legacy Records, 1965, 2.

[45] Dreadful Memories: The Life of Sarah Ogan Gunning (1910-1983) (Appalshop Films Inc., 1988), 00h, 05m, 24s.

[46] Green, Liner Notes to “Girl of Constant Sorrow”, 2.

[47] Sarah Ogan Gunning, “Come All You Coal Miners” (Library of Congress AFS, 1944).

[48] Dreadful Memories, 00h,19m,17s.                                                                       

[49] Green, Liner Notes to “Girl of Constant Sorrow”, 3.

[50] Green, Liner Notes to “Girl of Constant Sorrow”, 3.

[51] Archie Green, liner notes to Tipple, Loom, & Rail: Songs of the Industrial South, Mike Seeger, Folkways Records, (1965) 6.

[52] Archie Green, liner notes to Tipple, Loom, & Rail: Songs of the Industrial South, Mike Seeger, Folkways Records, (1965), 7.

[53] Hevener, Which Side Are You On, 79.


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