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Nashville Scene Coal Comfort

Coal miner's blues get revival.

By Bill Friskics-Warren

MAY 26, 1998:  In the genre of protest songs, coal-mining songs stand as some of the most pointed, most rousing anthems ever written. Singers such as Aunt Molly Jackson, Sarah Ogun Gunning, and Hazel Dickens unflinchingly portrayed material hardship as a way of inciting oppressed miners to fight for better working conditions, better pay, and, ultimately, the promise of a better life. Although not expressly political, even Merle Travis' "Sixteen Tons," a No. 1 hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955, struck at injustices that created poverty and kept people poor. Very few of these songs, though--except for maybe "Dark as a Dungeon"--conveyed a sense of spiritual abandonment born of years spent buried in the mines.

Which is what makes Jim Ford's 1969 recording "Harlan County" so arresting. The song clearly emanates from a different sensibility--from someone who realized that pro-union anthems couldn't possibly convey the feelings of alienation that accompanied the back-breaking work and the constant threat of black lung disease. "In the back hills of Kentucky I was raised, in a shack on big bone mountain," Ford sings over a driving Muscle Shoals-style rhythm section. "Born into poverty, bathed in misery, the times I went hungry you can count 'em. Where the cold winds blow and the crops don't grow, a man is tired of livin' when he's 20. I was diggin' hard coal at 12 years old way down in Harlan County."

Although he came of age during the 1960s, Ford could just as easily have been singing about the harsh, grueling world of his Depression-era counterpart, singer-banjo player Dock Boggs. Like Ford, Boggs began working in the coal pits of Appalachia when he was 12 years old--in his case, in southwestern Virginia, just over the state line from Harlan, Ky. And like Ford, Boggs' time in the mines shaped his music. Although neither man sang much about the mining life, each gave voice to the human havoc that issued from it. For Boggs, that meant reckoning with a world in which violence and adversity were inescapable facts of life. For Ford, it meant getting the hell out before the squalor snuffed out every glimmer of hope.

Reissued in January on the Revenant label as Country Blues, Boggs' early recordings--made for the Brunswick and Lonesome Ace labels in 1927 and 1929--are as rugged and unyielding as the terrain that surrounded his Clinch Mountain home. Rooted in both the African American blues and Anglo-Celtic ballad traditions, Boggs' resolute banjo and piercing whine befit someone who worked in the mines as a child, did prison time for killing a man, and lived to be 73 despite years of hard drinking.

Thematically, Boggs' catalog paints him as an Appalachian precursor to Delta blues singer Robert Johnson, whose "Stones in My Passway," "Hellhound on My Trail," and "Love in Vain" echo the estrangement conveyed in Boggs' lyrics and vocals. "I have never worked for pleasure, peace on earth I cannot find, the only thing I surely own is a worried and troubled mind," Boggs mourns on "Old Rub Alcohol Blues." On "Country Blues," his demons seem to get the better of him. "All around this old jailhouse is ha'nted, good people, 40 dollars won't pay my fine," he cries. "Corn whiskey has surrounded my body, poor boy, pretty women is a-troubling my mind."

But unlike Johnson, whose recordings often sound tortured and driven, Boggs doesn't run from dissolution as much as reckon with it; however dire life's consequences, he faces them as if he's swallowing a bitter pill. Seventy years on, it's this eerie resolve, perhaps born of the sense that only death brings release from suffering, that makes his music so riveting. In this respect, Boggs is more akin to the Geto Boys of "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," or to Tupac Shakur or the Notorious B.I.G., than to any folk or blues singer to emerge in his wake.

In the same way that Boggs drew on African American blues, Jim Ford's down-home pop sops up the R&B and soul stew of the American South. Released nearly three decades ago on the Hollywood-based Sundown label, Ford's Harlan County is an exhilarating expression of the late-'60s musical zeitgeist. With Native American rockers Redbone ("Come and Get Your Love") serving as his rhythm section, Ford's sole album sounds like Appalachia's answer to the incipient funk of Swamp Dogg or pre-Riot Sly & the Family Stone.

Witness "I'm Gonna Make Her Love Me," a freaky slab of fatback the likes of which Funkadelic didn't perfect until Standing on the Verge of Getting It On. Or "Dr. Handy," a "Sugar Sugar"-meets-"Brown-Eyed Girl" stick of juicy fruit about a bayou huckster who keeps the kids in candy. Add to that the hip-shake boogie of Delaney & Bonnie's "Long Road Ahead" and a couple of string-laden Jimmy Webb-style ballads, and Harlan County starts to sound epochal.

Ford dropped out of sight shortly after releasing the record, which resurfaced recently as a reissue on the British Edsel label. Rumor has it that he went to England to record a follow-up, only to scrap the project after both Brinsley Schwarz and Joe Cocker's Grease Band proved no match for his singularly groove-ful arrangements. Apocrypha like this only adds to Ford's already considerable mystique. It's hard enough to reconcile his dazzling musical ecumenism with his austere, hillbilly origins--a world, he sings, in which a young child's dream was "a new pair of shoes to keep its little feet warm in winter."

Although Boggs, who laid aside his banjo 40 years earlier, lived to see the release of Ford's record, he probably never heard it. That's a shame. Harlan County is as stirring a testament to spiritual release as Boggs' recordings are to resiliency. Listening now, it's easy to attribute the differing sensibilities of these two former child-miners to the advent of rock 'n' roll. Where Boggs fearlessly embraced a fatalism that extended at least back to the 19th century, Ford tapped the same urge for transcendence that spurred Dylan to leave the Iron Range, the Beatles to escape Liverpool, and Bruce Springsteen to climb out from under the Boardwalk of Atlantic City.

Wherever Ford is today, it's no wonder that he got out of Kentucky. You can almost hear the screen door slam when he sings, "I put a shirt on my back and a brown paper sack, a big piece of my mama's cold cornbread. I hit the road jack, forgot to look back, I walked all the way down to somewhere." Listening to Ford sing of traveling far and wide--and forever remembering the cruel hills of Harlan County--it's clear that leaving was a matter of survival. Not even Springsteen ran as far or as fast.

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