Despite the vast strides that technology and organized labor have made to improve working conditions, today’s headlines are still a chilling reminder of the many perils of coal mining. The new compilation Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner’s Struggle, available May 23 on Rounder Records, features a riveting selection of mining songs which, while spanning over three decades, are as visceral and relevant now as they ever were. Many of the tracks were heard in Barbara Kopple’s inspiring, Academy Award®-winning 1976 film Harlan County USA, which is being released in an extensive DVD edition by the Criterion Collection, also in stores on May 23.
In addition to the stirring, evocative performances by Hazel Dickens, Phyllis Boyens, and Country Cooking that were featured in the film, Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner’s Struggle also includes songs from Merle Travis, Norman Blake, Doc Watson, and the Johnson Mountain Boys. Rounding out the collection are harrowing, previously unreleased performances by Sarah Ogan Gunning (“Hard Working Miner”) and her brother Jim Garland (“The Death of Harry Simms”). Taken as a whole, Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner’s Struggle is a chilling musical reflection of the danger, determination, turbulence, and triumph that mark the coal mining experience. From full-bore bluegrass to haunting a cappella laments and activist anthems, these powerful recordings document miners’ trials both above and below the earth’s surface, from picket lines to pickaxes, corruption to corrosion.