Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review: Coalfield A Cappella

Close your eyes and imagine that you are in the mountains, deep in a hollow in a small community where everyone’s livelihood is controlled by one industry—coal. Imagine that each family has been impacted by that industry: the loss of loved ones in violent accidents or to the long slow suffocation of black lung, the loss of jobs, and the loss of what mountain people hold most dear—the mountains themselves.

Imagine again that you are seated on the porch of one of those homes, listening to someone telling the story of these people and their place in song. Simple, unaccompanied ballads that speak of life and death, passion, love, sadness, frustration, anger and defiance.

Open your eyes. You are listening to Coalfield A Cappella, a CD of original songs about the coalfields and their people, by Dr. Shirley Stewart Burns.

Burns knows all too well the struggles of the people about whom she sings. Raised in the coalfields of Wyoming County, West Virginia, Burns lost her grandfather and her father to the mines. She witnessed firsthand the painful death of black lung and she saw community after community die out as mines closed or new methods replaced manpower with big machinery. She saw water turn orange from mine drainage and communities drown in floods that made worse because denuded mountains and filled-in streams could not hold back rapid drainage from heavy rains.

An Appalachian scholar with a strong voice in the anti-mountaintop removal fight, Burns turned her pen from writing books about the tragic changes in the coalfields to composing songs in the way that mountain people know best—ballads. Her ballads tell stories: the story of a woman beaten down but not defeated by what mining has done to her family in “Ode to a Miner’s Wife;” of a man who turned to drink after witnessing the deaths of his sons in the mines in “Drunkard’s Lament.” Her sorrow at the loss of her father is laid bare in “Ode to a Miner,” and her sardonic look at mountaintop removal mining seems almost playful in the ominous “Pretty Mountains.” “There Goes Another Mountain” is an elegy to mountains stripped of their tops and their trees, their insides laid bare in the haste to dig coal out of their hearts. Still, Burns ends the recording with a song of faith and hope to complete this haunting collection.

The people of the coalfields are not unaware of what is happening to their land and their lives; many fight back with protests, appeals for legislation, and demands that lawmakers hold the coal companies to the standards and regulations that were created to govern the industry. It’s an uphill battle, and Burns stands at its forefront, unafraid. Some of her songs, like “Leave These Mountains Down” are songs of defiance and strength. She is not anti-mining; she is a daughter of coal. She stands for miners and their families, and for the conscientious removal of coal in a manner that will leave the land beautiful for generations to come.

Burns’ voice is simple and pure, the voice of a mountain woman singing about the land and people she loves. Her songs are songs from the heart, and her message is one that we all need to hear. Our mountains need us to listen and understand what happens to them and to their people when an industry looks only to profit and not to the future to mine the black gold hidden in West Virginia’s wild and wonderful hills.

For order information see: http://www.shirleystewartburns.com/home


Matthew Burns said...

Thanks Susanna for the great review.

Jill Spealman said...

Thank you, Granny! I've been wondering about MTR and you and Shirley Stewart Burns are educating me. I had no idea the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act are what made MTR the most often-used method of removing coal. That's why it's so important the Clean Water Protection Act gets passed--maybe this spring. I'm writing my congressman because he's not currently on board. The ilovemountains.org site connects my electricity usage directly to MTR. Knowledge is power! Thanks again.

Granny Sue said...

You're right, Jill--knowledge is power. I learned that I can choose where my power comes from. Allegheny Power has options on their website that allow users to choose. That's something few people are aware of, I'd think.

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