Shipping News and Reviews

From coal mines to chain gangs and extra, black music tells the tales of black employees

When I grew up listening to Paul Robeson's music, I was no stranger to his deep, melodic bass-baritone or his politics. He stood up for working men and women, and although he was persecuted here in the United States for his Communist Party membership and stance against racism, he was loved by workers around the world.

Extract from the Mining Review Volume 2 No. 11 (1949) The highlight of this 1949 edition is the visit by the American actor and singer Paul Robeson to the Woolmet Colliery near Edinburgh. Robeson was also a well-known (and often persecuted) left wing political activist and visited several British mining communities. On that occasion he sings "I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night" for miners in the canteen, a song about an American trade unionist who was allegedly charged with murder and executed in 1915. Robeson had long been a hero in the British mining community ever since he appeared in the film Proud Valley (d. Pen Tennyson, 1940) as an American sailor stranded in Cardiff finding work in a Welsh colliery (the newsreel begins with a short clip from the film).

I was drawn to Robeson's contact with miners because my own family history included black miners who were recently enslaved and who moved from Virginia to West Virginia to work in the mines immediately after the Civil War ended.

Tim Pinnick's blog on Rootsweb, the African American Coal Miner Information Center, has a wealth of resources, links, and information, including this brief story.

The historical record shows that the earliest commercial coal mining in America involved slaves working in the coal mines near Richmond, Virginia in the mid-18th century. The Black Heath Company, Chesterfield Coal and Iron Mining Company, Midlothian Mining Company, and others employed hundreds of slaves and free blacks. These men were employed in a variety of professions in and outside the mines, from simple laborers to blacksmiths. The workforce in many mines was often supplemented by slaves contracted by slave owners in the area. In other states, particularly Pennsylvania and Alabama, significant efforts have been made to mine coal and create demand for coal, employing a variety of undeclared workers. These efforts have met with mixed results. As early as 1860, at least a dozen free black miners were working in Allegheny County outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This is one of the earliest documentaries of black coal miners working in the northern coal fields and known as the central competitive field.

Industry grew rapidly in the 19th century due to the industrial revolution and the advent of the railways. On the eve of the Civil War, there were coal mines in over twenty states and US production exceeded 20 million tons. The demand for coal continued to grow over the decade as the railroad tracks rose and the "black diamonds" became the fuel of choice for individuals who heated their homes. During the reconstruction, the coal and railroad industries became two of the main employment opportunities for the newly emancipated undeclared worker as many of the more adventurous former slaves left the south. Many found work with a large number of start-up mining companies, funded from Eastern capital and moved in to establish their dominance in the rich coal beds of the Midwest and the West. The owners came across their first attempts upside down mostly white miners to unionize. One of the strategies used to combat union formation has been the use of black strikebreakers. Mine owners deployed workers in urban areas of the country and sent workers south to lure disenfranchised blacks. These southern recruits consisted not only of experienced miners, but also of many farm laborers who suffered from the common harvest system. During this time a new form of submission in the form of convict labor emerged in the deep south. Throughout Alabama and parts of Tennessee and Georgia, concerted efforts have been made to arrest blacks, impose excessive sentences, and then lease them to coal mining companies.

Coal mining remained a steady source of employment for black people in the first three decades of the 20th century. In 1910, over 40,500 were doing coal mine-related work, of which about 29,000 were miners. However, when the 1930s arrived, increasing mechanization marked the beginning of the end of the black miner.

I think that when a lot of people hear "miners" and talk about US labor history, they visualize white men. The story tells a different story. Folk soul singer / songwriter Bill Withers, who passed away last year, was the son of a miner.

Singer / songwriter Bill Withers was born and raised in the mining town of Slab Fork in Raleigh County. The career of one of West Virginia's most successful songwriters, Withers, spanned four decades, and his music continues to influence today's soul and hip-hop.

Withers, the youngest of six children, was born with a stutter. His father, a miner, died when Withers was not a teenager. He then lived with his mother and grandmother in nearby Beckley and joined the Navy in hopes of escaping the culture of coal and the cycle of poverty. During his time in the service, he developed an interest in singing and songwriting.

Gil-Scott Heron, a poet, activist and founding member of hip-hop, also sang about miners in his epic song "Three Miles Down". Heron did not come from a mining family – although he lived briefly in Tennessee as a child. From his 1983 Guardian obituary by Mike Power:

During his 40-year career, Scott-Heron made a militant commentary not only on the African American experience, but also on general social injustice and political hypocrisy. He was born in Chicago, Illinois and had a difficult, wandering childhood. His father, Gilbert Heron, was a Jamaica-born soccer player who joined Celtic FC as the first black player on the Glasgow team in Gil's childhood, and his mother, Bobbie Scott, was a librarian and avid singer. After their divorce, Scott-Heron moved to Lincoln, Tennessee, to live with his grandmother, Lily Scott, a civil rights activist and musician whose influence on him was indelible.

He remembered her in the title On Coming from a Broken Home on his 2010 comeback album I'm New Here as "absolutely not your shipping, room service, typed black grandmother". She bought him his first piano from a local undertaker and introduced him to the work of Harlem Renaissance writer and jazz poet Langston Hughes, whose influence would resonate throughout his career.

At nearby Tigrett Junior High School in 1962, Scott-Heron was abused daily as one of only three black children selected to have the facility closed. These experiences coincided with the completion of his first volume of unpublished poems when he was 12 years old.

Text (Gil Scott Heron and Brian Jackson)

Here come the mine cars
And it's damn close to dawn
Another layer of men, some of whom are my friends, is coming
Hard to imagine working in the mines
Coal dust in your lungs, on your skin, and in your mind
I listened to the speeches
But I noticed that politicians don't understand that
The thoughts of isolation are not sunshine under the earth
It's like working in a cemetery three miles away
Damn close to a legend as old as the mines
Things that happen at the pits just don't change over time
Work until you run out of space
A story of catastrophic fears on your face
Someone signs a paper, everyone thinks it's okay
But Taft and Hartley won't be finished in the mines one day
You're starting to stiffen! You heard a crack!
It's like working in a cemetery three miles away

Aside from the dangers of my collapses, the environmental health hazards of this type of work are covered in Sweet Honey in Rock's "More Than a Paycheck," which is discussed in this audio recording from a 2014 Michigan State University program.

Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, official member of the "Sweet Honey in the Rock" vocal group, will give a lecture entitled "More Than a Paycheck: What Professional Music Reveals About Worker Health". Barnwell explains how she got into a career that combined health and music, and explains her research project about learning about working life through music. Focusing on mining and textiles, Barnwell says that problems and issues in the workplace are often reflected in song lyrics, as are unions and attempts to improve workers' lives.

Text by Ysaye Barnwell

We bring more than a paycheck to our loved ones and family.
We bring more than a paycheck to our loved ones and family.
We bring
brown lungs,
black lung disease.
And radiation hits children before they are even conceived.

I wanted to pay more.
But what I have today
is more than I expected
as I walked through that door

I bring home
brown lungs,
black lung disease.
And radiation hits children before they are even conceived.

Songs about coal mining didn't just spring from the traditions of black folk music from Robeson or groups like Sweet Honey. One unlikely place I came across a coal mining tune was in black dance clubs. During my hangout and party days in the '60s, one of the most popular tunes at The Cellar, an uptown club in New York City hosted by Betty Mabry, who later became Betty Davis after she married Miles Davis, was sung by Lee Dorsey , "Working in the coal mine." The song was written by the famous New Orleans musician, songwriter, arranger and record producer Allen Toussaint.

Dorsey was born Irving Lee Dorsey in New Orleans, Louisiana and moved to Portland, Oregon when he was ten. He served in the United States Navy and began a career in price wars. When boxing light heavyweight in Portland in the early 1950s, he fought under the name "Kid Chocolate" and was quite successful. Dorsey met songwriter / producer Allen Toussaint at a party in the early 1960s and was signed to the Fury record label. The song that started his career was inspired by a group of children who sang nursery rhymes – "Ya Ya" went to seventh place on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961. It sold over a million copies and received a gold record. He recorded other songs for Fury before the label collapsed, and Dorsey returned to his auto repair business. Toussaint later returned to the Amy label and began working with Dorsey again. From 1965 to 1969 Dorsey put seven songs on the Hot 100, the most successful of which was "Working in the Coal Mine" in 1966.

I urge you to try to stay in your seat when you hear this.

Seriously, while the history of black coal mining may not be familiar to most readers, anyone who has read the ugly history of black workers and their struggles with work organization is likely familiar with the Pullman Porters and A. Phillip Randolph's role in the organization. However, the black "red caps" that were to be found in every major train station were not Pullmans.

Here is Louis Armstrong's "Red Cap".

I didn't know the history of Red Cap when I started writing this, but I was curious to know the difference between Red Caps and Pullman Porters. I found an amazing story; Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal, by Eric K. Washington

In an effort of remarkable research and timely recovery, Eric K. Washington uncovered the almost forgotten life of James H. Williams (1878–1948), principal bearer of the Grand Central Terminal Red Caps – a multitude of black Harlem men he organizes in the essential workforce of America's August train station. Washington reveals that, despite the highly racial and often exploitative nature of the job, the Red Cap was a coveted job for college-bound black men determined to join New York's bourgeois middle class. Washington explores the deeply intertwined subjects of class, work, and African American history and records Williams' life. It shows how the enterprising son of freed slaves successfully navigated through the separate world of the northern metropolis, ultimately gaining financial and social influence.


The New York Academy of History has awarded Eric K. Washington's book Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal the Herbert H. Lehman Prize for Outstanding Scholarships.

– Columbia University (@Columbia) August 5, 2020

CUNY-TV's Tony Guida interviewed Washington in February 2020.

The golden age of American train travel was due in part to black servitude: red caps that were little more than beasts of burden. "Boss of The Grips" is the story of a forgotten New Yorker, James H. Williams, who gave them dignity and a path into the middle class.

I shift gears and remember that big hit from The Silhouettes.

Get a Job – The Silhouettes

Get A Job is one of the most popular and enduring songs of the rock & # 39; n & # 39; roll era, known and loved around the world for more than fifty years after its release.

The Get A Job lyrics deal with the issues of unemployment and domestic relationships, with the woman of the house telling the man to find work, meaning that he is both lazy and dishonest. But the song is also light-hearted, exuberant, and very danceable, with infectious vocal hooks, hand clapping, a rocking saxophone solo, and a general sense of fun.

"When I was on duty in the early 1950s and didn't come home and go to work, my mom said 'Get A Job' and basically the song came from there," said Rick Lewis, who formed it before The Silhouettes wrote it.

Compare this lighthearted do-wop to Heron's devastating portrait of what happens when a father loses his job in Pieces of a Man.


I saw my father greet the postman
And I heard the postman say
"Now don't take this letter to heart, Jimmy
Because they fired nine others today "
He didn't know what he was saying
He could hardly understand it
That he just spoke
Pieces of a man
I saw the thunder and heard the lightning!
And felt the weight of his shame
And for some unknown reason
He never turned me around
Pieces of this letter
Thrown across this room
And now I hear sirens
Come and stab through the darkness
You dont know what you are doing
They could hardly understand it
That they just arrest
Pieces of a man

Some jobs that are recorded in Black Music were not even taken on voluntarily. Chain gangs and prison labor are a common issue. Nat Adderley's "Work Song" is one of the most powerful examples.

The tune was inspired by his childhood experience when he saw a group of convict workers sing while they worked and paved the street in front of his family's Florida home. In 1960 it appeared in two albums: Cannonball Adderley Quintets Them Dirty Blues and Work Song by his own band. Both were released and recorded around the same time, but the earlier version, which marked its official debut, was released as a 45rpm single and became a popular jukebox hit.

Cannonball Adderley introduces the song his brother wrote in this 1962 clip from Oscar Brown Jr.'s TV show Jazz Scene USA.

Since the lyrics to "Work Song" were written by Oscar Brown Jr., here is his version.

I wouldn't be sure if I hadn't recorded Nina Simone's version.

Probably the most famous R&B song about chain gangs was written and sung by soul singer Sam Cooke, which Justin Novelli wrote about for SongFacts.

While touring the south in 1959, Cooke's tour bus came across a chain gang of prisoners in Georgia. There is no definitive way of knowing what prison Georgia State Prison – just outside Reidsville on Highway 147 – is in for the purposes of this article. In any case, Cooke and his brother took pity on the prisoners and ordered the driver to stop and, after a few handshakes, handed out packets of cigarettes before getting back on board to continue his journey. This chance meeting sparked Cooke's second most popular hit on the US charts.
Chain gangs, groups of prisoners bonded together during physical labor, existed primarily in the South until the practice was discontinued in 1955, except in Georgia, where chain gangs continued until the 1960s. They were first used during the post-civil war reconstruction of the South to use prisoners as free labor to rebuild the infrastructure of the southern states. Alabama reintroduced them in the 1990s. However, this brief experiment ended almost as quickly as it began with the media nicknamed it "commercialized slavery".

Not all black songs about work relate to tragic circumstances and the grave history of oppression. Work songs can simply be day in and day out to bring home money. The Isley Brothers had great success in 1972 with their tune "Work to Do", in which a brother explains to his wife why he cannot be with her as often as he would like.

I take care of business baby can't you see
I have to do it for you and I have to do it for myself
Sometimes it seems like I'm neglecting you
I would like to spend more time
But I have so many things to do
Oh, I've got work to do, I've got work to do, baby
I have a job, yes I have work to do
Said I had work to do
Oh, I'm out here trying to make it baby, can't you see?
It takes a lot of money to make it, let's talk honestly
So keep your love light on
And some hot food in my plate
You can just as easily get used to my coming home a little late

This disco women's work tune from Donna Summer became a feminist anthem and has an interesting story behind it.


Donna Summer went to a Grammy Award after party at Chasen where she met Ladies Room Attendant Onetta Johnson. Onetta was the inspiration for her hit "She Works Hard for Her Money". Ms. Summer even put Onetta on the back of the album.

– P.L.E. Photography (@PLEPhotography) December 8, 2019

The song, written by Summer, has become a Billboard hit and an anthem for her. The cover of the CD showed Summer as a waitress together with Onetta, the inspiration of the song in this clip and the lyrics. The song paid homage to and became a hymn for "working women" everywhere. It received a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (1983). Summer opened the Grammys this year with a rousing performance of the soon-to-be women's classic.

As we continue to struggle against income inequality and the struggle for living wages for workers, I think of a tune from soul-funk singer Sharon Jones of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings: “People don't get what we deserve. ”

Her biography from her website:

Prior to her death from pancreatic cancer in 2016, Sharon Jones was nominated for her first Grammy Award for 2014 publication, Give The People What They Want. She toured and performed relentlessly, and was the subject of Miss Sharon Jones !, an acclaimed documentary directed by Oscar-winning actress Barbara Kopple. But somehow the beloved and heroic soul singer found time to finish a studio album. Soul of a Woman features eleven songs recorded with her longtime co-conspirators, the Dap-Kings, which show that the emotions, dynamism, and drama of Jones' voice stayed in full force right through to her final days . (…)

Although Jones grew up mostly in Brooklyn, she spent the summers of her childhood in Augusta, Georgia, where she was born. She sang the gospel in churches all her life and led her choir in the Universal Church of God in Brooklyn for many years. In the 1970s, she joined a handful of local radio bands but was unable to get into the recording industry. She later began singing in wedding rings and worked, among other things, as an armored car guard for Wells Fargo and as a correctional officer in Rikers Island prison. In 1996 she sang back-up to a man-produced Lee Fields session after which he centered her on her very first recording as front woman, "Damn It's Hot," at the age of 40.

Jones and the Dap-Kings recorded their debut album Dap Dippin 'With Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings in the Brooklyn basement in 2001, followed by a string of increasingly popular albums and 45s and constant, ecstatically recorded tours. Their sixth record, Give the People What They Want, was nominated for Best R&B Album at the 2015 Grammys, and the group's final album, It's a Holiday Soul Party, was released in November 2015, almost one Year before Jones' death at the age of 60 gone.


When i was a kid i believed what they told me (every word)
To everyone will come what everyone will deserve
And if I worked hard no one could hold me
And scammers will fail, they all learned that (scammers never thrive)
There is a man who is born with a fortune
A hard job he never did (living on an easy street)
He lives on the sweat of other men's work
While he sips his champagne and lies in the sun

Money doesn't follow sweat
Money doesn't follow the mind
Money does not follow acts of peace
(People don't get what they deserve) x2

There is a man who lives like a saint

He works from daybreak until late at night
He was never stolen, he was never lazy (not a day in his life)
Feeding your kids is always a struggle (work work work)
I try to please all of God's children
I work very hard for everything I can afford
But I don't pretend a single moment
What I get is my fair reward

We must continue the struggle to get what we deserve and defeat the crooks who maintain the unequal system we have lived under for centuries.

Let the music be a memory and inspire us to stay on course. Join me in comments for more.

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