Conversations with Death – 4 – “Black Lung”

Hazel Dickens, ca. 2001 (West Virginia Division of Culture and History)

A little less than a year ago we started a new series within Murder Ballad Monday called “Conversations with Death.”  These brief, emotional posts allow us to explore songs that resonate for us in ways we find typical of our genre of choice, but that deal with mortality outside of the context of murder.  Today’s song certainly picks at those strings, and perhaps comes as close as any in the series thus far to crossing the line into a murder ballad proper.  Indeed, it’s one little toe shy – but that’s all.

Mary Battiata wrote in The Washington Post in 2001, “It’s been said that Hazel Dickens writes songs about two kinds of pain: the kind you can fix, like economic injustice, and the kind you can’t, like heartbreak and death.”  To my mind, “Black Lung” proves her pen could handle both at once.  Hazel wrote it in 1969 for her brother Thurman who died, in dire poverty, from the coal miner’s disease that gave her song its name.  It is a profoundly beautiful and wholly devastating work of art.

Let’s hear the music before we consider anything further.  In this clip from a film by Mimi Pickering, Hazel sings “Black Lung” at a 1990 gathering at the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee.  Her introduction says it all.  “This is a song that I wrote for my brother, so that he would have some kind of a voice in this world.”

Click here for one version of the song, recorded in 1972 at Highlander, which includes the fifth verse as intended.  You can also hear the first recorded version of the song on the album Strange Creek Singers from 1972, which is different though equally powerful.

“Black Lung” – Hazel Dickens

He’s had more hard luck than most men could stand.
The mines was his first love, but never his friend.
He’s lived a hard life, and hard he’ll die.
Black lung’s done got him. His time is nigh.

“Black lung, black lung, you’re just biding your time.
Soon all this suffering, I’ll leave behind.
But I can’t help but wonder what God had in mind
to send such a devil to claim this soul of mine.”

He went to the boss man, but he closed the door.
Well it seems you’re not wanted when you’re sick and you’re poor.
You’re not even covered in their medical plan,
and your life depends on the favors of man.

Down in the poorhouse on starvation’s plan,
where pride is a stranger and doomed is a man.
His soul full of coal dust ‘till his body’s decayed.
Everyone but black lung’s done turned him away.

“Black lung, black lung, your hand’s icy cold.
As you reach for my life, you torture my soul.
Cold as that waterhole down in the dark cave
where I spent my life’s blood, digging my grave.”

Down at the graveyard, the boss man came
with his little bunch of flowers. “Dear God! What a shame.”
Take back those flowers. Don’t sing no sad songs.
The die has been cast now. A good man is gone.

What God had in mind…

Did Hazel give her brother his voice?  Good Lord, yes!  I can’t imagine her doing any better than she did.  I have no doubt that it hits you as being strange if you’re new to folk music and wound up here on an internet search.  But even for those of us who are all folked up, I expect we’d all admit that in the broad world of the music we love, “Black Lung” has a rare and remarkable depth.  It is as authentic as any song can be.  Whether you like it aesthetically or not, there’s just no denying its overwhelming power.

What gives the song that depth and power?  Hazel herself remembered that it just came out that way.  In her 2008 book, Working Girl Blues, she wrote simply that “[Thurman’s] horrible death took a toll on me and affected the way I thought. My song… really came from the gut. I didn’t hold anything back. I didn’t fully realize until after I wrote it what I had.”  So, as we’ve seen with so many other powerful contemporary songs we’ve considered in our strange little blog, this one traveled straight from heart to pen without getting bogged down long in the brain.  That’s not surprising of course, but it seems clear to me as well that the song is structurally sophisticated in a way that pure emotion couldn’t create alone.

What do I mean?  Well, this is where a bit of listening experience in our genre of choice comes in handy.  It’s clear that Hazel’s gut and heart were well-served by the musical traditions that lived deep in her songwriting psyche.

Bill Malone, who helped write Working Girl Blues, told us in that work of one of those traditions  – the a capella singing Hazel learned from her father ‘H.N.’, a lumberman and Primitive Baptist preacher.

“Hazel vividly recalls the powerful singing of her father, regretting that she has never been able to replicate his manner of dwelling on notes and “turning” the syllables in marvelous ways. Songs heard in church— such as “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah” and “When I Can Read My Titles Clear”—taken most often from D. H . Goble’s venerable songbook, Primitive Baptist Hymn Book (1887), glorified God and noted the futility of man’s actions. Primitive Baptist lyrics reminded worshipers of the evanescence of life, the certainty of death, and the promise of heavenly reward. This was a tough-minded religion entirely appropriate to the spiritual needs of a people who lived hard and unadorned lives.”

That’s not to say “Black Lung” is simply an updated Baptist hymn.  It’s plain to see though that its structure and function are informed by such music and the stark world view embedded within it.  “Black Lung” came out reflexively, and it was patterned reflexively after the earliest and deepest music that Hazel knew.  As we saw with “Oh, Death” earlier in our series, you just can’t beat such music when you’re forced to stand squarely between life and death to face the abyss.  Though Hazel moved away from the religion of her youth, there can be no doubt that those old Baptist hymns were on her mind as she sat with her brother while he wasted away in poverty on his deathbed.

Interior of a Primitive Baptist Church, Cades Cove, Tennessee - photo by Jess Stryker

Interior of a Primitive Baptist church, Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee – photo by Jess Stryker

Note that Black Lung is personified as a demon, indeed as Death itself, in the second and fifth verses.  In those two verses, perspective changes and it is Thurman’s voice speaking directly with the devil Black Lung.  As in the old hymns, “the evanescence of life, the certainty of death” is at the core of the message.  We even see an echo of the Calvinist concept of predestination so central to the Primitive Baptists.  “I can’t help but wonder what God had in mind to send such a devil to claim this soul of mine.”

Don’t sing no sad songs…

However, “Black Lung” is not simply about ‘the pain you can’t fix’.  Its message in the end is not one of resignation to fate, even if one must be resigned to the certainty of death.  After she debuted the song at the third Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1969 (with Maybelle Carter, Dock Boggs, Merle Travis, and Archie Green sitting behind her), labor unions began asking Hazel to perform her music, and “Black Lung” particularly, to support their organizing and job action efforts.  Demand was high.  It should go without saying that labor organizers do not seek out music that leaves their members feeling resigned.  The song, sad as it is, leaves one with the feeling that ‘this can change – this must change!’

We might then suspect that a Seeger-Guthrie sort of labor songwriting informed the creation of “Black Lung,” but one listen will convince anyone familiar with that genre that it ‘just ain’t so.’  No; it was the secular old-time country music which often blared from the radio in H.N. Dickens’s mountain home that helped grind the keen edge to “Black Lung”.  Particularly so, it seems to me, her song touched the whetstone of traditional murder balladry more than a bit.

Now, let’s remember that the song came tumbling out from Hazel’s heart, so I’m not proposing any sort of conscious attempt on her part to mimic a traditional murder ballad.  Nevertheless, the sure signs of such influence are there.

“Black Lung” is, as much as “Omie Wise,” a cautionary tale of lethal danger.  The narrative unfolds apace and ends in death and total desolation.  It’s true that more than one killer is identified, and the story is not as neatly evocative as the tragedy in a typical traditional murder ballad; yet the less precise approach is more appropriate to the reality of the situation.   The mines, a cold lover, lead to a debilitating disease.  The boss ignores the problem.  There is no insurance to provide for a treatment.  Poverty and starvation leave a broken man asking for meager handouts, and leave pride and dignity in the coal dust.  Finally, a man who spent his life digging into the Earth makes his home there permanently.

Though the two verses that evoke Thurman’s dialogue with his disease are truly chilling, it’s that last verse that leaves us the coldest.  The hypocrite mine owner with his flowers is told to shove off and to take his insincere gift and condolences with him.  It’s done.  “A good man is gone.”  Resignation?  No.  Everything about the narrative tells us that it didn’t have to be that way – a concerned employer, a fair health care plan, decent pay; all of these could have made a difference, and perhaps all the difference.  A good man is gone, but other good men need not suffer the same fate.  This devil can be beaten; not by the power of prayer or divine intervention, but by simple human compassion and responsibility.

“Black Lung” is no religious hymn, and it may not be a murder ballad proper.  However, it leaves no doubt that murder has been done.  Though one finger clearly points towards the coal operators and one towards the demon in the mine itself, we are also left with the deeply disquieting sense that the some blame may be left for us.

Who, after all, is left to hold the killers to account?  What happens if they aren’t?

Coda – “Such a devil…”

We strive to focus on artistic over political content in our writing at Murder Ballad Monday, for what I hope are obvious reasons.  It’s hard to deeply know art concerning mortality when the gates of perception are half-shut by ideological concerns.  What I mean, I guess, in plainer words is that when the Grim Reaper comes to us in song, he wears neither red nor blue.blacklungUMWASlide96

“Black Lung” though demands a different sort of consciousness and approach.  Simply avoiding politics in considering this song is like avoiding the topic of teenage lust in discussing Romeo and Juliet.  Though “Black Lung” is a deeply personal work of art that functions on one level as a memento mori, it is just as deeply devoted to exposing the lethal danger of an industrial workplace.  That it doesn’t sound like a typical labor protest song belies the fact that it is as direct a protest as one could imagine.  ‘Look what happened to my kin.  Make sure no one you care about has to go through what I just showed you.’

Perhaps it’s not the word ‘political’ we should use when we interpret Hazel’s message.  Isn’t it rather a human right to be treated fairly and decently, to be cared for, when you’re doing dangerous work that is so important to the world?  Undoubtedly, Hazel would say “yes.”  The art of people like Hazel Dickens certainly helps raise consciousness about the struggles of working women and men like her brother Thurman.  But Hazel made clear that we need something more.  I’ll lay more of her songs on you in the near future that explore all that, including a murder ballad proper; for now though, let me give you a preview.  Hazel would say that it takes honorable men and women in union to organize and win the fight against the greed that feeds the devils that needlessly devastate such people’s lives.  Without unions, we’d never have gotten progressive legislation like the Federal Coal Mine and Safety Act.  Is that political?  Very well then, it’s political.

Here’s the fine point of it from my perspective, and it’s about more than politics.  The efforts of working men and women, their advocates, and Congress beat that Black Lung devil back down into his hole.  Unfortunately, he’s coming back out. Black Lung, nearly eradicated from the coal industry in America as recently as two decades ago, is back on the rise.  Further, God knows that devil never went away where coal miners in other parts of the world work today, struggling in deplorable conditions that would have been all too familiar to Hazel’s father’s and grandfather’s generation.

This is where our reticence about putting politics above art keeps me from going further.  I won’t link up to any more stories about it all, and I’ll trust you to not take my word for it and to find it all for yourself if it troubles you.

I wonder though – what would Hazel do if she knew?  Well, she’s gone on to the Great Unknown too.  Maybe it’s time for others to raise their voices, to speak and sing the truth.  Hazel showed us how, and we know it works.


Welsh coal miners, photographer unknown, from this site.


Conversations with Death – 4 – “Black Lung” — 2 Comments

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