By Becca Cochran
CG Lifestyles and People
If you walk into Casa Cantina any Monday night, you’ll find yourself surrounded by a crowd of Birkenstock-clad, lively folks. Some are students, and some are Athens residents, but all are groovin’ to the sounds of Athens’ own Rattletrap Stringband. As you sit enjoying your food and beverage from the bodega, sounds of the fiddle, banjo, guitar and bass waft over the restaurant.
It’s a scene not uncommon to Southeast Ohio, a place where for two hundred years coal mining has been not only a way of supplying energy, but also a way of life. Within the detailed history of coal in Appalachia is the story of its music: bluegrass. This style of music seems so inherent to Appalachian culture that it is often easy to forget its evolution alongside coal. The two have an intertwined history that resulted in their unique companionship, and so to understand this form of music, it is important to consider the background of the backcountry. (Oh, and fear naught, it bears little resemblance to Deliverance.)
The development of bluegrass culture was due in large part to the geographical and socioeconomic aspects of Appalachia. For nearly two centuries the economy of Appalachia has been contingent on the mining of coal, one of America’s most required, though nonrenewable, natural resources.
By the late 18th century and into the 19th century, jobs were hard to come by, and so many men submitted to the arduous lifestyle of an Appalachian coal miner. The work itself was rigorous, and working conditions were far from ideal. A typical mine was cold and dark and exposure to large amounts of coal dust over time gave many miners the disease known as “Black Lung.” The risk of working in the coalmines, coupled with inadequate pay, made for a taxing life. And so in the tradition of Scotch-Irish and Anglo-Celtic ballads, the trials and tribulations of Appalachian coal miners were conveyed in song:
“Coal mining is the most dangerous work in our land today
With plenty of dirty slaving work and very little pay
Coal miner won’t you wake up and open your eyes and see
What the dirty capitalist system is doing to you and me
They take your very life blood and they take our children’s lives
They take fathers away from children and husbands away from wives
Oh miner, won’t you organize wherever you may be
And make this a land of freedom for workers like you and me.”
–(Come All ye Coal Miners) – Traditional Ballad
The songs have continued to flow over the hills of Appalachia, telling the stories of miners and their families. Listening closely, you can hear a heedful plea: “…organize wherever you may be,” in order to, “…make this land of freedom for workers like you and me.” It was this sense of collective strife and determined human spirit that led to the organization of labor unions by coal miners in the late 1800s. The labor movement that emerged from the coal miners’ struggle defined labor standards for generations to follow.
Today, through the music of bluegrass, that struggle is remembered. But where does bluegrass grow today? Many might be surprised to find that it hasn’t died out, but has been instead transplanted into the hands of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original authors of traditional Appalachian music.
Today, nonprofit environmental groups such as Aurora Lights strive to preserve the traditions of Appalachia while maintaining a balance between its people and the earth. Based in Morgantown, West Virginia, Aurora Lights fosters locally based projects in Appalachia through education, restoration, and yes, bluegrass. Through the collaboration of local artists from Appalachia, Aurora Lights has recently compiled its second album of bluegrass songs featuring interviews with Appalachian residents who have been affected by mountaintop removal coal mining.
Why is bluegrass now the music of environmentalists? Perhaps it always has been; perhaps coal miners were environmentalists in disguise, only trying to make a living — bluegrass being their only way of telling the story of their strife. Or perhaps bluegrass has rooted itself even deeper into America’s history, as the spirit of those old Appalachian ballads seems to have relevance still today: people living in the Appalachian area continue to change the quality of their surroundings, just as early coal miners did through song.
Matthew McElroy has been playing the fiddle with Rattletrap for almost ten years, and he still finds a connection with that Appalachian spirit: “Where it comes from appeals to me… the community of it — the small contingent of people trying to keep its heart beating.”
And as the tune of the fiddle comes drifting o’er the crowd again, you’re reminded again of what that sound represents: nearly two centuries of music and lyrics illustrating the lives of many who dared to raise their voice about their present condition. Glancing again at those Birkenstock-clad folk dancing to the heartbeat of the song, it’s apparent that the roots of bluegrass music run deep. And the song, though it may have changed hands along the way, remains the same.