Author: Campbell, Bruce

Everything I Know I Learned From Bluegrass

Thanks to the colorful nature of bluegrass lyrics, I can learn much of what I need to know just by listening to the songs. I know the skies in Ol’ Kentucky are “so blue” – which I have verified since first hearing it. I have learned that you may be able to find a wayward sweetheart by roaming around looking for her.

Learned a bit about trains. Did you know you can hear that whistle blow miles? And the lonesome sigh of a train going by can make you want to stop and cry. I know the second thing is true – I can’t verify the first. I can hear a train whistle right now, though, so you can definitely hear one for one or two miles!

And I’ve learned a bit about the lives of miners. Specifically it’s “dark as a dungeon” way down in those mines. Mining figures in a number of bluegrass and country songs, for an obvious reason – those musical genres sprang up near coal country, and generations of men worked their lives away in those holes. The miners are a part of our national lore. It’s easy to picture hardscrabble miners, with sooted, lined faces and a fierce attitude.

It was awful, backbreaking work in the 19th century, and most of the men who worked the mines hoped their hard work would pay enough to ensure their sons would not have to work there, too, but it didn’t pay well enough to really get ahead. And if an accident crippled or killed a miner, any sons of working age would need to go to work immediately to save the family, and where else would they go? And so the dreary cyle would continue...

John Henry was the ultimate miner, an uber-tough guy who was so strong, so proud and so determined he could beat the steam drill. When your job fairly dooms you, you need to rally around something to keep going. So, we have this enduring image of coal miners – any miners – as tough, proud righteous men. There may be women miners, but they’re not really part of the mythology.

So, on some level, we KNOW miners, or at least we think we do. When the story broke about the miners in a deep mine in Chile, we all felt a collective chill – we know in our consciousness what emotions race through a mining town when there’s a collapse in the mine. It’s a scene familiar in our shared history: The people running the mine scramble to try and save the trapped miners, whose loved ones crowd around, anxiously waiting for news of their loved ones.

This is the exact scene that played out in Chile – albeit with a modern twist. With modern media as efficient as it is, Chile has been elevated to a worldwide stage, and the kind of event that used to be one town’s problem was now a nation’s. There are obvious benefits to this – between the mining company, Chile’s government and the largesse of the world looking on, no expense would be spared to save these miners. As of this writing, it looks like they’ll be out in a matter of days – a miraculous end to the story.

But what would the grizzled veterans of the West Virginia coal mines make of the namby-pamby aspects to the rescue? I read they will lower sunglass to the miners to wear in case they’re pulled out in the daylight, and coats if they emerge at night. Also, the experts planned to get tranquilizers to the miners so they wouldn’t “panic” as they’re being brought up! Can you imagine John Henry, or Big Bad John “panicking”? Not a chance! I think the white-coated “experts” are overthinking this. These are tough men, accustomed to hard work in adverse conditions – they’re not going to squint to death or soil their overalls – just get ‘em out, already!

Posted:  10/13/2010

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