Memorial to Upper Big Branch – ‘Ghosts of West Virginia’ by Steve Earle & The Dukes

By Scott Costen

ONE of America’s poorest and most downtrodden states has a persuasive new champion.

‘Ghosts of West Virginia’ from Steve Earle & The Dukes is a celebration of the Mountain State’s coal miners and a condemnation of their industrial masters.

Centred on the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 men, the album rages with working-class pride, suffering and resentment.

In the emotionally raw track ‘It’s About Blood,’ Earle confronts the corporate bosses responsible for the seemingly inevitable tragedy:

“Don’t try and tell me that you couldn’t foresee

What everybody reckoned was a matter of time.”

Earle angrily recites the names of the miners to close out the song.

An independent investigation of the explosion concluded in 2011 that Massey Energy, the mine’s owner, was to blame for the catastrophe.

“A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coal fields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk taking,” investigators said.

In the dark but toe-tapping ‘Black Lung,’ Earle laments the disease’s continued grip on West Virginia coal miners. He also ponders why they go underground despite the risks:

“If I’d never been down in a coal mine

Lived a lot longer, hell that ain’t a close call

But then again I’d a’ never had anything

And half a life is better than nothin’ at all.”

A 2018 investigation found rates of the incurable disease, caused by the inhalation of coal dust, had increased significantly over the past five decades.

Today, COVID-19 is putting Black Lung sufferers at even greater risk of premature death.

Anchored in traditional country but peppered with bluegrass, rock and blues notes, ‘Ghosts of West Virginia’ is a poignant and infectious call to arms.

Earle’s motivation for writing and recording it stems partly from the state’s overwhelming support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

Trump promised on the campaign trail to restore “beautiful, clean coal” to its former economic glory. But a recent report from Forbes showed the number of working coal miners in the United States has actually dropped since he took office.

“I thought that, given the way things are now, it was maybe my responsibility to make a record that spoke to and for people who didn’t vote the way that I did,” Earle said in a statement from New West Records.

“One of the dangers that we’re in is if people like me keep thinking that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist or an asshole, then we’re fucked, because it’s simply not true,” he said. “So this is one move toward something that might take a generation to change. I wanted to do something where that dialogue could begin.”

Featured Image: Coal town guy @English Wikipedia/ Wikimedia Commons

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