Preserved History of Unionization Through the Eyes of People From Appalachia

Protest music and struggle songs were used in Appalachia to protest the coal industry and to promote the unionization of miners. Extractive industries were the primary source of income and employment. Soon the resource rich area of Appalachia began to be exploited as well as the people who worked there. Ninety percent of coal miners lived within a company town (Lewis 2004). This allowed the coal mines to keep the money within their control even when paying their workers. As workers began to fight for higher wages and better working conditions, their motivational stories began to be documented through the art of music.

This music was written to share the lyrics of someone’s life. Struggle songs are another name for protest songs, which allowed people to express their personal bitterness with governmental and job issues (Jones 2003). This included treatment of workers within the mines and community. Each artist has their own story to tell, and they used ballads to share that story. “Mining songs disseminated and preserved a common history. By providing the psychological space for striking workers to speak their minds, singing nurtured a sense of community and class consciousness among strike participants” (Jones 2003). The safe space created by music cause singers to open up freely and speak their true thoughts. These thoughts allow people of today to look back at the time frame of the Mining Wars and understand the reasoning behind the strikes and protests.

As you listen to Sarah Ogan Gunning’s old time ballads, or Pete Seeger sing about supporting unionization, you learn more about their history and the pressures in life. The best way to understand the protest and unionization is through listening to influential story tellers speak their full mind. The emotion behind their voice and their firsthand experience is more powerful in moving the audience to an understanding state. While these artists can sing about their own experiences, they also cover family and friends who had been impacted as well covering the history of not just one person, but many.

Merle Travis puts the listener in the place of a miner working hard for his life. His deep voice over the steady background beat builds a somber tone. He repeats the lyrics “another day older and deeper in debt” (Sixteen Tons) four times. This illustrates how workers were unable to build savings and stayed within the companies control. Another song by Merle Travis, Dark As A Dungeon, shares an old family friend’s story. Painting the image of the mines while explaining how influential mining was in someone’s life, to the point it became like a habit.

Solidarity Forever by Pete Seeger is an example of how these experiences were used to promote unionization against the mining companies. “Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made; But the union makes us strong” (Genius). He gives a descriptive statement of how workers built the industry that now excludes them and takes control of their community. The protest artist wanted to give a convincing statement to join the union through the shared feeling of oppression within the company towns.

These songs exhibit the struggle and suffering of real people during the 1900’s. Outsiders of the community would have no idea how the mining companies impacted small mining towns. Even though these songs were written in protest and anger aimed to share the struggle with those who may not be aware, they continue to serve a purpose in our society today. They preserve the history of a time when large corporations took advantage of Appalachian people and the area’s resources to make a profit. Protest music allowed the suffering of real people to be heard by the masses in order to bring perception of the coal companies back to reality.

Song list:

1. I hate the Company Bosses — Sarah Ogan Gunning

2. Which Side Are You on? — Florence Reece

3. Sixteen Tons — Merle Travis

4. Dark as a Dungeon — Merle Travis

5. Solidarity Forever — Pete Seeger

6. I Don’t Want Your Million, Mister — Pete Seeger

7. Ragged Hungry Blues (pt. 1) — Aunt Molly Jackson

8. Miner’s Song — Woody Gunthrie

9. Coal Miner’s Blues — The Carter Family

10. Down on the Picket Line — Sarah Ogan Gunning

Work Cited

Jones, Reba Pestun. “An Examination of Coal Mining Song Repertoire in the Virginia Elementary Music Curriculum with the Creation and Incorporation of a Suggested Coal Mining Musical Unit of Study.” Order №3112184 Shenandoah University, 2003. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 11 Apr. 2018.

Lewis, Ronald L. “Industrialization.” High Mountains Rising Appalachia in Place and Time, University of Illinois Press, pp. 59–73.

“Pete Seeger — Solidarity Forever.” Genius,

“SIXTEEN TONS.” Sixteen Tons (Merle Travis) (1946),




Interdisciplinary undergraduate research on Appalachia and beyond…

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