Memory of a Miner
The inimitable Antoine “Fats” Domino. One of Mother and Dad’s favorites. I can still hear Mother singing his songs to me as a child.
Memory of the Music
This page is now dedicated to my mother, Della Ruth, who passed away on February 14, 2019, at the age of 98. She got more joy, more pleasure out of the music she loved than anyone I have ever known.
Dad and Mother and their friends…
…loved good music and the experiences and memories built around it. For them and their friends, this meant lots of nights out dancing. In fact, it’s hard for me to think of Dad and Mother’s life in the mining years without music and dancing! On this page we will spotlight some of their favorite songs from back in the day. We hope you enjoy this page and for many of you we hope it will bring back fond memories of simpler days gone by.
The Wurlitzer 600 shown here is a classic jukebox popular in the ’40s. It played 78 rpm records. (Not visible on smart phone.)
Well, this one was inevitable, wasn’t it. And it’s a tough one. Even though I’m not a daughter and, in fact, my earliest memories of Dad have nothing to do with mining coal (see p. 3 of book), Coal Miner’s Daughter wears me out. I can’t hear it without tearing up and experiencing powerful, proudful feelings. The song hits me so strongly that, to be honest, I stay away from it when possible.
I said previously on this page that Stagger Lee is my oldest sister Pat’s favorite song. Technically, that’s not true. Coal Miner’s Daughter would be. But I still stand by that statement. You see, for Pat, Coal Miner’s Daughter is not so much a song as an anthem. It hits her even stronger than it does me because she remembers growing up in the mining days. I know nothing Pat identifies with more than being a coal miner’s daughter.
Melvin Theodore Webb, Sr, was a miner for the Van Lear Mining Company in Johnson County, Kentucky. Everyone knew him as Ted. Ted and his wife, Clara Marie (“Clary”), lived in Butcher Holler and, like every other miner around, they lived in dire poverty. They had eight children.
This simple, humble man was as an unlikely figure to become immortalized in verse as his second child, Loretta, was to become a world-renowned singer/songwriter. But this is exactly what happened. In 1970 his world-famous daughter wrote Coal Miner’s Daughter as an homage to her dad. The song became an instant hit, thanks in no small part to the thousands of mining families with which it resonated so powerfully. It felt like their story.
Loretta turned the song into a book in 1976. In 1980, the book became a now-famous movie and was welcomed with both critical and commercial success. Coal Miner’s Daughter garnered 7 Oscar nominations including best movie and best actress. Sissy Spacek (chosen by Loretta Lynn herself for the role) won the Oscar for best actress. The role of Loretta’s father, Ted, was played by the multi-talented Levon Helm.
The fact that you’ve come to this site tells me that it’s almost certain you know this powerfully moving song. Whether this is true for you or not, if you want to have your heart tugged, click the link below.
Mother and Dad loved Christmas. In our home it was always a marvelous… and for me as a child in that home… magical time of the year. (You can read a warming Christmas story from years gone by in Memory of a Miner, chapter 11.)
Given that it’s Christmas time, I thought it would be fitting that we feature a Christmas song popular in the days written about in the book. The song, penned by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells in 1945, is still a favorite today.
Sit back, take a moment, and recall good Christmas memories of your own as you listen to Mel Tormé sing The Christmas Song.
America lost a national treasure on October 24, 2017. Antoine Domino, Jr – known as Fats the world around… and affectionately as “The Fat Man” in New Orleans – died. He was 89 years old.
From my childhood days in Harlan I have loved the music and the man who created it. It was easy for me to do because his music was often heard in our house growing up. When he wasn’t on the radio or record player, Mother, Dad, or Dolly (my aunt) would sing out a bit of a Fats’ hit. I suppose this is why I chose Fats Domino as our very first artist for this page (you’ll find Hello Josephine at the bottom of this page.)
He played the world around to sold-out audiences but was known for his humility and shy nature.
Even later in life, Fats was known to pull up to a club or bar in his beloved New Orleans, walk in and commandeer the piano for a couple of numbers. And that corner of town would be electrified as he turned minds and memories to a simpler day – and gave younger members of the crowd a taste of what it was like.
It took Hurricane Katrina to drive Fats from the lower Ninth Ward – the New Orleans of his childhood and still his home until the hurricane. After that, he just moved to another part of his treasured city.
Call it boogie-woogie, original rock and roll, or New Orleans R & B – The “Fat Man” was the real deal. Hit the link below and you can hear my favorite Fats Domino song of all time – Walking to New Orleans.
I mentioned that one of the reasons for doing the previous Elvis song was that I was setting up another song – a homage to Elvis. It’s time to load that for you.
This offering by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings (previously featured here) is off their 2001, Time (The Revelator) album. The song is called Elvis Presley Blues.
Obviously this song is not from “back in the day,” but it does have that familiar rockabilly (Elvis) vibe to it. And like all Welch/Rawlings songs, the lyrics are great. I hope you enjoy it!
Well, it’s about time for another Elvis. I’m doing this for two reasons. One, he was by far Mother and Dad’s favorite artist. The second reason is that I want to set up another song – a homage to Elvis – that I will feature the next time.
Unless you know your Elvis, you might not recognize this song. As virtually all of Elvis’ early stuff, this song comes straight out of the Black South – that musically rich culture of Mississippi, Louisiana, and West Tennessee. In fact, this song was written by Junior Parker in 1953. Sun Records released the Elvis version in 1955.
But to show how music is really the universal language… Parker’s song is derived from the Carter Family’s – a white family – song Worried Man’s Blues, released in 1933. (Johnny Cash’s wife – June Carter Cash – was from that family and a part of the Carter Family group.) But it doesn’t stop there… the Carter Family’s song is based on an old Celtic ballad!
Celtic (European) ballad to white American folk music to Black blues to white rock and roll… all in one song!
Keith Richards (Rolling Stones) said, “It’s like the world went from black and white to technicolor,” when Elvis appeared.
Turn it up a bit before you click start to listen to Elvis singing Mystery Train. Why? Because you will better hear the intricacies of one of the greatest instruments the world has ever heard… the voice of Elvis Presley.
I’m not a country music fan, by the standards of today’s offerings in the genre. That is, not until country music’s version of the Salvation Army showed up a few years ago. With the likes of Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Margo Price, and Gillian Welch/Dave Rawlings (though these two go farther back – and have been featured hear earlier), there may be hope for the legacy of Hank and Lefty yet!
And you may soon be able to add another name to that list – The Young Fables…Laurel Wright and Wes Lunsford. As Sturgill says in another of his songs they’re still “working on their sound.” They may have found their voice in their album, Old Songs (which is being mastered, by the way, by Pete Lyman – who also mastered Simpson, Isbell, and Stapleton in the past)!
Our new piece comes from the afore-mentioned Sturgill Simpson, a Kentucky boy – from Jackson. His debut album, High Top Mountain (2013), includes a song that is a lament for the Southeast Kentucky coal story and to his maternal great grandfather, who was a deep miner. (In fact, Sturgill is the first male on his mother’s side to not be a miner.)
The name of the song is Old King Coal. It could just as easily have been called “Old Coal’s Soul,” because it hauntingly captures the soul of the history of coal in Southeast Kentucky. I urge you to listen closely to the lyrics – they are the real heart of the song.
Every once in a while a piece of contemporary music will come to mind that reminds me vividly of Dad and Mother and their day. That’s the case with this current entry. Let me give you a bit of backstory.
Our son and I were in a local music shop (remember those?!) in about 1997 when a cd playing on their music system blew us away. We stopped what we were doing and immediately asked an employee the particulars of that sublime album.
He told us it was the newly-released first album of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. The name of the album? Revival. The album was produced by that American treasure, T Bone Burnett.
I love classic jazz and Fats Waller is one of my all-time favorites. (He is a favorite of one Paul McCartney as well.)
Fats was talented, funny, and loved life. (There is even a story of his being kidnapped to play for Al Capone for 3 days and getting paid a hundred bucks a song to do it! According to the story, they hit it off and the whole affair turned into a big party.)
Fats had one of the most deft touches on a piano you will ever hear.
I picked this song because I so fondly remember it from my childhood. Mother used to sing it to me.
Here’s another reason I’m fond of Fats Waller. All my life I’ve heard Mother say in relevant situations, “One never knows, does one.” Well guess what… turns out that she got that from Fats. It was a famous saying of his, as I recently discovered.
So, sit back, relax, picture a slower, simpler time in America. Close your eyes and listen as you hear the clack of leather heels on the hardwood dance floor as someone walks over to the Wurlitzer 600, drops a nickel, and pushes F7. Enjoy the melody for one minute and fifteen seconds… and note the mastery of the keyboard. At the 1:15 point you’ll hear the soft voice of Fats as the lyrics begin.
I hope you enjoy Fats and his 1935 classic!
I thought we would mix it up a bit on the music. Lets do one that goes directly to he theme of the site – old school coal mining in Harlan County.
I hope you enjoy the cut. The artist is Johnny Cash and the song is Loading Coal.
Click below to hear “The Man in Black” sing this true-to-life classic tribute to the miners of the past.
Doris Day – who is still alive as of this writing, began her public career in 1939 as a big band singer. In 1945, she released her first song which was also her first hit. It is the song we are featuring here – Sentimental Journey. It was recorded in November of 1944, with the famous Les Brown Band.
For those unfamiliar with the song, the vocals don’t come in until the 1:27 mark. With today’s impatience, I doubt a song could be recorded with so lengthy an instrumental lead in. Be patient and you will be rewarded with one of the smoothest female voices of that or any other era.
Doris Day was as much at home in the movies as in front of a microphone. In 1956, she starred opposite Jimmy Stewart in one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movies, The Man Who Knew Too Much. With her All-American-Girl good looks, Day’s world-wide popularity continued for three decades, from the ’40s through the ’60s. How popular was she? Doris Day made 39 films. She was ranked as the biggest box-office star for four years (1960, 1962, 1963 and 1964) and was the only woman appearing on that list. She ranked as one of the top 10 box office stars for eight years (1951–1952 and 1959–1966). At one point, she was the top-ranking female box-office star of all time. As late as 2012, she was ranked as sixth among the top 10 box office stars… and that list includes both male and female actors!
Click below to enjoy Doris Day singing her classic hit Sentimental Journey.
It’s 1940, club-goers are dressed to the nines, and the song of the the year is In the Mood, as performed by Glenn Miller and his fabulous orchestra.
This was Mother and her sister Dollie’s favorite song and favorite song to foxtrot or jitterbug to…depending on the skill of the partner. You can read a hilarious story involving this song beginning on page 137 in the print copy of Memory of a Miner. (If you have a digital copy, simply do a search for the title of the song.)
Miller’s 1939 recording of this song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1983. If there is any finer example of the big band sound of this era, I can’t imagine what it would be!
Click below to enjoy Glenn Miller and his orchestra performing the immaculate In the Mood.
This one is for Mother, of course…but also for my sister, Pat, because it is her favorite song of all time. Here’s to ya, Sis!
Stagger Lee has had more lives than a cat. It first showed up around 1910. The first recording I know of was in 1923. The most popular version ever was recorded in 1959, by Lloyd Price. Many people (including Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and the Clash) have recorded it since. But did you know the song is based on a true story?
Lee Shelton was a pimp living in St. Louis, Missouri, in the late 1800s. Shelton’s nickname was “Stag Lee” or, more likely, “Stack Lee” – the latter being taken from a Memphis riverboat of the day named the Stack Lee (owned by the Lee family of Memphis). The Stack Lee was known for its on-board prostitution and, as such, made a fitting nickname for the sexual entrepreneur named Lee Shelton.
It’s Christmas night, 1895, and Stag Lee is in the Curtis Saloon in St. Louis, drinking with a friend of his, Billy Lyons. Lyons was also “in the life,” as the saying goes, and was a competitor of Lee’s. For some reason, trouble erupted between the two men and, if you listen to the words of the song, you’ll learn how it played out.
Basically, what happened is this – during the argument Mr. Lyons took Stack Lee’s Stetson hat. In response, Lee “shot Billy” – as the song says – picked up his Stetson, and left the Curtis Saloon.
Lyons died from the gunshot wound and in 1897, Lee went to prison for murder. Pardoned in 1909, Lee failed to make the best of his freedom and, in 1911, returned to prison on assault and robbery charges. Lee Shelton, aka “Stack Lee” died in prison in 1912.
Something about this crime drew it to American folklore like metal to a magnet. As it grew in popularity the main character’s nickname went through many corruptions and permutations including: “Stacker Lee,” “Stack-a-Lee,” “Stackalee,” “Stagolee,” “Stagalee,” and the name closest to the original and the one used in the famous song title – “Stagger Lee.”*
Click below to hear Lloyd Price sing his classic rendering of Stagger Lee.
(*Text adapted from Wikipedia entry “Stagger Lee”)
Elvis Aaron Presley
From time to time, artists presented here may need an introduction. This is not one of those times! The “King of Rock and Roll” has been called one of the most culturally significant Americans…ever. He was just 42 years old when his life ended. In speaking of the musical influence of Elvis, John Lennon famously said “Before Elvis there was nothing.” That’s a reach, but as to the influence of the man there is no doubt. Elvis is to cool what chicken is to dumplings.
Mother and my sister Pat actually got to see Elvis in concert on March 15, 1974, when his tour brought him to Knoxville and the University of Tennessee’s now defunct Stokely Athletic Center,
Click the arrow below to hear All Shook Up, by the one and only.
Antoine “Fats” Domino, Jr …
…is an American treasure. He was born in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, where he still lives to this day at the age of 86. Also lovingly known as “The Fat Man,” this moniker became the title for one of his earliest hits (1949’s The Fat Man, which was the B side to Detroit City Blues). In one interview around the time Rock and Roll was coming into prominence, Fats was asked what he thought of the new music genre. He just smiled and with that gracious manner of his said something like, “I’ve been playing that ‘new’ music for twenty years. We just called it rhythm and blues.”
Mother still loves the music of Fats Domino…and loved to dance to it. In fact, just two weeks ago I had her out for a ride and we were listening to his music. Mother, three months shy of her 94th birthday, was swaying with the music and playing air piano on the blanket we had over her legs to keep her warm. Hello Josephine – another Fats classic – came on and Mother said, “I’m telling you what’s the truth, if this music gets much better we’re gonna have to pull over and get this one” (dance). I said, “You just say the word kiddo…and we’ll hit it!” It was a grand day.
If you’ve traveled more than five decades on this earth you should need no introduction to the “Fat Man.” If you’re younger, that might not be true. Either way, I hope you will take a moment to kick back and enjoy the music of the man who has a voice as cool and soft as a baby penguin’s belly.
Click the arrow in the box to hear the great Fats Domino