Merle Travis might be considered the patron singer of coalminers, to the extent I was surprised he had never been one himself. However, born in in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, prime mining territory, he was always going to be only too aware of it's ravages on those who had no choice but to work underground. I had never heard of him until a moment of epiphany, early 70's, as a schoolboy in England, when a friend lent me the seminal hillbilly mountain music of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Will the Circle be Unbroken", wherein the Dirt Band came together with a host of worthy names from the bluegrassier side of country over six sides of vinyl. To my Deep Purpled ears, the electricity of much of this acoustic music was astonishing, with my favorite track being this song, an altogether mellower fare, as performed by Travis himself, and including exemplary blind picker, Doc Watson, the two, astonishingly, having never met. (Indeed, the recording includes their introduction and conversation, prior to playing the song, sadly not included here.)
(Buy Merle and the Dirt Band together!)
Written and recorded first in 1946, in a four disc box of 78s, entitled Folk Songs of the Hills, a set which drew on both traditional songs and his own, drawing on experiences of appalachian life. Another song in this set was the perhaps even better known "Sixteen Tons." Each have been covered many times, within and without the country bluegrass idiom, so here are a couple of conventional dungeons.
Somewhat of a no-brainer that this song should turn up on Kathy Mattea's 2008 recording, "Coal", and, even if it has been a while since women or children were let loose down at the coalface, she nonetheless imbues the song with a note of chill warning.
But it is Charlie Louvin, already an old man, who really nails it, gifting the melody with the nearest attention he can still muster, the ache and the breaks in his voice as painful as the collapsed lungs of those witnessing the reality first hand. This is from his release of the same year, 2008, "Charlie Louvin sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs", the title alone plunging out any glimmers of light in the darkness.
By way of contrast, in a perhaps vainglorious attempt to update the song, 1985 saw Wall of Voodoo produce this travesty (TRAVISty?!), which fails on all levels, beyond perhaps rendering into tone the sheer monotony of hacking at a coalface in the deep and dank underground. (Well, some might like it.........)
(If you must!)
If you like this sort of stuff, you really need to get this. In fact, I insist. Read what AMG have to say about it.