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Friday, January 28, 2022

Black music tells the tales of Black workers

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Growing up with the music of Paul Robeson, I was no stranger to his deep melodious bass baritone, or his politics. He championed working men and women, and though persecuted here in the United States for his membership in the Communist Party and his stance against racism, he was beloved by workers around the globe.

Extract from Mining Review 2nd Year No. 11 (1949)The highlight of this 1949 issue is the visit of American actor and singer Paul Robeson to Woolmet Colliery near Edinburgh. Robeson was also a renowned (and often persecuted) left-wing political activist and he made several visits to British mining communities. On this occasion he sings “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” for miners in the canteen, a song about an American trade unionist who was allegedly framed on a murder charge and executed in 1915. Robeson had long been something of a hero to the British mining community, ever since he starred in the film Proud Valley (d. Pen Tennyson, 1940) as an American sailor stranded in Cardiff who finds work in a Welsh colliery (the newsreel opens with a short clip from the film).

I was drawn to Robeson’s outreach to miners because my own family history included Black coal miners recently out of enslavement who had moved from Virginia to West Virginia right after the end of the Civil War to work in the mines.

Tim Pinnick’s blog at rootsweb, The African American Coal Miner Information Center, has a wealth of resources, links, and information, including this brief history.

The historical record shows that the earliest coal mining in America of any commercial significance involved slaves working in the coal pits in the vicinity of Richmond, Virginia in the mid 1700s.  The Black Heath Company, Chesterfield Coal and Iron Mining Company, Midlothian Mining Company and others employed hundreds of slaves and free blacks.  These men were employed in a variety of different occupations in and out of the mines, from basic laborers to blacksmiths.  The work force at many mines was oftentimes supplemented by slaves hired by contract from slave owners in the vicinity.  In other states, particularly Pennsylvania and Alabama, there were substantial efforts to mine and create a demand for coal, using varied levels of black labor.  These endeavors met with mixed success.  As early as 1860, at least a dozen free black miners can be found working in Allegheny county, outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  This constitutes some of the earliest documentation of black coal miners working in the northern coal fields, known as the Central Competitive Field.  

The growth of the industry was rapid in the 19th century spurred by the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the railroads.  On the eve of the Civil War, coal mining operations were present in over twenty states and U.S. production stood at more than 20 million tons.  The demand for coal continued to increase throughout the decade as railroad trackage soared and the “black diamonds” became the fuel of choice for individuals heating their homes.  During Reconstruction, the coal and railroad industries became two of the primary employment opportunities for the newly emancipated black laborer as many of the more adventurous former slaves left the South.  Many found work with a large rising number of newly formed mining companies, financed by Eastern capital, which had moved in to establish their dominance in the rich coal beds of the Midwest and West.  The owners ran headlong into the initial attempts of their predominantly white miners to unionize.  One of the strategies employed to combat unionization was the use of black strikebreakers.  Mine owners utilized labor agents in the urban areas across the country, and sent labor recruiters into the South to entice disenfranchised blacks.  These southern recruits consisted not only of experienced  miners, but many agricultural laborers who were suffering under the sharecropping system.  During this time period a new form of subjugation was emerging in the Deep South in the form of convict labor.  Throughout Alabama and parts of Tennessee and Georgia, a concerted effort was made to arrest blacks, issue excessive sentences, and then lease them to coal mining companies.

Coal mining remained a steady source of employment for blacks during the first 3 decades of the twentieth century.  In 1910, over 40,500 performed work associated with coal mines, of which approximately 29,000 were miners.  However, as the 1930s arrived, increased mechanization spelled the beginning of the end of the black miner.

I think that many people, when they hear “coal miners” and talk about U.S. labor history, visualize white men. The history tells a different tale. Folk-soul singer/songwriter Bill Withers, who passed on last year, was the son of a coal miner.

Singer/songwriter Bill Withers was born and raised in the coal-mining town of Slab Fork in Raleigh County. One of West Virginia’s most successful songwriters Withers’s career spans four decades, and his music continues to influence today’s soul and hip-hop.

The youngest of six children, Withers was born with a stutter. His father, a coal miner, died when Withers was barely in his teens. He then lived with his mother and grandmother in nearby Beckley and enlisted in the Navy in hopes of escaping the culture of coal and cycle of poverty. It was during his stint in the service that he developed an interest in singing and songwriting.

Spoken word poet, activist, and a foundational member of what would become hip-hop, Gil-Scott Heron also sang about coal miners in his epic song, “Three Miles Down.” Heron was not from a coal mining family—though as a child he lived briefly in Tennessee. From his 1983 Guardian obituary by Mike Power

Throughout his 40-year career, Scott-Heron delivered a militant commentary not only on the African-American experience, but on wider social injustice and political hypocrisy. Born in Chicago, Illinois, he had a difficult, itinerant childhood. His father, Gilbert Heron, was a Jamaican-born soccer player who joined Celtic FC – as the Glasgow team’s first black player – during Gil’s infancy, and his mother, Bobbie Scott, was a librarian and keen singer. After their divorce, Scott-Heron moved to Lincoln, Tennessee, to live with his grandmother, Lily Scott, a civil rights activist and musician whose influence on him was indelible.

He recalled her in the track On Coming from a Broken Home on his 2010 comeback album I’m New Here as “absolutely not your mail-order, room-service, typecast black grandmother”. She bought him his first piano from a local undertaker’s and introduced him to the work of the Harlem Renaissance novelist and jazz poet Langston Hughes, whose influence would resonate throughout his entire career.

In the nearby Tigrett junior high school in 1962, Scott-Heron faced daily racial abuse as one of only three black children chosen to desegregate the institution. These experiences coincided with the completion of his first volume of unpublished poetry, when he was 12.

Lyrics (Gil Scott Heron and Brian Jackson)

Here come the mine cars
And it’s damn near dawn
Another shift of men, some of them my friends, comin’ on
Hard to imagine workin’ in the mines
Coal dust in your lungs, on your skin and on your mind
I’ve listened to the speeches
But it occured to me politicians don’t understand
The thoughts of isolation, ain’t no sunshine underground
It’s like workin’ in a graveyard three miles down
Damn near a legend as old as the mines
Things that happen in the pits just don’t change with the times
Work ’till you’re exhausted in too little space
A history of disastrous fears etched on your face
Somebody signs a paper, every body thinks it’s fine
But Taft and Hartley ain’t done one day in the mines
You start to stiffen! You heard a crackin’ sound!
It’s like workin’ in a graveyard three miles down

Beyond the perils of mine cave-ins, the environmental health hazards of this kind of work are addressed in Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “More Than a Paycheck,” which is discussed in this audio recording from a program held at Michigan State University in 2014.

Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, formally of the singing group “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” delivers a talk entitled, “More Than A Paycheck: What Occupational Music Reveals About Worker Health.” Barnwell explains how she came to a career that blended health and music and explains her research project which centers on using music to learn about worklife. Focusing on mining and textiles, Barnwell says that workplace issues and problems are often reflected in the lyrics of songs, as is unionization and attempts to improve the lives of workers.

Lyrics  by Ysaye Barnwell

We bring more than a paycheck to our loved ones and family.
We bring more than a paycheck to our loved ones and family.
We bring
brown lung,
black lung disease.
And radiation hits the children before they’ve even been conceived.

I wanted more pay.
But what I’ve got today
is more than I bargained for
when I walked through that door.

I bring home
brown lung,
black lung disease.
And radiation hits the children before they’ve even been conceived.

Songs about coal mining did not just come out of the Black folk music traditions of Robeson or groups like Sweet Honey. An unlikely place where I encountered a coal mining tune was in Black dance clubs. During my hang out and party days in the 60s, one of the most popular tunes at The Cellar, an uptown club in New York City—which was hostessed by Betty Mabry, who would later become Betty Davis after marrying Miles Davis—was a tune sung by Lee Dorsey, “Working in the Coal Mine.” The song was written by the famed New Orleans musician, songwriter, arranger, and record producer Allen Toussaint.

Born Irving Lee Dorsey in New Orleans, Louisiana, Dorsey moved to Portland, Oregon when he was ten years old. He served in the United States Navy and began a career in prizefighting. Boxing as a light heavyweight in Portland in the early 1950s, he fought under the name “Kid Chocolate” and was quite successful.Dorsey met songwriter/producer Allen Toussaint at a party in the early 1960s, and was signed to the Fury record label. The song that launched his career was inspired by a group of children chanting nursery rhymes – “Ya Ya” went to number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. He recorded other songs for Fury before the label folded, and Dorsey went back to his car repair business.Toussaint later came back on the Amy label and began to work with Dorsey once again. From 1965 to 1969 Dorsey put seven songs in the Hot 100, the most successful of which was “Working in the Coal Mine” in 1966.

I defy you to try to stay in your seat when you hear this.

On a more serious note, though Black coal mining history may not be familiar to most readers, anyone who has paid attention to the ugly history of Black workers and their struggles with labor organizing is probably familiar with the Pullman Porters, and A. Phillip Randolph’s role in organizing them. However the Black “Red Caps” who could be found in every major railroad station were not Pullmans. 

Here’s Louis Armstrong’s “Red Cap.”

I didn’t know Red Cap history when I started writing this, but I was curious to learn the difference between Red Caps and Pullman Porters. I found an amazing history; Boss of the Grips: The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal, by Eric K. Washington

In a feat of remarkable research and timely reclamation, Eric K. Washington uncovers the nearly forgotten life of James H. Williams (1878–1948), the chief porter of Grand Central Terminal’s Red Caps—a multitude of Harlem-based black men whom he organized into the essential labor force of America’s most august railroad station. Washington reveals that despite the highly racialized and often exploitative nature of the work, the Red Cap was a highly coveted job for college-bound black men determined to join New York’s bourgeoning middle class. Examining the deeply intertwined subjects of class, labor, and African American history, Washington chronicles Williams’s life, showing how the enterprising son of freed slaves successfully navigated the segregated world of the northern metropolis, and in so doing ultimately achieved financial and social influence.


CUNY-TV’s Tony Guida interviewed Washington in February 2020.

The golden age of American train travel was built in part on Black servitude: Red Caps who were little more than beasts of burden. “Boss of The Grips” is the story of a forgotten New Yorker, James H. Williams, who gave them dignity and a pathway to the middle class.

Shifting gears and going back in time to my preteen years when do-wops were the music we were all listening to, I smile remembering this big hit from The Silhouettes.

Get A Job – The Silhouettes

Get A Job is one of the most popular and enduring songs of the rock’n’roll era, still known and loved around the world more than fifty years after its release.

The lyrics to Get A Job address the themes of unemployment and domestic relationships, with the woman of the house nagging the man to find work, implying that he is both lazy and dishonest. But the song is also light-hearted, exuberant, and very danceable, with infectious vocal hooks, handclaps, a rocking saxophone solo and a general sense of fun.

“When I was in the service in the early 1950s and didn’t come home and go to work my mother said “Get A Job” and basically that’s where the song came from”, said Rick Lewis, who wrote it before The Silhouettes were formed.

Contrast this finger-poppin’ light-hearted do-wop with Heron’s devastating portrait of what happens when a father loses his job, in “Pieces of a Man.”


I saw my daddy greet the mailman
And I heard the mailman say
“Now don’t you take this letter to heart now Jimmy
Cause they’ve laid off nine others today”
He didn’t know what he was saying
He could hardly understand
That he was only talking to
Pieces of a man
I saw the thunder and heard the lightning!
And felt the burden of his shame
And for some unknown reason
He never turned my way
Pieces of that letter
Were tossed about that room
And now I hear the sound of sirens
Come knifing through the gloom
They don’t know what they are doing
They could hardly understand
That they’re only arresting
Pieces of a man

Some jobs that are captured in Black Music were not even undertaken by choice; chain gangs and prison labor are a common theme. Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” is one of the most powerful examples.

The tune was inspired by his childhood experience of seeing a group of convict laborers singing while they worked, paving the street in front of his family’s home in Florida. In 1960, it appeared in two albums: Cannonball Adderley Quintet’s Them Dirty Blues and his own band’s Work Song. Both were released and recorded at around the same time but the former version, which marked its official debut, was issued as a 45-rpm single and became a popular jukebox hit.

Cannonball Adderley introduces the song written by his brother in this 1962 clip from Oscar Brown Jr.’s television show, Jazz Scene USA.

Since the lyrics to “Work Song” were written by Oscar Brown Jr., here’s his version.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Nina Simone’s version.

Probably the most well known R&B song about chain gangs was written and sung by soul singer Sam Cooke, which Justin Novelli wrote about for SongFacts. 

In 1959, while on tour through the South, Cooke’s tour bus happened upon a chain gang of prisoners in Georgia. There is no definitive way to know which prison, so for the purposes of this article, the Georgia State Prison – just outside Reidsville on Highway 147 – will stand in. At any rate, Cooke and his brother felt sorry for the prisoners, so they ordered the driver to pull over and, after shaking a few hands, passed out cartons of cigarettes before re-boarding to continue their trip. This chance meeting was the catalyst for Cooke’s second most popular hit on the US charts.
Chain gangs, groups of prisoners linked together while performing physical labor, existed mostly in the South until 1955, when the practice was phased out, except in Georgia where chain gangs continued through the 1960s. They were first used during the reconstruction of the south after the Civil War as a way to utilize prisoners as free labor in rebuilding Southern states’ infrastructure. In the ’90s, Alabama reintroduced them again. However, that brief experiment ended almost as quickly as it began with the media awarding it the moniker of “commercialized slavery.”

Not all Black songs about work are related to tragic circumstances and the heavy history of oppression. Work songs may simply be about the day in, day out hustle to bring money home. The Isley Brothers had a big hit with their 1972 tune “Work to Do,” in which a brother explains to his lady why he can’t be with her as much as he’d like.

I’m taking care of business, baby can’t you see
I gotta make it for you, and I gotta make it for me
Sometimes it may seem girl I’m neglecting you
I’d love to spend more time
But I got so many things to do
Ooh, I got work to do, I got work baby
I got a job yeah I got work to do,
Said I got work to do
Oh I’m out here trying to make it, baby can’t you see
It takes a lot of money to make, it let’s talk truthfully
So keep your love light burning
And a little food hot in my plate
You might as well get used to me coming home a little late

This disco women’s work tune from Donna Summer became a feminist anthem, and has an interesting story behind it. 


Written by Summer, the song worked it’s way to become a Billboard top hit and anthem for her. The sleeve of the CD showed Summer as a waitress along with Onetta, the song’s inspiration featured in this clip as well as the lyrics. The song was a tribute to and became an anthem for ‘working women’ everywhere. It received a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (1983).  Summer opened the Grammys that year with a rousing performance of the soon to be women’s classic.

As we continue to battle income inequality, and the fight for living wages for workers, I’m thinkin’ about a tune from soul-funk singer Sharon Jones, of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings: “People Don’t Get What We Deserve.”

Her bio from their website:

Prior to her death from pancreatic cancer in 2016, Sharon Jones was nominated for her first Grammy award for the 2014 release, Give The People What They Want, toured and performed tirelessly, and was the subject of Miss Sharon Jones!, an acclaimed documentary by Oscar-winning director Barbara Kopple. Yet somehow, the beloved and heroic soul singer found time to complete a studio album. Soul of a Woman features eleven songs recorded with her long-time co-conspirators, the Dap-Kings, which reveal that the emotion, dynamics, and drama of Jones’ voice remained at full power until her final days.[…]

Though mostly raised in Brooklyn, Jones spent her childhood summers in Augusta, Georgia, where she was born. She sang gospel in churches her whole life and spent many years leading her choir at the Universal Church of God in Brooklyn. In the 1970’s, she joined a handful of local funk bands, but was unable to crack into the recording industry. Later, she began singing in wedding bands, and worked such jobs as armored car guard for Wells Fargo and corrections officer at Rikers Island prison. In 1996, she sang back-up on a Lee Fields session that Mann was producing, after which he put her front and center, at age 40, for her first-ever recording as a front woman, “Damn It’s Hot.”

Jones and the Dap-Kings recorded their 2001 debut album, Dap Dippin’ With Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, in the Brooklyn basement, followed by a series of increasingly popular albums and 45’s, and constant, ecstatically received touring. Their sixth record, Give the People What They Want, was nominated for Best R&B Album at the 2015 Grammys, and the group’s last album, It’s a Holiday Soul Party, was released in November 2015, almost a year to the day before Jones would pass away at age 60.


When I was a child I believed what they told me (every word)
To each one shall come what each one shall earn
And if I worked hard nobody could hold me (hold me)
And cheaters will fail, that’s what they all learned (cheaters never prosper)
There is a man who is born with a fortune
A hard days work he’s never done (livin’ on easy street)
He lives from the sweat of other men’s labor
As he sips his champagne and lays in the sun

Money don’t follow sweat
Money don’t follow brains
Money don’t follow deeds of peace
(People don’t get what they deserve) x2

There is a man who lives like a saint

He works from daybreak to late in the night
He’s never stolen, he’s never been lazy (not a day in his life)
To feed his children is always a fight (work work work)
I try to do right by all of god’s children
I work very hard for all I could afford
But I don’t pretend for one single moment
That what I get is my just reward

We have to continue the fight to get what we deserve, and defeat the cheaters who perpetuate the unequal system we’ve lived under for centuries.

Let the music be a reminder and inspire us to stay the course. Join me in comments for more.


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