Culture  /  Dispatch

The Singing Left

At a recent commemoration of the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia, songs of struggle took center stage.

From the moment I walked off the plane and into Charleston, West Virginia’s small, utilitarian airport, there was music. Specifically, John Denver. A tinny recording of the New Mexico-born songwriter’s beloved ode to West Virginia’s picturesque backroads wafted through the baggage claim as I tried to find a cab willing to take me the five miles to my cut-rate hotel. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was adopted as one of West Virginia’s four official state songs in 2014, and evidence of the warm place it holds in many West Virginians’ hearts (or at least, in their more tourist-oriented marketing materials) was inescapable during the five days I spent in and around the Mountain State’s capital city. While Marylanders may have more claim to the song’s geography, it follows that a state and a people who have so often been denigrated, exploited, and overlooked by outsiders would embrace a tune that so earnestly describes their beautiful, bruised home as “almost heaven.”

Denver, a humanitarian and activist himself, didn’t get around to mentioning the long history of struggle that has defined so much of the popular imagination about West Virginia in his radio hit. But for centuries, the region’s own musicians sure did, in churches and coalfields and community centers scattered throughout the state. Appalachia’s deep-rooted musical traditions have gotten its people through unimaginably hard times and have also provided inspiration for those suffering further afield. Take the luminous Hazel Dickens, a bluegrass icon and activist who was born into a coal mining family in Mercer County, and who became a voice for the state’s working people, helping to illuminate their hard-fought battles in the classic labor films Harlan County, USA and Matewan. Alongside Alice Gerrard, Dickens became one of the first women to record a bluegrass album, and as her star rose, she lent her prodigious voice to the miner’s plight, penning songs like “Coal Mining Woman,” “Mannington Mine Disaster,” and “Black Lung,” the latter written for her brother who died of the brutal disease. “I’ve never lost my sympathy for working people,” Dickens told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2002. “I’ve always said that if I have a religion, it’s the working-class experience and what I feel for working-class people.”