Friday, September 14, 2007

Coalfield Music and History

Listening to All Things Considered on September 3rd, I suddenly recognized the voice of Jack Wright, an old friend who had done so much to expand my appreciation of the mountains, its music, and its flair for the oral narrative. Jack was being interviewed about his new two-CD set, "Music of Coal."

And then, like mountain magic, he and his wife Sharon Hatfield showed up yesterday and today as guests of the Appalachian Studies Program at ASU. We managed to make his program today, which included some of the research he did for "Music of Coal," a kind of autobiographical ramble (accompanied by his own singing) through his early years in Wise County, Virginia, including both a blistering memory from the Vietnam War and a hilarious tale about playing "the boneless baby" in a traveling carnival.

These days Jack teaches in the School of Film at Ohio University. Back when we first knew him, he was a music producer and filmmaker at Appalshop in Whitesburg, Ky., which has turned out some of the most essential documentary footage ever done in Central Appalachia. He's also been an actor, both on the stage and in movies (including a bit of music-playing in Coal Miner's Daughter).

Today he talked about the early extreme conditions in coal mining, the danger and the injustices of virtual wage-slavery, that produced so much of that dark, haunting balladry and blues. He made the point that as conditions improved in coal mining, the writing of great songs by sometimes obscure and anonymous singers dropped off. He ended his presentation, however, with a thoroughly updated version of "Which Side Are You On?" sung by Natalie Merchant that lifted the small hairs on our napes. Struggle for justice does NOT go out of style.

Jack's wife Sharon Hatfield is no less accomplished as an author. Her historical unpacking of a famous 1935 murder case in Wise County, "Never Seen the Moon," has gotten rave reviews. It tells the story of Edith Maxwell, a young school teacher in Wise who returned home late one night to confront her angry, Puritanical father. After a physical tussle, her father lay dead, and Edith was charged with patricide. Her case became a battleground between the early women's rights movement and a patriarchal society that came down hard on uppity women. Her trial for murder, and then her re-trial, attracted national press, which mainly used these occasions to lambaste Virginian mountaineers as backward yokels. Hollywood grabbed Maxwell's story for a movie, "Mountain Justice," in 1937. Sharon did a reading from her book on Thursday night (which we're sorry we missed).

Two inspiring, accomplished scholars of Appalachian history! We were lucky to have them among us for a short time.

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