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Authors @ Alden: A Conversation about the Music of Coal Mining with Jack Wright

Bailey Fink
September 9, 2019
On Sept. 18, 2019 from 3-4:30 p.m. on Alden’s fourth floor, the University Libraries will host a special conversation on coal mining music and its unique history and culture.
Graphic Design by Herbert Frimpong/Ohio University Libraries

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The history of Appalachia is deeply rooted in the history of coal mining in the area, but in 2019, not many people are talking about coal. However, on Sept. 18 Authors @ Alden will host Jack Wright who wants to educate the community about the history of coal mining as expressed in the music of the region and the current challenges faced in coal mining towns.

Wright, a 1992 alumnus and a retired assistant professor of the OHIO School of Film, will speak at Authors @ Alden on Sept. 18 from 3-4:30 p.m. in the 1951 Lounge on the fourth floor of Alden Library.

Wright will be interviewed by his longtime friend Michael Kline, Ph.D., an Appalachian regional oral historian.

“We’re going to talk about the publication of [his] book and his general interest in this kind of music,” said Kline. “I’ve always been interested in coal mining music because I’ve always been interested in coal mining and the people who do it.”

Wright and Kline met in 1970 while Wright was planning a festival in Virginia and Kline was the music director of the Highlander Folk School in Knoxville, Tennessee. Kline says he was very impressed by Wright’s energy and his knowledge of coalfield culture and history. Kline also has an interest in coal mining music, which he says reflects the industry with the most songs written about it.

“They’re both excited and passionate about this subject, [and] that’s when we get the best conversations going,” said Jen Harvey, the Library events coordinator. “It’s going to be very interesting to listen to.”

Wright was born and raised in a mining town in Wise County, Virginia, where his grandfather was an independent coal miner, meaning he would dig coal and sell it to larger corporations. He first became interested in coal mining music through an Appalachian seminar course he took while attending Clinch Valley College, a branch of the University of Virginia.

“That formed the basis for my career, [but] I didn’t know it at the time,” said Wright. “Learning about Appalachian culture and learning the politics of the culture, especially since I lived in a coal mining region. To look at the good and the bad of coal mining, how it has blessed and cursed wherever it’s dug.”

Jack Wright in a sound production studio
Photo Courtesy of Jack Wright

Through this Appalachian seminar, Wright learned about the struggles that miners and mining towns face, specifically health problems. In mining towns, there can be poor air and water quality, and miners can contract miner’s pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, which is a common disease miners get from constantly breathing in coal dust. Wright says even though there are few miners left, black lung disease is deadlier than ever. 

In 2005, the Lonesome Pine Office on Youth, a non-profit organization dedicated to delinquency prevention and youth development programs in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, reached out to Wright to facilitate a project based on coal mining songs. He produced his first book, “Music of Coal: Mining Songs from the Appalachian Coalfields,” in 2007 to benefit the Lonesome Pine Office on Youth.

In addition to detailed notes about coal mining culture, historic photographs and song lyrics, the 69-page anthology contains two CDs, a total of 48 songs showcasing a century of coal mining music from 1906 to 2006. Beyond 27 haunting archival recordings, the collection features various contemporary artists with whom Wright performed and produced music for over many years. The anthology covers a wide range of coal mining history through different genres including jazz, blues, bluegrass and folk.

“It tells an intimate story of the life and the way of life of coal mining, as well as the good, the bad [and] the ugly of coal mining,” said Wright. “I tried to make it entertaining for folks to listen to, but also educational in terms of teaching people about the actuality of mining in the southern Appalachian Mountains.”

Through the music from his CDs, Wright says people can learn about the history and see the progression of how coal mining music has changed between eras. Wright says that Authors @ Alden is a good chance for the community, both college and local, to find out what is happening locally and regionally.

“It’s good to acquaint people with what’s going on today with writing,” he says.

Authors @ Alden is in its eighth year as an event series at the Libraries where it brings faculty, alumni and other writers to Alden to discuss their books and writing projects. Previous events have featured topics about the Athens Lunatic Asylum, the U.S. war on terror, historians in documentaries, as well as many others. Authors @ Alden with Jack Wright will be held in the 1951 Lounge on the fourth floor of Alden Library. It is free and open to the public.

To request accessibility accommodations for this event, please contact Jen Harvey.