January 14th - When Kentucky Had No Union Men
When Kentucky Had No Union Men - George Davis, 1967
Yesterday my home state of Kentucky became a "right-to-work" state; despite a historically-strong union presence in the state, the conservative political establishment managed to strike a blow against working people. I can show you a hundred facts and figures on why life in "right to work" states is objectively more difficult for workers - in fact, here they are.
But there is a better way to communicate this information, I think. Worker's movements in Kentucky have always been closely related to music; Which Side Are You On ?, the classic and impactful organizing song, was written by Florence Reece during the 1931 Harlan County United Mine Workers action, and you can hear her perform it in Harlan County, U.S.A., during a 1973 strike.
Folk music has always been a way for economically disadvantaged people to express their concerns, and George Davis's When Kentucky Had No Union Men speaks to problems that we're still wrestling with now. Coal mining is a dirty, dangerous and difficult profession, and an industry that is actively killing our planet. It is also - in many places in Kentucky - much more lucrative than any other employment opportunities, and as we hopefully transition away from coal we have to provide some option for the people of rural Kentucky that isn't "starve to death." And it's incredible how relevant Davis's album still is - as miners and other working people in Kentucky find themselves squeezed by bosses (When Kentucky Had No Union Men), with uncertain futures (Miner's Dream Come True) and forced to accept the pollution that industry leaves behind (Why Are You Leaving?).
But it's also really fun! Coal Miner's Boogie is great, there's the requisite song about the Devil taking a woman to hell and then taking her back after she kicks the shit out of him, etc. And I do honestly feel that When Kentucky Had No Union Men is both a great song and a dire warning to Kentuckians today.
Click here to read liner notes and purchase this album from Smithsonian Folkways