In previous articles, we've presented two songs about mine disasters at Coal Creek, Tennessee — Shut Up in Coal Creek Mine and Last Payday at Coal Creek. Here's a song about the earliest of the incidents, the Coal Creek War of 1891-1892.
Long after the end of the American Civil War, slavery continued in the South under other guises, such as agricultural sharecropping and the prison system. African-American prisoners, often arrested for no particular offense, were routinely leased out to private companies for hard, dangerous chain-gang work, such as levee building, road construction, and, in the Coal Creek case, coal mining.
Coal Creek (near Knoxville), Tennessee, was the site of three coal mines on a tributary of the Clinch River. The miners went on strike in 1891 over a weighing dispute, so the coal company asked Governor Buck Buchanan to lease out prisoners to work the mines. The mines were spectacularly unsafe, and the prisoners lacked mining skills. Many of them died. The mine owners didn't care, because the state replaced the convicts free of charge. But the miners were mad at having their dangerous jobs taken away, so they overpowered the guards and freed the prisoners. This started a two-year-long skirmish: the governor repeatedly sent more troops and convicts, and the miners would capture them all and put them on a train back to Knoxville. Finally, the governor sent convicts to build a fort, and stocked it with soldiers, who practiced their howitzer skills by shooting cans full of mud into the main street of town. One night, some drunken soldiers crashed a dance, got in a fight, and later hung one of the miners. In retaliation, the miners waylaid the fort commander (who was also drunk) and held him for ransom. The governor sent in a militia contingent, but they got lost in the woods, and when several of the hiding miners yelled, "Surround 'em, boys," the soldiers began to fire at random, mainly shooting each other. Two were killed, several wounded, and the militia had to retreat back to Knoxville in confusion. The governor finally sent overwhelming force and the commander was released. But the governor lost re-election, and no more convicts were leased out. Instead, the state opened its own mine nearby, making even more profit from the prisoners' labors. That mine was operated until 1938, when the Norris Dam flooded the area, and Coal Creek changed its name to Lake City. For even more of this story, see www.coalcreekaml.com/Legacy.htm.
The song seems to me as if it were written shortly after the troubles, but it doesn't appear until 1928 (recorded by Uncle Dave Macon; available on the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music), 36 years after the end of the Coal Creek War. A related song, Chain Gang Special, by Watts and Wilson, was recorded a year earlier, but those lyrics make no mention of coal mining — they're about the trouble you could get into in Wilmer Watts's home town, Belmont, North Carolina.
[CLICK HERE FOR SHEET MUSIC (pdf file)]
(Spoken: Oh, oh -- coming up hard)
Way back yonder in Tennessee, they leased the convicts out,
They worked them in the coal mine against free labor stout.
Free labor rebelled against it, to win it took some time,
But while the lease was in effect, they made 'em rise and shine.
Oh, buddy, won't you roll down the line, buddy, won't you roll down the line,
Yonder comes my darling, coming down the line.
Buddy, won't you roll down the line, buddy, won't you roll down the line,
Yonder comes my darling, coming down the line.
Every Monday morning, they've got 'em out on time,
March them down to Lone Rock, just look into that mine.
March them down to Lone Rock, just look into that hole.
Very next words the captain says, "You better get your pole."
The beans they are half-done, the bread is not so well,
The meat it is burned up and the coffee black as heck.
But when you get your task done, you'll gladly come to the call,
For anything you get to eat would taste good done or raw.
The bank boss is a hard man, a man you all know well,
And if you don't get your task done, he's gonna give you hallelujah.
Carry you to the stockade, as on the floor you'll fall,
Very next time they call on you, you bet you'll have your pole.
Note added 3/5/2011:Shortly after this article was published
in Inside Bluegrass, Bob
Bovee, one of my favorite musicians, wrote:
...one of my favorites. I learned it with the last word of both verse 2 and 4 being coal, not pole. Makes more sense. What do you think?
Yes, that makes more sense, but I just listened to it again, and UDM clearly sings "pole." Also, the boss probably wouldn't say "your coal" to a convict; he'd say "my coal."
I wonder if it isn't short for poleaxe or pollaxe, which was
originally a battle-axe, but I found several references on the internet
to usage in the American South, including one tool identified as a
poleaxe, pictured next to a pile of large coal slabs (I couldn't make
out what it looked like). One internet definition of poleaxe, from yesteryearstools.com,
A heavy headed axe with an extended pole much like a hammer; in addition to chopping, used for driving wedges, spikes and heavy bolts. Also used for the slaughtering of animals. (also: bull axe, butchering axe, killing axe, packing house axe, slaughtering axe, stunning axe) (The term is sometimes used to describe a single bit axe with a poll tempered for striking.)
That would make sense for coal mining. Until I find a clear picture of one to either prove or disprove it, that's my best guess. It's OK to sing "coal," though, since you don't have to spend 5 minutes explaining various theories about meanings.