Songs for West Virginia politics [classic article]

As first seen in Graffiti magazine

Much like the blues that evolved from disenfranchised slave dirges, hard times in our area have given birth to songs that gave the working folk a political voice. I had been charged with finding the top five songs, but there are six that really span different political views.

John Hardy
Sprawl has been a political issue for a lot longer than there have been suburbs. John Hardy — often confused with John Henry — details the details of a black railroad worker condemned to die in McDowell County. In the 1890s, the county had become a boomtown and a mini- Wild West, complete with all the vices. John Hardy gunned down a man who beat him playing poker. Later, he was hanged in Welch. According to Goldenseal, the mournful tune that commemorates the occasion has been covered by diverse legends such as Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, Duke Ellington, Manfred Mann, Uncle Tupelo, and the Carter Family.

Shotgun Walter
Because of its deep pockets of poverty, West Virginia ships off a disproportionate number of its young — and now that the Army has raised its entry eligibility age to 42 — and middle aged population to the armed services. With wars on two fronts, now-defunct Night Train’s song about a Vietnam vet gone haywire resonates as much as ever. It appeared on the CD “Cold Beer and Fried Bologna.”

Sen. Robert C. Byrd: Mountain Fiddler
Do songs become political when they are played by a politician? Probably so! Politicians as media-savvy as Sen. Byrd — with political instincts honed by years in the business — don’t make a statement without extra layers of meaning. Byrd was able to get his name out nationally as Majority Leader of the Senate, through singing and fiddling appearances on Hee Haw and The Grand Ol’ Opry. No doubt about it, the Senator is an icon. Check out a montage here that includes a down-home version of “Country Roads:”

West Virginia Mine Disaster
Coal keeps the lights on, but sometimes at a very high price. This song that has been covered by several artists is by Jean Ritchie on the album, “The Appalachians,” that I got at the gift shop at Stonewall Jackson State Resort Park. It’s written from a widow’s point of view.

Country Boy Can Survive
Hank Williams, Jr.’s song about unrepentant independence mentions people from the West Virginia coal mines, and rightfully so. Miners and mountaineers have a way of doing things their way. We all know folks who can relate to the lyrics that discuss homegrown tomatoes and smoke, along with shotgun rifles and 4-wheel drives.

40 Hour Week (For a Livin’)
Let’s face it: if not for the ultimate sacrifices made by West Virginians — paying with their very lives — there wouldn’t be any unions in this country. Alabama’s super-famous song pays homage to the West Virginia coal miner: thanking him for his time, “just to send it on down the line.”

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