After reading Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920-21 by Lon Savage (see description below), Rovics wrote this song about the biggest battle in the West Virginia Coal Mine War of 1920-1921. There is now a major struggle to save Blair Mountain from mountain top removal. See I Love Mountains.org Also, find resources for teaching about the about struggles over coal and coal mining.
Listen to the song.
1921 was the year
Seems like yesterday to me
Let me tell you about what happened then
Back in the mine country
We were fightin’ hard to build a union
‘Cause at forty cents a ton
There was no way to feed a family
When the minin’ day was done
The strike had lasted for a year
When they shot down Smilin’ Sid
He was a lawman who stood up for us miners
That’s the only crime he ever did
A hundred miners locked up with no trial
There in Mingo-town
But the last straw came in Sharples
When they gunned the women down
We’re marchin’ on to Mingo
Ten thousand men and countin’
Here in the hills of West Virginia
At the Battle of Blair Mountain
We shouted through the hillsides
In every union hall
We’re marchin’ on to Mingo
Teach them a lesson, once and all
We commandeered every freight train
To the Kentucky line
Took every car that crossed our path
And all the guns and ammo we could find
The union leaders tried to stop us
Mother Jones told us to turn back
But we had learned ourselves from the gun thugs
There’s a time to talk and a time to attack
We had no leader, we didn’t need one
We all knew the way through Logan County
And we all knew once we got there
We’re gonna hang Sheriff Chapin from a sour apple tree
For three days and nights we fought them
the front was ten miles wide
All the cops and scabs in West Virginia
Were there on the other side
They dropped explosives from their airplanes
Such a thing you never saw
They shot us with machine guns
It was the operator’s law
We dug trenches and wore helmets
That we brought from the Argonne
All the way from France to Logan
We fought from dusk to dawn
President Harding sent in the Army
And we left our line to them
But the hills of West Virginia
Will long remember when
Copyright David Rovics 2003, all rights reserved.
The audio online and MP3 download for “Battle of Blair Mountain” can be found here. (Don’t forget to make a donation to the artist if you download the song.) For more songs like this, check out David Rovics’ Songs for Mahmud.
Thunder in the Mountains by Lon Savage. 1990. 216 pages. Foreword by filmmaker John Sayles (director of Matewan) and an introduction by historian John Alexander Williams.
The West Virginia mine war of 1920-21, a major civil insurrection of unusual brutality on both sides, even by the standards of the coal fields, involved thousands of union and nonunion miners, state and private police, militia, and federal troops. Before it was over, three West Virginia counties were in open rebellion, much of the state was under military rule, and bombers of the U.S. Army Air Corps had been dispatched against striking miners.
The origins of this civil war were in the Draconian rule of the coal companies over the fiercely proud miners of Appalachia. It began in the small railroad town of Matewan when Mayor C. C. Testerman and Police Chief Sid Hatfield sided with striking miners against agents of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, who attempted to evict the miners from company-owned housing. During a street battle, Mayor Testerman, seven Baldwin-Felts agents, and two miners were shot to death.
Hatfield became a folk hero to Appalachia. But he, like Testerman, was to be a martyr. The next summer, Baldwin-Felts agents assassinated him and his best friend, Ed Chambers, as their wives watched, on the steps of the courthouse in Welch, accelerating the miners’ rebellion into open warfare.
Much neglected in historical accounts, Thunder in the Mountains is the only available book-length account of the crisis in American industrial relations and governance that occured during the West Virginia mine war of 1920-21. [Publisher’s description.]
ISBN: 9780822954262 | Published by University of Pittsburgh Press.