Steve Earle recorded an album, “Ghosts of West Virginia,” that centers on the survivors of the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion.
The third track on the album, which will be released on May 22, is “Devil Put The Coal In The Ground.”
It’s a foot-tapping piece of Americana with a chorus that speaks to the poverty and despair the coal industry has wrought upon Appalachian communities.
“Devil put the coal in the ground. Devil put the coal in the ground. Buried it deep. It will never be found. Devil put the coal in the ground,” Earle sings.
Speaking to the religious faith of coal miners, as well as the fact that working class people have little choice but to work a coal mining job in a state dominated by the coal industry, Earle adds, “Good Lord gave me two hands,” and, “Lord giveth and he taketh away.”
In an interview for NPR’s “World Cafe,” Earle said the “core” of the album was written for a play called “Coal Country,” which had its run at the Public Theater in New York cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.
Earle traveled with Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen to West Virginia to meet with survivors of the Upper Big Branch disaster. What they heard formed the basis for the show.
In fact, for “Coal Country,” Earle appeared as a kind of Greek chorus character, who performs music and gives the narrative a deeper meaning.
It opens with Earle coming out on stage to perform “John Henry Is A Steel Drivin’ Man,” which appears on the album.
“Welcome to coal country, and we’re here to tell you a story. It’s a West Virginia story in the words of West Virginians.”
According to Earle, Upper Big Branch was the first non-union company to purchase a coal mine, and they bought it from Peabody Coal, which was a union company. And having a non-union company run a coal mine ended as many residents predicted.
Twenty-nine people were killed in the explosion. Tommy Davis, one of the people portrayed in the play, lost his son, brother, and nephew. “There weren’t even really bodies that could be identified to be claimed by a lot of these families.”
Through this music, Earle sought to bridge a divide that exists and build solidarity between people in metropolitan areas like New York and rural communities in West Virginia. He wrote the songs for people that did not vote how he did in the last election.
By humanizing people in West Virginia, and telling their story, it is his hope that the world may be a bit better.
Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy which bought the Upper Big Branch mine, was responsible for a crime against West Virginians. He has blood on his hands, and despite being found guilty, he remains largely unrepentant.
People from flyover country and the coasts can definitely unite around loathing this despicable human being, and we can demand better for communities in states like West Virginia that are human sacrifice zones.
Listen to “Devil Put The Coal In The Ground” by Steve Earle: