Silicosis in popular culture

  • Miners drilling in Lapland. Unknown Photographer. Almquist & Coster, 1949-1950.Miners drilling in Lapland. Unknown Photographer. Almquist & Coster, 1949-1950.

“Coaldust Ballads”: dust in Bristish coalmining songs

By Marion Henry

Dust emerged as a prominent theme of British coalmining songs in the 2nd half of the 20th century – surprisingly late, given that dust disease as a miners’ affliction was far older. The increasing preoccupation with dust disease was linked to a rapidly changing post-World War II mining environment in which new methods and technologies intensified dust exposure and its health effects.

Just as medical science took a while to “catch up” with the issue of dust disease, there was an interval between the dust-inducing post-War changes in the industry and the emergence of dust as a trope in British mining songs in the 1950s and 1960s.

Yet the role of dust in mining ballads is richer than a mere cause-and-effect relationship. In many songs the link drawn between dust, disease and death is far from clear and unambiguous. Rather, “dust” has often become symbolic of the dangers and sorrows inherent in mine work, from accidents to the decline of the industry in the late 20th century.

Absence in early coalmining songs

The songbook Coaldust Ballads, edited by A. L. Lloyd and published by the Workers’ Music Association in 1952, has a very misleading title regarding the mention of “dust” in British coalmining songs (Lloyd, 1952). This songbook is composed of texts already compiled in Come All Ye Bold Miners – the famous collection of coalmining songs edited by Lloyd and published by Lawrence & Wishart the same year – and musical scores in order to preserve and revive folk music in Britain (Lloyd, 1952). Indeed, dust is almost never mentioned in these old songs – the most recent one, “The Gresford Disaster”, was composed in 1934. A look at the 1978 revised edition of Come All Ye Bold Miners and other songbooks and broadsides leads us to the same analysis (Lloyd, 1978).

Generally speaking, dust hardly occurs in songs composed before the 20th century and even before the 1950s-1960s. Rather than the presence of dust, these texts insist on the lack of air and ventilation and a parallel is often drawn between the confined atmosphere and darkness. The coalminer is both deprived of fresh air and sunlight as in “Melancholy Explosion at the Moss Pit”, a song written at the end of the 19th century after an explosion at the Moss Pit at Ince, near Wigan on 6 September 1871 (see Lloyd, 1978):

“In the deep gloom of the coal mine,
Hardy men are working there,
They cannot see the smiling sunshine,
Cannot breathe the fragrant air.”

Dust: second fiddle to accidents in mining songs?

In these old mining songs, dust doesn’t seem to be related to disease or death. Danger and risk, which pervade the repertoire, stem from sudden accidents like explosions or roof falls. Thus when some miners of the Durham strike of 1844 exposed the bad ventilation system in the mines in songs like “The Miners’ Grievances” or “A Dialogue between Peter Fearless and Dick Freeman”, it was much more to point out the risk of explosion (Lloyd, 1978).

This is partly because, whereas the 19th century miner used hand tools, picks  and shovels to gather the coal ore, his 20th century counterpart suffered the effects of the high powered drills, shovels, TNT and other technologies introduced after WWII, which greatly increased the amount of dust in the air the workers breathed.

This evolution in technology changed the dangers of dust from a fear of accidents, explosions or discomfort to being a danger to the lungs of the workers (silicosis, coal workers pneumoconiosis) and a threat to their long term health.

The rise of dust in mining songs

Thus in more recent songs – that is, songs composed in the second half of the 20th century and more precisely from the 1950s’-1960s’ when a new generation of composers appeared in the wake of the second Folk Revival – dust seems to play a much more significant role and becomes a part of the description of the mine as a frightening and hostile environment as in “Coorie Doon”, a Scottish lullaby written by Matt McGinn around 1962 (see The Mudcat Cafe):

“There's darkness doon the mine my darling,
Darkness, dust and damp,
But we must have oor heat, oor light,
Oor fire and our lamp.”

More than an element of description, dust is now associated with the hardships of the miner’s work.  For instance, “The Canny Miner Lad” recorded by Ian Campbell Folk Group in 1971 expresses the omnipresence of dust and the difficulties in breathing for the miner (see Colliertracks):

"There's dust in your eyes and your nose and your hair,
And you're sweating and striving and straining for air."

Dust as symbol of the “price of coal”

Dust came to symbolize the “price of coal”, traditionally associated with accidents. This is particularly striking in songs about deindustrialization composed during the National Coal Board’s first wave of closures from the 1950s to the 1970s.

“An Old Miner” is a complaint composed by Mike Harding, inspired by an elderly collier made redundant after the closure of Moston Pit near Manchester (Lloyd, 1978). This song underlines the bitterness of a man who had dedicated his life to the industry at the risk of his own health. A parallel is drawn between the loss of an eye and the “lungs full of dust”, showing that dust is linked to disease and that this condition is regarded as a disability. The use of the word “lungs” here is also interesting, given that old songs merely mentioned the word “air”.

A bond is clearly established in these songs between dust and health or even death. Ed Pickford talks about “lungs turned black and faces pale” in his song about pit closures written in the early 1960s’ “Farewell Johnny Miner” while Jock Purdon – former miner and composer from Chester-le-Street – exposes the NCB policy much more explicitly (see Lloyd, 1978):

"They say the miner has no dust,
He's only short of breath.
But, miner, in your sunken eyes
I see the living death."

Finally, these songs about the demise of the coal mining industry not only express the slow extinction of British mining communities but also speak for those who suffer from “the price of coal”. Between memories and “stories of places now dead” remains the reality of “old wheezing lungs”, as Johnny Handle points out in his poem “Old Man of the Village” (Handle, 1971).

Bibliography

  • Lloyd, A. L., Coaldust Ballads, Workers’ Music Association, 1952
  • Come All Ye Bold Miners, Lawrence & Wishart, 1978
  • Harker, Dave & Geoff White, The Big Red Songbook, Pluto Press limited, 1977
  • Pickford, Ed, The Ed Pickford Songbook: A North-East of England Songbook
  • Purdon, Jock, Songs from the Durham Coalfield, Pit Lamp Press, 1977 
  • Other publications of the Workers’ Music Association held at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford Crescent. 

For more information

Some websites about folk music were of great help for lyrics featured in this article, such as The Mudcat Cafe and Colliertracks for Scottish coalmining songs. I also thank Ewan McVicar for his precious help on the subject.

Photo credit: Miners drilling in the Kiirunavaara mine in Lapland. Unknown Photographer. Almquist & Coster, 1949-1950. Courtesy of the Swedish National Heritage Board via Flickr Creative Commons. Licence.