Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Greatest Miner Lament

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

SONG: Dark as a Dungeon
Merle Travis
SONGWRITER: Merle Travis
ALBUM: Folk Songs of the Hills
YEAR/LABEL: 1946; Captiol

"I wrote it on the back of an envelope on my way home from my girlfriend's."
(Merle Travis)

A wise communication professor of mine pointed out a problem in our society. He said, "No one assumes that you can read because you have eyes. Why, then, does everyone assume you can listen because you have ears?" There is a vast difference between hearing something and listening. The very reason I am not posting the songs I'm recommending is because I don't believe they should be background noise for Googling or eBaying; rather, something to be enjoyed the way one would enjoy prime rib or the way M*A*S*H's music snob Charles Emerson Winchester savors fine cognac.

And that brings me to this song, the song I consider my favorite of all the thousands I own in any genre of music. This is the one song I would pick from all those, and even the other 49 from this project, to deliver to people to listen to. That song is Merle Travis' "Dark as a Dungeon." Travis is best known for writing another song about mining, "Sixteen Tons" (popularized by Tennessee Ernie Ford); however, even that song pales in comparison to "Dark as a Dungeon."

While Merle Travis was universally regarded as one of the greatest guitarists in history, none of his flashy picking is on display here. Indeed, his simple strumming of the chords seems to ensure that the music stays in the background so the true stars of this song, the lyrics, can shine.

As with many of the songs Travis recorded for his "album" Folk Songs of the Hills (a 1947 collection of four 78s in a box set), the theme centered around coal mining. The reason was simple: Travis hailed from western Kentucky, where coal mining was not just a way of life but an almost expected occupation for sons to undertake. Not much had changed between 1946 when Travis wrote this song (he said in an interview he parked under a street light and wrote the song to have for a recording session the next day) and now (see John Prine's 1971 classic "Paradise" as an example, where the mining moved above ground and destroyed the health of towns much as the underground mining had taken the health of men).

Therein lies the power of the song. The miners who were not alive when Travis died in 1983 can still nod an affirmation to the warning to "seek not your fortune in the dark dreary mine." Travis also provided the perplexing explanation for generations of coal miners following their fathers down the mine shaft in one of the greatest lines ever penned: "Like a fiend with his dope and a drunkard his wine / A man will have lust for the lure of the mine."

The spoken introduction, where Travis recounted a visit to his home and a conversation with a friend who was a coal miner, speaks both to his closeness to the subject and his gratitude that his musical talent allowed him to escape the life of a coal miner. He concluded the song with a verse that is pure heartbreak: "I hope when I'm gone and the ages shall roll / My body will blacken and turn into coal / Then I'll look from the door of my Heavenly home / And pity the miner a-diggin' my bones."

This song is not to be missed.


Bottomless Well
Baby Mine

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