Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Mining for Misery

In previous blog posts, I've made no secret of my fondness for seriously sad music - nothing fires me up, aurally speaking, like a shot or two of depresso. With this in mind, you can imagine how delighted I was to discover, amongst the music I got for Christmas this year, not one but two incredibly sombre songs about coal mining.

I must admit, this wasn't a subject I would previously have cared to hear many songs about. I'm used to depressing songs about love and depressing songs about death, but Brassed Off aside, I've been rather ignorant of the 'Colliery Miserabilia' sub-genre until now. Still, it's not hard to see how fruitful a topic mining might be for musicians; not only was the work itself presumably pretty depressing, you've also got the equally unhappy matter of pit closures to sink your songwriting teeth into.

(Apologies for ending two of the last three sentences with prepositions.)

So what are these two songs of such exceptional melancholy, these black gems that came to me on Christmas Day?

1. Duw it's Hard by Max Boyce
The Max Boyce songbook doesn't exactly seem to be teeming with weepy ballads - in fact, this is one of the only songs on my mammoth two-disc compilation that has nothing at all to do with rugby. Having said that, the uncharacteristically sober subject matter is a big part of what makes Duw it's Hard so amazing; it's humbling to hear Max, himself a former miner, step away from bawdy terrace anthems and embrace something altogether more thought-provoking.

This song's narrator finds himself caught between two worst-case scenarios: the local pit has closed and everyone's out of a job, but even as he rails against the "bank clerks" who have "never been below",  he admits that this may well be what's best:

"I took my old helmet home with me,
Filled it full of earth,
And I planted little flowers there,
They grew for all their worth,
And it's hanging in the glasshouse now,
A living memory,
Reminding me they could have grown in vases over me."

Duw it's Hard is by no means an exoneration of the government bods who closed the pits and robbed so many people of an honest living, but the song is at its most moving when it admits that, in the end, an honest living is no good if it kills you. Speaking of which...

2. Trimdon Grange Explosion by The Unthanks
Okay, so Duw it's Hard is hardly a barrel of laughs, but it still ends on a semi-positive note in that the narrator found a new job where he gets coffee breaks instead of black lung disease. Clearly, this won't do; we need something really depressing, and so thank goodness that The Unthanks are here to push things to their lachrymose limits.

This song - recorded with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band - is absolutely unrelenting in its misery. It's all about the Trimdon Grange colliery disaster of 1882, an explosion that killed 69 people, many of whom were young boys. This in itself would be depressing enough, but the lyrics of Trimdon Grange Explosion manage to spin this individual calamity into a meditation on life at large that's somehow even grimmer:

"O let's not think about tomorrow,
Lest we disappointed be,
For all our joys may turn to sorrow,
As we all may daily see,
Today we may strong and healthy,
But soon there comes a change,
As we may see from the explosion,
There has been at Trimdon Grange."

In a nutshell: fear the future, for all shall perish there!

After this opening verse, the listener is treated to several excruciatingly detailed descriptions of the woe felt by those left behind - the widows, the orphans, and the mothers whose children were blown up or suffocated by afterdamp. Merry Christmas to me, eh?

I mean, blimey, it's a pretty dour December when Joel, the Lump of Coal is only the third most heartbreaking coal-related song I hear all month.

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