Devil in The Hill
A History Lesson from the West Virginia Coalfields That Needs To Be Heard By the Nation At Large.
As the last child of a generation of Coal and Tin Miners I’m a sucker for a song about the coalfields, be that my local community in the NE of England or further afield in Nottinghamshire or even Olde Americae.
This particular group of songs and stories come from a tiny spec in West Virginia called Fayette County; that 99% of Virginians couldn’t find on a map ……. but need to be told for the generations that follow.
Even the background to the original concept is fascinating; with an old Coal Mining store being bought and restored to become a museum; only for ex-employees to make pilgrimages and tell their own dark and torrid tales,
“These stories from the Whipple Company Store and similarly bleak recollections of coal mining and railroading life from other parts of West Virginia have been suppressed for too long.
At first, the people themselves kept silent and hid the stories out of fear and indignity.
When they finally shared their tales, their validity was often doubted, shaming them into believing that silence may have been the better choice.
And now the people who shared these stories are gone.
It is up to us to remember and continue sharing our history from the perspective of the people who lived it.“
The album begins with Don Dixon talking about the mining community and how these stories have been passed down orally from Father to son and Mother to daughter for well over a century.
The rest of the album is West Virginian Folk Singer Mary Hott and a band of musicians who sound like they too ‘feel’ each and every one of these songs in their hearts …. and their scarred lungs.
The first song is They Built a Railroad; and proves to be a sad cornerstone for all that is too follow; with the now, romanticised Railway bringing workers in and then take the coal out ……. but the thread that weaves throughout is the way the workers were horrendously treated; most especially when they tried to form a fledgling Trades Union and make their working conditions slightly better.
“Our ancient hills held a rich man’s treasure,
They carried workers from Ellis Island.
They brought freed slaves to work the mines.
They trafficked girls for comfort and pleasure.
Total power over humankind.”
Powerful stuff indeed.
Then there is Annabel Lee, which follows; and this particularly dark tale of a beauteous young woman who is brought in to town; to ‘bring pleasure to the men’ ……. if your heart doesn’t cry out by the last verse; you’re reading the wrong review.
The emotion in Mary Hott’s voice, as she sings her songs is a genuine 8th Wonder of the World; as she has the capacity to go from passionate Honky-Tonker/Murder Ballad one minute, The Spot then grab your heart the next; squeezing out sparks the next with Devil in The Hills; then follow that up with the Gospel Infused Rise Up WV; which mentions all of the creeds and colours that were brought in not just from across the State but the Country to work the mine; and still make them all sound like a cohesive story; and never patronising the listener.
A rather fabulous album comes to a natural close; with Mary slowing things down quite beautifully with the traditional Gospel Ballad, Life’s Railway to Heaven and finally slow and heartfelt version of Take Me Home Country Roads; which couldn’t be any more fitting.
Which only leaves me to select a Favourite Song; which is hardly fair …… but the two songs/tracks that jumped into my head last night were the haunting 48 seconds of Blair Mountain Ballad, which will send a shiver down your back; and then, there is Room of Lost Souls which ….. well …… honestly; this raw tale of a miner who first goes down the pit as an 8 year old then eventually dies when his son is the exact same age; and the circle goes on ……. and sounds like a long lost Bobbie Gentry song; and if it was it would be heralded from the Rolling Stone rafters.
As well as a bunch of amazing yet horrendous songs; wonderfully created and constructed you also get a booklet that details the background (and more) to each and every story …… and this alone should be available in every school across America ……. this is your History; don’t forget it….. like the Authorities want.
Released June 4th 2021
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