Song Pays Homage to Brave Coal Miners

FEBRUARY 14, 2008 (NASHVILLE, TN)--Perhaps not since Tennessee Ernie Ford’s iconic “Sixteen Tons” has a song about coal miners resonated with the soul like Rocky Alvey’s “Muddy Coal Mine.”

Rich veins of coal were discovered within southern Illinois in the 1800s, dramatically changing the region where Alvey grew up. Men were farmers or coalminers, if not both, working back-breaking jobs in dangerous conditions.

“Each day these men went to work not knowing if they were coming home,” said Alvey, “but the fear they must have felt was not discussed.”

As a youngster, Alvey recalls staring out the window of a one-room schoolhouse in Muddy, Illinois, at the tipple—the area where coal is offloaded onto train cars—of the old O’Gara #12 mine situated only a few hundred yards away.

“For a little boy, the tipple was this imposing concrete structure, looming over the tree tops like an ancient ruin. In my young mind that tipple came to represent every coal mining story I ever heard, and every coal miner I knew.”

Forty years later, Alvey was back in southern Illinois caring for his ill mother when he rode by that tipple, still standing after all this time. “As I was driving, the words just came to me,” Alvey said. “I knew I had to write this song to convey what it’s like to be a miner, trapped under millions of tons of Earth, knowing that death may be imminent.”

Alvey’s transportive lyrics are chill-inducing with lines such as: “Everybody heard that coal seam crack, roof came down like the sound of thunder, and every single lamp in the mine went black.”

“Muddy Coal Mine” is an amalgamation of stories taken, in particular, from the infamous Cherry Coal Mine disaster of 1909 when 385 men were entombed in an Illinois mine, and from an incident that hit closer to home for Alvey. In 1946, his maternal grandfather was 700 feet underground in a feldspar mine when the Ohio River broke through the mine’s walls. The roof gave way and rock crushed his back. Two fellow miners fashioned a stretcher out of their jackets and sent Alvey’s grandfather back to the surface in an elevator cage, putting his safety before their own.

“Their actions are a testament to the selflessness and bravery of miners everywhere,” said Alvey. “These are men willing to put their lives on the line for their friends and neighbors and especially their families.”

As a young boy Alvey recalls a trip he took to the mines one day with his father that had a profound effect on him. In the mine entrance hung a wall of numbered brass tags. Before a miner went underground, he hung his numbered brass tag on the in-board, and placed another identical one in his pocket. When asked what the tags were for, his father said “Those tags are how they know whether a miner has made it back up.” And, after all, a brass tag could survive the ravages of fire and explosion, even when a man did not.

In honor of coal miners, Alvey is establishing a disaster relief fund through the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. A percentage of the profits from this song will be contributed to the fund and available for coal mining disaster relief. “Songs are easy to write, coal mining is hard. In this way, I can honor and give something back to those men who have had such a powerful impact on my life.”