|Day 78: Steve Earle & The Dukes (It's About Blood)
July 13, 2020
Almost assuredly, this will be the newest song featured in the 365 artists in 365 songs series. As usual, I owe a big shout out to my sister Lisa for even making me aware of it. Perhaps one of the unknown casualties of the Coronavirus pandemic is a wider knowledge of the play Coal Country, which was supposed to be taken on tour around the time COVID-19 shutdowns hit.
Steve Earle was asked to contribute music and songs to Coal Country, which dramatized the 2010 disaster at the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine that killed 29 coal miners. Earle even made it on stage for the New York production singing "It's About Blood," which is the centerpiece of Earle & The Dukes' new CD The Ghosts of West Virginia. Mind you, I knew nothing about this back story, outside of remembering the original tragedy and the usual aftermath of accusations about conditions and ignored regulations with the mining company, Massey Energy.
So, Lisa sends me this remarkable CD just a couple of weeks ago, and it is immediately a thing of awe. As a native West Virginian, I am moved by an outsider's (Earle is for all intents and purposes a Texan) honest, respectful, sensitive portrayal of the state's residents, recognizing that most of the state is coal country, with pockets of something else, as Morgantown, a college town, was for me. The songs are relatively short, direct, and without few wasted notes. The CD is fueled by banjos, mandolins, fiddles, and pedal steel guitars, instruments at the heart of country, at the heart of the country, at the heart of the natural resource found deep within our country that sustains most of West Virginia's denizens. When people wonder why so many West Virginians voted for Trump (much to the consternation of this native son), they have to understand how coal, as an industry that pumps the very lifeblood through the state, is the only issue that really matters. Hillary Clinton never got that; Trump knew how to play that.
So, when Earle sings "devil put the coal in the ground/said 'I double dare ya to follow me down,'" he captures beautifully the awareness West Virginians have about the dangers of their very livelihood, after all "the good lord gimme two hands/say 'is you an animal or is you a man?'" Death hovers in all of the hollows of coal country, but usually from black lung, another song on this CD, not from negligence and corruption.
However, "Devil Put The Coal In The Ground," "Black Lung," and "Union, God and Country" are just garnishes here. Damn good garnishes, but the main course is "It's About Blood," which apparently is the song Earle sang in the New York production of Coal Country as part of what Mother Jones described as a "Greek Chorus" role.
"It's About Blood" starts and features a straightforward country rock riff, fiddle filling in the gaps, drums powering the driving engine. Earle speaks as much as sings, challenging his audience (superficially Massey leadership, but more generally, all of us) to hear what he is saying about the mining tragedy: "Look me in the eye when you're talkin' to me/I wanna see your soul when you lie/don't tell me that you couldn't foresee/what everybody reckoned was a matter of time." The chorus reminds us what the tragedy is about: fathers, sons, lovers now alone, muscle, bone, and ultimately blood -- generations of family blood as much as the blood cast on the (or more accurately in) the ground.
I haven't seen Coal Country, but I assume Earle's song is a penultimate moment in the play. The lines would echo painfully through what is assuredly a hushed theater: "kids without daddies/tell it to God"; "Goddamn right I'm emotional/I ain't nothin' but a man/Hell, yeah, this is personal/before we leave here you're gonna understand." Through three verses and three choruses, it is riveting in-your-face bitterness about the situation.
Then, for the last minute and a half, Earle simply falls back on "It's about . . ." and names each of the 29 men who died in the accident. The tone turns from bitter to lament. The reading of the death roll takes its toll, the momentum exhausting him, the unrelenting instrumentation, a lengthy death knoll. The dead with middle names seem especially drawn out, "William Roosevelt Lynch," "Nicholas Darryl McCroskey," "Dillard Earl Persinger."
In the end, the song drops, almost out of sheer fatigue, with Earle moaning again "It's About Blood." Even upon my first listen, barely knowing anything more about the context of Coal Country, I noted how this song seemed a modern equivalent of "The 39 Lashes" brutally depicted in the middle of "Trial By Pilate" in Jesus Christ Superstar, Pilate's recitation of number, like Earle's recitation of name, angry, disgusted, terrified, obsessed, all at the same time. Both are reminders that reading a shopping list can be dramatic if given the right context.
It must have been brilliant theater. We only hope that Coal Country or Steve Earle & The Dukes can get back out on the road before someone writes a similar song or play called "COVID Country." There the feature song would be "It's About Breath," but unfortunately we'll be sitting for years through the recitation of the unnecessary deaths.
"It's About Blood." The Ghosts of West Virginia. Steve Earle & The Dukes. New West. 2020. Link here.
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