Songs to raise girls: Dark as a Dungeon

We sang Dark as a Dungeon as a family song and at singing parties from when my sister and I were very little. We learned many of the songs before we knew what the words meant. At some age I considered this a cautionary song and was glad that my father was not mining coal. I also decided that I didn’t want to mine coal.

It was written by Merle Travis, whose father was a miner in an Appalachian shaft mine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FPmSLzsbdM&list=RD-FPmSLzsbdM#t=1. Johnny Cash sang it: and Willie Nelson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKGCKwACj1I and Willie Nelson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s66nbyzqq8o. It became a protest song, to fight for safer conditions. We learned this and Drill ye Terriers, Drill and Sixteen Tons, so we were raised on protest songs.

The song words have morphed a little, since we sang from memory. Here is our version:

Come all ye young fellows so young and so fine
And seek not your fortune in the dark, dreary mines
It will form as a habit and seep in your soul
‘Til the stream of your blood runs as black as the coal

Where it’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew
Where the danger is double and the pleasures are few
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines
It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mines

I wrote an essay in college about a song that I learned from my mother. I researched versions of Green Grow the Rushes Oh. I had always wondered about some of the verses, because it’s a counting song, from one to 12. Twelve for the twelve apostles and eleven for the eleven that went up to heaven. In an atheist household it takes a while to figure out the meaning of apostle. But other verses are mysterious to this day: nine for the nine Bright Shiners and eight for the April Rainers. In oral traditions if you forget a verse you make up a new one.

There’s many a man that I have seen in my day
Who lived just to labor his whole life away
Like a fiend with his dope and a drunkard his wine
A man will have lust for the lure of the mine

The comparison of  mining to addiction impressed me: “it will creep in your soul, til the stream of your blood runs as dark as the coal”. “Like a fiend with his dope” — opiate addicts were called fiends. And people were called drunkards. So this song also made me cautious about both drugs and alcohol.

We didn’t learn the third verse:

The midnight, the morning, or the middle of the day
It’s the same to the miner who labors away
Where the demons of the death often come by surprise
One fall of the slate and you are buried alive

The last verse interested me. I liked the idea of bones turning to coal over time. My parents were atheists and did not go to church, but there were lots of songs that talked about God or heaven or the devil: including sacred music. We went to big chorus rehearsals when my parents couldn’t find a sitter and we were expected to behave politely during concerts: The Messiah. And we got to go to operettas. I saw Ruddigore in Ithaca at Cornell when I was 5 and the ancestral ghosts stepping out of their portraits and singing was terrible and wonderful.

I hope when I’m gone and the ages shall roll
My body will blacken and turn into coal
Then I’ll look out the door of my heavenly home
And I’ll pity the miners A-diggin’ my bones

The photo is my father’s family and he is in the back, first trumpet. This is the Bayers Family Orchestra. My great grandfather is conducting, my grandmother on violin and my grandfather on saxophone. They became a band when my grandparents moved away, because my grandmother was the only string player.

4 thoughts on “Songs to raise girls: Dark as a Dungeon

  1. shunra says:

    I learned that song from a book my mother had, and loved it from the first run-through (I think I may have picked the tune out on the piano; possibly my mother sang it to me. One way or the other, it settled into my brain permanently.)

    Interestingly, the third verse wasn’t in my mother’s book, either.

    • drkottaway says:

      Do you know what the book was?

      • shunra says:

        A collection of folk songs, probably purchased in 1971 or latest, winter 1976. Family politics being what it is, her books were probably sold to a used bookstore back in 1989. I have no one I could legitimately ask about it.

        (My family imploded at that point.)

      • drkottaway says:

        I will show you the book my folks used: I have a copy now….

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