I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania – Montgomeryville. When we first moved there the road was dirt and the woods surrounding the house offered an endless playground of natural forts and ice skating trails. At the end of the long country road you’d reach the highway — route 309. A right turn (which was the way we almost always turned) led to the city, Philadelphia. A left turn on route 309 (which we hardly ever took) led to coal country, the anthracite field region. I remember hearing the names of the towns, and though my grandmother grew up in Scranton, everything in that direction, north of my small town, seemed like the wild west.
When the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia commissioned me to write a new work for choir and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, I looked to the anthracite region. Anthracite is the diamond of coal — the purest form. At the turn of the century the anthracite fields of Pennsylvania became the power source for everything from railroads to industry to heating homes. But the life of the miner was difficult and dangerous. I had been immersed in issues of the American worker — composing Steel Hammer, an evening length art-ballad on the legend of John Henry. For Anthracite Fields I went deeper into American labor history — looking at both local and national issues that arose from coal mining. I went down into the coal mines, visited patch towns and the local museums where the life of the miners has been carefully depicted and commemorated. I interviewed retired miners and children of miners who grew up in the patch. The text is culled from oral histories and interviews, local rhymes, a coal advertisement, geological descriptions, a mining accident index, contemporary daily everyday activities that make use of coal
power, and an impassioned political speech by John L. Lewis, the head of the United Mine Workers Union.
My aim with Anthracite Fields is to honor the people who persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region during a time when the industry fueled the nation, and to reveal a bit about who we are as American workers.
In the first movement, FOUNDATION, the singers chant the names of miners that appeared on a Pennsylvania Mining Accident index 1869-1916. The list is sadly long. I chose only the Johns with one-syllable last names in alphabetical order. The piece ends with a setting of the very colorful multi-syllabic names. The miners were largely from immigrant families and the diversity of ethnicity is heard in the names. At the center of Foundation is text from geological descriptions of coal formation.
BREAKER BOYS follows next. There were many boys working in the Pennsylvania coal mines. The younger ones worked in the breakers, which were large ominous structures. The coal would come running down shoots of the breakers, and the boys had the painful job of removing debris from the rush of coal. They weren’t allowed to wear gloves, and as a result their fingers were cut and bleeding. The central rhyme of this movement, Mickey Pick-Slate, is from the anthracite region. Others were adapted from children’s street rhymes. In the center of this movement are the words of Anthony (Shorty) Slick who worked as a breaker boy. The interview is taken from the documentary film, America and Lewis Hine directed by Nina Rosenblum. Hine worked for the National Child Labor Committee, and served as chief photographer for the WPA.
SPEECH is the third movement. The text is adapted from an excerpt of a speech by John L. Lewis who served as president of the United Mine Workers of America. Lewis was an impassioned spokesperson for the miners and fought hard-won battles for safer working conditions and for compensation.
The fourth movement FLOWERS was inspired by an interview with Barbara Powell, daughter and granddaughter of miners. She grew up in a Pennsylvania patch town and had many stories to tell about her family life. She never felt poor. She had an amazing sense of community. Barbara talked about how everyone helped each other. In one interview Barbara said, in order to brighten their lives, “We all had gardens”, and then she began to list the names of flowers.
The last movement APPLIANCES ties the new to the old. I was struck by John L. Lewis’ line “those of us who benefit from that service because we live in comfort.” Our days are filled with activities that require power. Even today coal is fueling the nation, powering electricity. When we bake a cake or grind coffee beans we use coal. The closing words of Anthracite Fields are taken from an advertising campaign for the coal-powered railroad. In 1900 Ernest Elmo Calkins created a fictitious character, a New York socialite named Phoebe Snow, who rode the rails to Buffalo It used to be a dirty business to ride a train But with the diamond of coal her “gown stayed white from morn till night, on the road to Anthracite” — a stunning contrast to the coal darkened faces underground.
The leaves and branches buried deep. Thick roots and trunks buried deep.
Buried deep inside the earth.
Layer upon layer upon layer buried deep.
Heat. Pressure. Time.
Massimino Santiarelli, Nicholas Scalgo, Edward Scutulis, Alfred Seabury, Jonathan Shoemaker, Josiah Sibley, Emanuel Skidmore, Martin Sladovick, Andrew Smalley, Thomas Snedden, Sylvester Sokoski, Benjamin Spade, Charles St. Clair, Ignatz Stancheski, James Henry Sullivan, Anton Svanevich, Augustus Swanson, Olif Sweedbury, Anthony Sweeney, Lathrie Symmons, Julius Tamanini, Lino Tarillia, Premo Tonetti, Bladis Tonatis, Rofello Tironzelli, Anthony Tonery, Christian Ulrich, Theodore Valentine, Isaac VanBlaragan, Constantine Vickerell, Edwin Wagstaff, August Yeager, Henry Youngcourt, Martian Yunman, Victor Zaimerovich, Ezekiel Zamoconie,
Ezekiel, Ezekiel, Ezekiel, Ezekiel.
The names above appear on the list of the Pennsylvania Mining Accidents index 1869-1916 (from the Denver Public Library Digital Collections) with the exception of Massimino Santiarelli who appeared in Growing Up in Coal Country by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. The geographic description was adapted from information in the book Big Coal by Jeff Goodell.
early and late
that was the poor little breaker boys fate.
mickety pickety rickety tickety lickety splickety
kickety, kickety, kick, kick, kick, kick
Mickey, Mickey, Mickey, Mickey
eight years, nine years, ten years, twelve years,
six years, seven years, thirteen, fifteen, fourteen,
eleven, seventeen, eighteen, sixteen
Mickey, Mickey, Mickey, Mickey
mickety pickety rickety tickety lickety splickety
“Oh what a place, you sat on a hard seat.
You didn’t dare cushion it, no matter.
You had to sit on that plain plank, no matter,
with your feet in the shoot, on a plain plank
bent over like this.
Well I’ll tell you it was very scary.
Believe me, believe me.
"I don’t know how in the world I got the nerve to go there in the first place.
You didn’t dare say anything.
You didn’t dare quit,
because it was something to have a job at 8 cents an hour.
You didn’t wear gloves.
You didn’t dare.
You weren’t allowed to wear gloves.
"Your fingernails, you had none.
The ends of them would be bleeding ever day from work,
* everything in quotes excerpted and adapted from an interview with Anthony (Shorty) Slick (breaker boy) from the film America and Lewis Hine directed and produced by Nina Rosenblum, Daedalus Productions, Inc. Other text based on children’s street rhymes.
If we must grind up human flesh and bones
in the industrial machine that we call modern America,
then before God I assert
that those who consume the coal
and you and I who benefit from that service because we live in comfort,
we owe protection to those men and we owe the security to their families
if they die.
I say it, I voice it, I proclaim it
and I care not who in heaven or hell opposes it.
That is what I believe.
That is what I believe, I believe, I believe.
And the miners believe that.*
*excerpt from a speech by John L. Lewis (head of the United Mine Workers) to the House Labor subcommittee
“My gown stays white from morn till night. My gown stays white.
On the road to Anthracite.”*
*Phoebe Snow was a fictitious New York socialite created by Ernest Elmo Calkins (D.L.&W.) in 1900 for an advertising campaign for the Lakawana coal-powered railroad. Her image was accompanied by short rhymes like the one in the last paragraph above.
Anthracite Fields was commissioned through Meet the Composer's Commissioning Music/USA program, which is made possible by generous support from the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Helen F. Whitaker Fund. Additional support was made possible through the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia Alan Harler New Ventures Fund; the Presser Foundation; The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through Philadelphia Music Project.
Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and BOAC All-Stars; April 2014
This work is only available for SATB chorus in performance with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Please info [at] redpoppymusic [dot] com (contact us) for more information about scheduling performances.
Steel Hammer is inspired by my love for the legends and music of Appalachia. The text is culled from the over 200 versions of the John Henry ballad. The various versions, based on hearsay, recollection, and tall tales, explore the subject of human vs. machine in this quintessential American legend. Many of the facts are unclear – some say he’s from West Virginia – some say he’s from South Carolina – some say he’s from New Jersey... But regardless of the details, John Henry, wielding a steel hammer, faces the onslaught of the industrial age as his super human strength is challenged in a contest to out dig an engine. I drew upon the extreme variations of the story, fragmenting and weaving the contradictory versions of the ballad that have circulated since the late 1800s in to a new whole - at times meditating on single words or phrases – in order to tell the story of the story - to embody the simultaneous diverse paths it traveled.
The sounds of Appalachia have long been a part of my musical consciousness. (My first public music performance was on mountain dulcimer). I have referenced the folk music influence in many of my other works - Four Marys (for string quartet) and Cruel Sister (for string orchestra) take folk tales as the inspiration for the music. LAD (for 9 bagpipes), and Accordion Love (accordion concerto) explore and experiment with folk performance traditions. In Steel Hammer, I’m calling on the Bang on a Can All-Stars to expand out from their usual instrumentation to include the likes of dulcimers and bones, and accessing Trio Mediæval’s extensive work in their native vocal traditions.
In Eight Parts: Water (Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe) 1. My Soul (David Lang) 2. Water Instrumental (Heavy Water) (Michael Gordon) 3. He Saw a Skull (Michael Gordon) 4. Before Roll, Ocean (David Lang) 5. Give Me (David Lang) 6. Thirst (Julia Wolfe) 7. Roll, Ocean (David Lang) 8. Tephillat Geshem (Prayer for Rain) (Michael Gordon)
Composers' Note: Water is a lover's tears, an unquenchable thirst, a fight for survival, a prayer for rain. Our piece Water is a meditation on the poetry of water: what it means to have it, how we misuse it, and how we struggle for it. Rain falls. Tears flow. A skull is found in a river. A man thirsts.
Water is an exploration through music, staging and projection of how dependent we are upon water in our world, and how uneasy our dependence really is. Much of our dependence is of course physical; at the same time, the hope for water, or the lack of it, can be a spiritual construct as well. Our piece explores the water we have and the water we need, the water we control and the water that controls us.
We have always lived with water in a kind of fragile equilibrium. We have too much. We have none. A rich man calls for ice in his water, next to a poor man who thirsts. It is a precarious balance, between blessing and curse, between life and death, between plenty and scarcity.