Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Loves: Coal, or, Leaving Harlan Alive

Here recorded by Patty Loveless and the Del McCoury Band:

“You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.”

I first heard this song, written by Darrell Scott about five years ago, in a cabin in the Tennessee mountains, where I spent several rare, treasured days with my old college friends. During the course of those few days, I occasionally snuck out to the car crank up Track #4 on what, then, was just some promo compilation I picked up In Asheville. I listened to this one track over and over, always deep with emotion. I wasn’t sure why.

Par for the course, I lost the CD, and didn’t hear the song again in the five years since.

Then, two days ago, in a car southbound to New Bloomfield, it came on KOPN. As it played, I cried for the first time in months, maybe years. Why?

Forgiveness – that’s my guess. Five years ago, this song forgave me for leaving the southern mountains – forgave me for moving to Maine, Vermont, Northern Ireland, Vancouver … anywhere but home; forgave me for changing so much; forgave me for forsaking bluegrass & backroads to live the city life. Reminded me that I’d really done less changing and forsaking than I’d thought – that home was still home, and would wait. Now, five years later, I was forgiven again; forgiven for being almost thirty; for having a mortgage and a day-job; for losing my “guitar calluses”; for saying “I used to…” almost with no regret. Forgiven again, and welcomed back home.

In the deep dark hills of eastern Kentucky
That's the place where I traced my bloodline
And it's there I read on a hillside gravestone
"You'll never leave Harlan alive"

Oh my grandfather's dad crossed the Cumberland Mountains
Where he took a pretty girl to be his bride
Said "Won't you walk with me out the mouth of this holler
Or we'll never leave Harlan alive"

Where the sun comes up about ten in the mornin'
And the sun goes down about three in the day
And you'll fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you're drinkin'
And you spend your life just thinkin' of how to get away

No one ever knew there was coal in them mountains
Till a man from the northeast arrived
Waving hundred dollar bills
Said "I'll pay you for your minerals"
But he never left Harlan alive

Grandma sold out cheap and they moved out west of Pikeville
To a farm where Big Richaldn River winds
And I bet they danced them a jig
And they laughed and sang a new song
"Who said we'd never leave Harlan alive"

But the times got hard and tobacco wasn't selling
And old grandad knew what he'd do to survive
He went and dug for Harlan coal
And sent the money back to grandma
But he never left Harlan alive

Where the sun comes up about ten in the mornin'
And the sun goes down about three in the day
And you'll fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you're drinkin'
And you spend your life just thinkin' of how to get away

You'll never leave Harlan alive

1 comment:

Kathy Barron said...

Thanks for the link to the great song, and for writing the lyrics. I grew up in Knoxville, TN, and now I live in Los Angeles County. It sounds like you realy have done less changing and forsaking than you had thought. I still love the Appalachians very much. I read you dad's blog every day without fail. It is such a good contact with what I love. I was a 7th grade science teacher, and now I am retired, touring the U.S. several months a year.