Julia Wolfe, meet Merle Travis


A couple of weeks ago, a Pulitzer Prize jury awarded the 2015 prize for music to Julia Wolfe for Anthracite Fields, an oratorio for mixed chorus and sextet. The fields of the title are in eastern Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia, and anthracite (a high-carbon, extra-hard version of coal) was discovered there early in the 19th century. Julia Wolfe calls herself “a storyteller with music,” and Anthracite Fields uses the words, songs and stories of miners and their families to tell the story of their work, their lives, and their deaths.

As part of the compositional process, Wolfe went down to the mines, immersed herself in oral histories and interviews, and found narrative threads that eventually became the five movements of the piece.

The opening movement is called Foundation and presents two related narratives. The first is simply and hauntingly a list of names of men killed or injured in the mines, chanted by the chorus’s male voices. From the multitude of dead, Wolfe included in this first list only those whose first name was “John” and whose last name was a single syllable.

The second narrative begins with a description of how coal is formed, initially including the women’s voices alone, but they are soon rejoined by the men who resume their invocation of the dead and injured, no longer just Johns, but men from all over the world, as immigrants were drawn to the mines at the beginning of the 20th century. The music becomes more complex, more intense, and the narratives intertwine as the movement ends. “These men,” Wolfe says, “are the foundation.”

It struck me as I listened to excerpts of this movement (a recording is due our in the fall) how closely it resembles Merle Travis’s classic coal-mining song, Dark as the Dungeon. In the last verse, Travis combines Wolfe’s two narratives at least as artfully, taking Wolfe’s foundation metaphor literally:

I hope when I’m gone and the ages shall roll,
My body will blacken and turn into coal.
Then I’ll look from the door of my heavenly home,
And pity the miner diggin’ my bones.

Wolfe’s cantata continues with the story of the breaker boys, who were as young as six when they started their dangerous work, picking slate from the stream of coal as it flowed below them. Boys who lost their balance could be crushed in the rolling mass of coal and rock; those who survived likely moved underground, where, in Travis’s words, “danger is double and pleasures are few.”

The last three movements are titled Speech, Flowers, and Appliances: union leader John L. Lewis provides the text for Speech, as he describes the disregard of mine owners for workers’ lives. Flowers deals with lives in the “patch towns” that housed the mine workers: despite the often oppressive conditions, most did their best to preserve a sense of community, and the flower gardens maintained by the women of the community are a symbol of that solidarity for Wolfe.

Coal was a way of life, and death, for these men and their families; the last movement of Anthracite Fields, Appliances, shows us how much we owe them for their work. Most electricity in the United States is still produced by coal-fired plants, and without the workers memorialized by Wolfe, our lives would have been much darker.

Music like Julia Wolfe’s is a bit out of my usual path, and it was a surprise to me, as I poked around her website, to see that Anthracite Fields isn’t the only one of her works to deal with the American worker. Steel Hammer tells, in Wolfe’s phrase “the story of the story of the John Henry legend.” riSe and fLY takes its title from a chain gang work song collected by Alan Lomax, and incorporates the rhythms of American work songs. Maybe Anthracite Fields will bring some of Wolfe’s audience over to John Henry and Merle Travis, and maybe you’ll watch the little video below and check out the rest of Wolfe’s work. I hope so.

The video is a little two-minute intro to Anthracite Fields – there’s a 23-minute documentary here that tells more of the story and, if you have the time, is really worth watching. And for you Merle Travis fans, check this out – where’s his Pulitzer?



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