In Appalachia, working class people responded to economic and social exploitation by the coal, timber, and textile industries with protest music, creating “a legacy that is arguably the best- known such repertoire in American labor history.” From punk to string bands, Appalachian musicians are raising their voices against sexism, racism, worker exploitation, and environmental degradation. As Sam Gleaves told NPR Music’s Jewly Hight, Appalachian music is “the music of people who have fought against oppression.”
Listen to these songs and more at: Unsweetened: A Playlist for a Feminist Future on Spotify.
Cathy Fink, “Coal Mining Woman”
Coal mines are at the roots of Appalachian protest music. There are songs about strikes, black lung, and the struggles of working women. Originally sung by Hazel Dickens, in this feminist manifesto Cathy Fink reminds us: “You can’t own your life, if you can’t pay your bills.”
Hazel Dickens, “The Rebel Girl”
When you think “Rebel Girl,” you might think Bikini Kill. But before Kathleen Hannah was writing punk anthems, Joe Hill wrote “The Rebel Girl” about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a labor leader, activist, and feminist who played a leading role in the Industrial Workers of the World. Hazel Dickens, pioneer bluegrass musician and advocate for coal miners and working people modernized the song in the 1990s. “I’m proud to fight for freedom with a rebel girl.”
Bessie Smith, “Sam Jones Blues”
The Appalachian Mountains are only now beginning to be recognized as one of the primary incubators of African-American music, especially the blues. In her Appalachian blues, Smith sings about men doing her wrong. As Angela Davis points out, these songs about love and sex were a way to express concerns about personal and social freedom.
Sam Gleaves, “Ain’t We Brothers,”
I love this song by Wytheville, Virginia, old-time banjoist and songwriter, Sam Gleaves. In his rootsy vocals, he tells the story of a gay West Virginia coal miner named Sam Palms who faced extensive backlash in his community. The coal miner asks the people who judged him, beat him up, and shamed him — “Ain’t We Brothers,” while taking the coal companies to court for discrimination. Fight with love and the law.
Kaia Kater, “Rising Down”
Of Afro-Caribbean descent in Québec, Kater is a banjo player who plays a combination of old-time tunes and socially conscious originals. She studied Appalachian music and dance at West Virginia’s Davis and Elkins College. Her understanding of history and ethnomusicology shines on the traditional shape-note song “White.” We also love her first protest song, “Rising Down,” inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Appalachian Terror Unit, “Casualties of a Rape Culture”
The Appalachian Terror Unit is an antifascist punk band from Huntington, West Virginia. Unfortunately for us, their music is not available on Spotify. But the band, which is part of the activist punk community, writes songs with a social-political conscience. In “Casualties of a Rape Culture,” Sara forcefully decries rape culture and calls out her sisters of the world – “…we will never be quiet, We have a voice we will not drown in the silence.”
The Reel World String Band, “Who Owns Appalachia”
Traditional and old-time musicians, The Reel World String Band, have dedicated 40 years to cultural and feminist activism supporting social movements in Kentucky and the Appalachian region. Paula Nelson, Cherokee poet, begins this anti-mountain top removal anthem, “Who Owns Appalachia.”
Loretta Lynn, “The Pill”
Born in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky in 1932 the daughter of a coal miner, Loretta Lynn’s political songs range from “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “One’s on the Way” to the controversial 1975 song, “The Pill.” “The Pill” is a celebration from the perspective of a woman who just gained control over her reproductive health through access to birth control. We aren’t going back.
Saro Lynch-Thomason, “Hold on”
Saro Lynch-Thomason is a ballad singer, storyteller, and activist who lives in Asheville, North Carolina. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Lynch-Thomason gained national attention in 2012 with an adventurous album called Blair Pathways: A Musical Exploration of America’s Largest Labor Uprising. Growing out of her work as an environmental activist who was fighting against mountaintop removal mining in the Appalachian coalfields, Blair Pathways is a musical exploration of Blair Mountain, West Virginia’s place in the long history of coal mining in Appalachia. Hold on.
A Bonus Track: Beatty, “West Virginia Water”
We admit we have a preference for the ladies and GLBTQ musicians, but we also want to shout out for those political men. Three years ago, West Virginians were in the news During the 2014 chemical spill, MCHM, an industrial chemical, leaked into the Elk River, leaving 300,000 residents temporarily without water. Beatty, West Virginia native who moved away from Appalachia, wrote the hip hop song, “West Virginia Water.” Beatty says a lot of the music he writes is about growing up in West Virginia–and rising above the stereotypes and the challenges that he faced.
We look forward to sharing more great music from the mountains in the future!
If you like these songs, you will love the playlist.