“Dear miner, they will slave you 'til you can't work no more
And what'll you get for your living but a dollar in a company store
A tumbled-down shack to live in, snow and rain pours in the top.
You have to pay the company rent, your dying never stops.”
Come all you coal miners, Sarah Ogun Gunning

History is relegated to dusty bookshelves and stuffy documentaries. This happened here. That happened there. So-and-so did this. Such-and-such did that. Even in the hands of a skilled writer, I feel detached from it. The research may be fascinating, and the analysis might be gripping, but I never truly feel what it’s like to be there. What was it like for the Spartans at Thermopylae? How did it feel to live through the dust bowl? No amount of fact or dissection is going to give me that. No amount of documentary footage can get me to truly empathize.

At its core, Harlan County U.S.A. is a historical document chronicling the lives of miners and their families as they struggle against their employer, Duke Power Company, in the early 1970s. Barbara Kopple and her team provide viewers with an unprecedented look at the labor movement. It’s a fascinating look at a period of history and a group of people that I know little about. Through a series of interviews and footage from various events, we’re given a window into how these people lived and what they cared about. And yet, Harlan County U.S.A. is so much more than that. It brings history to life in a visceral way that I’ve never experienced from a documentary. As the closing credits rolled, I was left asking myself where this documentary got its emotional power. I was left wondering how this film had reached across the chasm of time and space to move me where so many other documentaries hadn’t. The answer, it turns out, is music.

Music, of course, is a pivotal part of most movies, but it usually acts as a vehicle to enhance the image on the screen. In contrast, this film’s soundtrack stands as a central pillar in telling the story of the miners. Drawing from the old-time folk traditions of Appalachia, it features a series of ballads which describe the events and issues of their day. For example, take the conditions within the mine. The film opens with a series of shots depicting sweating men caked in coal dust working in the deep darkness of the mine. It’s a precious image of the difficult conditions that these men worked through year after year. And yet, it wasn’t until I heard Nimrod Workman, his voice full of melancholy, singing about his experience of working the mine for decades, that I felt the heart-rending toll that mining takes on these men. He sings:

“My bones, they did ache me
My kneecaps got bad
Down on a hard rock
On a set of knee pads”

I would have thought that the images of men toiling in the mines would resonate more deeply than this simple description. Instead, the image of a dignified old man crooning about his broken lungs and worn out knees told me the full story. The images of the mines may have shown me what the mines looked like, but it was the ballad that really took me there and helped me feel a faint echo of what it was like to be a man working those mines.

Much of the action of the film is paralleled by this sort of balladic description. In one particularly rousing scene, Florence Reese, the daughter and husband of coal miners, rallies union members with her ballad, Whose side are you on? This scene is particularly interesting because Reese, now in her 70s, is hearkening back to earlier protests in Harlan that she experienced as a young woman in the 1930s. By invoking this history through song, she arouses a sense of righteous anger and community four decades later. Whatever your political leanings, it’s hard not to feel anger rising deep in your chest as you watch this elderly woman with her rasping voice singing,

“If you go to Harlan County,
There is no neutral there.
You’ll either be a union man,
Or a thug for J.H. Blair.”

Which side are you on? is just one of many ballads which paints a vivid picture of the lives of miners. Legendary folk singer Hazel Dickens contributes several songs including Yablonski Murder which chronicles the murder of a prominent union leader at the hands of a competitor more sympathetic to the mining companies. Sarah Ogan Gunning, the daughter of a coal miner, sings Come all you coal miners, describing the mistreatment of miners and their families at the hands of mining companies. 

These songs, with their rich descriptions and calls for action serve not only as artistic endeavors but also as cultural memories of the events in Harlan. Where history is concerned with the facts and interpretations of the past, these ballads are about the feelings of the day. They allow a well-to-do urbanite like myself forty years later to viscerally comprehend what Harlan county felt like for these miners and their families in the mid-1970s. From anger at scabs to anguish in the face of violence to the joy of securing a new contract, the songs transmit the emotional content of the past in a way that images and interviews simply cannot.

I will never understand what it was like to be a coal miner in the 1970s. I’ll never feel the anxiety of sending my husband off to a mine knowing that today might be the day that he doesn’t return. I’ll never experience rage at a mining company that cares so little about my safety. I doubt I’ll ever participate in a strike. What I can do is watch Harlan County U.S.A., which through its music, images, and interviews, can transport me, mind and soul, to a struggling coal town in southern Kentucky, if only for a couple of hours.