On the Mines (1880–1950): Work, Leisure and Resistance in the Folklore of South African and Appalachian Mine Workers

  • Richard Ralston


In Appalachia and on the Witwatersrand, a triptych of variables produced caravans of men and boys going into deep pits below ground beginning in the nineteenth century. The convergence of three factors — economic necessity, danger, and urbanization — generated a diverse folk or popular expression among miners concerning what happened to them. These folk testimonials took varied forms: aphorisms, folk songs, work songs, epic folk poetry, organized games, sardonic humour, and full-blown narratives. Although diverse, such transcripts of adjustment, resistance, and community formation when working on the mines — whether gold or coal — have been rarely explored comprehensively and never comparatively.4 Moreover, in America most mining studies have focused on West Virginia at the expense of comprehensive, Appalachian studies and never as explicit comparative studies.


Coal Mine Gold Mine Mine Worker Comparative Perspective Black Worker 
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    Aphorism No. 77, included among 100 ways to avoid untimely death, in Old Farmer’s Almanac (198th edn). The objection to whistling underground was among the most widespread of all miners’ superstitions. Rationally, the precaution appears to rest on the belief that the strident tones set up vibrations which cause the earth to move; see T. Coffin and H. Cohen (eds), Folklore From the Working Folk of America (New York, 1974), p. 242.Google Scholar
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    I am indebted to collections and in-depth analysis of specialized aspects of the history of mine worker experience and mining industry lore from throughout southern Africa and southern Appalachian America. Among the pioneering scholars whose harvest of primary data should dominate any discussion of the broad themes covered here: A. Green, Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-mining Songs (Urbana, 1972);Google Scholar
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    The relevance of developing a second channel or consulting a second opinion may be seen in a debate within American labour history. Here claims have been proffered alternatively that ‘the United Mine Workers have done more to erase the word white [i.e. racism] from the [US] constitution than the 14h Amendment’ and that racism perennially girded the loins of organized labour’s use of black mine workers throughout its history in America. This revisionism is persuasively attacked in H. Hill, ‘Myth-Making as Labor History: Herbert G. Gutman and the United Mine Workers of America’, International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, 2, 2 (Winter 1988), pp. 132–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1998

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  • Richard Ralston

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