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  • Chris Haddox

If This Ain't The Folk Process, I Don't Know What Is

Updated: May 22

As I was checking my guitar case prior to walking to the auditorium for my Friday evening performance at the 2024 Southeast Regional Folk Alliance, a piece of paper dropped from my case to the floor. While a piece of paper falling from my guitar case was not unusual, it was interesting that of all the pieces that could have dropped out, it was this one. I folded it up, stuffed it in my shirt pocket, then proceeded to the auditorium.


As the first artist completed her set, I revisited the selections I had in mind for my set and was comfortable that they would make a good follow up to hers. Three songs--a humorous one to start off, a wistful relationship song in the middle, then wrapping with something a bit more in the political/folky vein (I had three in mind for that final song...the choice depending on how the audience reacted to the first two).


The first two songs went very well from my perspective...folks in the audience laughed at the funny song in all the right places, and judging from the looks on their faces, connected with the life story in the second one. In the few seconds I had to decide on my third and final selection, I thought about the paper in my pocket and about a conversation a fellow performer, Nicholas Edward Williams, and I had a few hours earlier while we were waiting for our soundchecks.


In addition to being a stellar musician/singer/songwriter, Nicholas is a music preservationist and produces a Podcast called 'American Songcatcher.' I asked him about his work and let on that I did some preservation work centered on folk music from the coalfields of southern West Virginia. At that point I pulled up the website for the project and randomly clicked on one of the persons included in the project, Russell Brown, to show him what kinds of information I, along with my friend and colleague, Gloria Goodwin Raheja, collected on the folks we were researching--pictures, sound recordings, biographies, videos of visits to graveyards, etc.. Nicholas and I chatted for a bit then had to attend to our soundchecks.


Back to those few seconds between my second and third songs. My mind drifted to the piece of paper in my pocket. Of all the papers that could have fallen from my guitar case, the one that did happened to hold the lyrics to a song that Russell Brown, an African American coal miner from Logan County, WV--the community of Yolyn, specifically--wrote and sang for United Mine Worker's of American President John L. Lewis at a Labor Day Rally in Charleston, WV in 1935. Also present that day was Ukrainian-born George Korson--himself a collector of folk songs associated with industry and labor. Russell's song, The Union Blues, made an impression on Korson, so much so that five years later in August of 1940, Korson tracked Russell down at his home in Yolyn, WV, and recorded him singing the song. That recording now resides in the Library of Congress, along with many other recordings Korson obtained from the coalfields of West Virginia and Pennsylvania.


As much as I would have loved to show off my own work by sharing another original song with a captive audience that included other songwriters/performers/radio programmers/booking agents/talent buyers for venues, I wondered in my mind what better place to keep Russell Brown's folk song alive than at a damn folk music gathering?


I shared a bit of the backstory running through my mind, then pulled out the piece of paper, held onto my guitar just enough to keep it from falling off my lap, cleared my throat, found the pitch, and sang an a capella version of Russell Brown's composition, The Union Blues, just as Russell had for John L. Lewis in 1935, and for George Korson in 1940. A few shouts of affirmation from the audience towards the end of the song caused me to choke up a bit on the final two lines, but I got through it to the appreciation of the audience.


Six acts later, a very talented group from South Carolina--Admiral Radio--took the stage. As introduction to their third and final song the lead singer, Becca Smith, donned a "you are not going to believe this' look on her face, then said my name and referenced my last song, saying something to the effect that she could not believe that anyone else in the room had any idea where Logan, WV was located, and that her family roots were in Logan. Admiral Radio went on to perform a beautiful song inspired by stories of the Logan area coal camps she had heard about from her family.


So, the folk process is alive and well. A song penned by an African American coal miner, one of only a few songs his family knows about, in the remote community of Yolyn, Logan County, WV, was heard by a Ukrainian immigrant song collector in 1935 in Charleston, WV, was captured by that collector on disc in Yolyn, WV in 1940, was accessed/listened to on a computer in 2019 by a white male folk singer from Logan, WV, who sang it on stage in 2024 during a folk music conference in Black Mountain, NC, was heard by, and will most certainly be carried forward by a young white female singer/songwriter from South Carolina who has family coal mining roots in Logan, WV.


The universe is talking to us always...it is our job to listen and act.




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