I’ve become obsessed with this song, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”, performed here by Patty Loveless.
The lyrics speak of the suffering of the life dependent on coal mining. It explores the irony of a life spent working a job that is killing you — that your financial survival depends on work that makes your survival impossible.
Loveless herself was born in Kentucky, and her father was a coal miner who eventually died of black lung disease. She knows the geographic territory as well as the emotional territory that this songs travels. Her version gives the song a stronger bluegrass sensibility, with its instrumentation and bluegrass harmonies. The song was written by Nashville resident, Darrell Scott, whose own version of the song strips it down a bit, so that it’s poetry is experienced more strongly. Here he is performing it as part of one of the absolute best gatherings of musicians ever, the Transatlantic Sessions.
The lyrics land us right smack in the middle of a very particular landscape and reality:
In the deep dark hills of eastern Kentucky
That’s the place where I trace my bloodline
And it’s there I read on a hillside gravestone
You will never leave Harlan alive
The deep shadows and shortened days of eastern Kentucky also serve as metaphor: we know right away that this is a place where a person hungers for light. In hard times, no matter where we are living, our souls hunger for light, and for a sense of hope. And, no matter who we are, and where our own bloodlines originate, most of us come from those deep, dark places of struggle, and have in our own blood that hunger of finding something better. But the last line of the first stanza issues its warning, “You’ll never leave Harlan alive.”
Where the sun comes up about ten in the morning
And the sun goes down about three in the day
And you fill your cup with whatever bitter brew you’re drinking
And you spend your life just thinkin’ of how to get away.
We all spend our lives dreaming of escape, of better times and better places, just as the family members in the song:
Oh, my granddad’s dad walked down
And he asked Tillie Helton to be his bride
Said, won’t you walk with me out of the mouth
Of this holler
Or we’ll never leave Harlan alive
That dream of liberation coupled with a sense of desperation, fueled by the hope that new love provides, can sometimes be enough to propel us out of the old situation and into the unknown. But the song doesn’t give us a happy ending. These people don’t walk out of the mountains and take up residence at the seaside where they run a tiny cottage restaurant and offer fishing tours. They don’t buy tickets for a ocean liner and land in sunny Portugal. Why? Because as much as we all thirst for freedom, we are prisoners of our own limited imaginations. How far is too far to go? Often, the question is, instead, how far turns out to be not far enough?
In the song, the escapees barely left – moving to farmland in Kentucky instead of traveling until the world looked entirely, ecstatically different. So, of course, the troubles come and, because proximity to what is familiar exists, there comes the scurrying back to the evils we know.
But the times got hard and tobacco wasn’t selling
And ole granddad knew what he’d do to survive
He went and dug for Harlan coal
And sent the money back to granny
But he never left Harlan alive
I think the reason I am obsessed with this song, and the reason I cry every time I hear it, is because it speaks an archetypal truth. We are all in Harlan; we are all prisoners of our own sorrows, being exploited and used by those who feed off others. And maybe, to expand this thought even further, “Harlan” is just a metaphor for life in general — no one gets out alive, and no one is immune from suffering. The dreams that our lives offer — dreams of love, of escape, of success — all end in the silence of the grave.
Okay, wait a minute, you are probably thinking by now — isn’t this blog called “Good Times Manifesto”? Isn’t this a place where ideas about finding joy in hard times are discussed? What the hell is all this about dreams ending in the silence of the grave? What is uplifting about that?
Let me explain. First, the pure, raw beauty of this song is, somehow, uplifting. The fact that a man like Darrell Scott can write a song that throbs with suffering, but compose it in such a way that the suffering is glowing with a kind of celestial light — that is uplifting. The fact that voices sing this song, and combine in harmonies that cause your heart to swell in your chest and your mind to feel electrified — that is uplifting. I think this song speaks not only of the very specific truths of the people of a coal mining region of Kentucky, but speaks of the archetypal truths of humanity. It’s important to remember the 1) we can make beauty out of sorrow — and that this ability to work a creative miracle is one of the most miraculous things about being human; and 2) we are all in this together. None of us get out of this world alive. That’s the whole point. So we might as well make some beauty while we are here.