Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Patty Loveless: You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive

While not a traditional song per se, "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" has the same elements of traditional roots music. Written by Darrell Scott about Harlan County, Kentucky, the song chronicles the life of the coal miner and the plight of the land controlled by outsiders from the Northeast.

Anyone who has lived in coal mining country has seen the dichotomy of daily risking one’s life and the only way to make a decent living in these hills. The line “You spend your life digging coal from the bottom of your grave” becomes a reality.

When you’ve seen how coal permeates the very fabric of society, you can understand plight of the noble miner. The coal dust is so thick that it cannot be washed out the corners of the miners’ eyes giving them the appearance of wearing eye liner.

To hear the old timers, who never had the opportunity to be protected from the dust, hack and cough from the collier's plague of black lung, you only can imagine their pain. Most of these men are now gone; they were victims of an occupational hazard associated with their trying to eke out a few dollars to put bread on their families' tables.

Notwithstanding, there is the ever looming danger of disaster – which has happened and does happen yet today. Whether it was because of explosion, coal dust, or violence associated with trying to better one’s own condition, the anthem, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” rings as a reminder of the dangers of mining – often at the expense of the miner who daily risks his life to make someone else a little richer, but is ever thankful to God that he has a job in the first place.

Harlan County, Kentucky has had a reputation as being a rough and tumble area of southeastern section of the Bluegrass state. When I lived far away in the northeastern section of Kentucky, I remember hearing chilling stories of the violence found in this region of my adopted state. In the 1930s, it was known as “Bloody Harlan.” In 1972, a strike against Duke Power Company pitted the miners, the company, and UMWA all at each other and was an example of the very worst of the worst in arbitration.

Bloody Harlan County Outlined in Red

Although Scott has recorded the song (as well as did Kathy Mattea and Brad Paisley), I think the definitive version of this song is Patty Loveless’ rendition. Patty brings authenticity to the song as she herself is from nearby Pike County, Kentucky. She sings with the emotion only as someone has filled her own cup “with whatever bitter brew you’re drinking, and you spend your life just thinking of how to get away.”

The most profound line in this whole song is the lyric, “Where the sun comes up about 10 in the morning, and the sun goes down about 3 in the day.” Anyone who has spent any time deep within the mountains of Central Appalachia knows that this is true. The height of the hills to the east prevents you from seeing the sun until mid morning and then only seeing it for a few hours before it sinks behind the ridges to your west.

Having lived all my life in Appalachia (Pennsylvania, two locations in Kentucky, and four locations in West Virginia), I can honestly say that you cannot appreciate this emotional message until you have lived in the heart of coal country.

Live Version by Darrell Scott


  1. Love this song, all versions I've heard so far. Thanks for posting on the background of it. A friend heard it being played at the end (or season finale) of a television series and shared it with me. I think the show is called JUSTIFIED. The version I first heard was Brad Paisley's and it reminded me a bit of the old English songs that were featured in the film, SONGCATCHER. Really gorgeous, heartbreaking music, reminds me of the spirit behind the blues.

  2. Sheree:

    Glad you like it. I prefer Patty's version as well. It just has that Eastern Kentucky emotion that it needs.

  3. I'm from Harlan and that is not the meaning of that lyric" the sun comes up about 10 in the morning and the sun goes down about 3 in the day- the miner woke up at 10 am- ( the sun comes up) he worked 12 hours on second shift the night before- he goes back underground at 3 in the day - ( the sun goes down about 3 in the day)- that's how the shifts at Harlan coal always were- daddy was a coal miner and I don't understand how this could be so widely misinterpreted. I guess that people who haven't been around mining just don't understand- but for the miners the sun comes up at 10 in the morning when they wake up and the sun goes down at about 3 in the day when they go underground.

    1. As far as sunrise and sunset in Harlan the sun comes up about 7:00!in the morning and the sun goes down at around 8-9 pm depending on whether or not daylight savings is going on. Hope this will clarify the lyric and the schedule of sunrise and sunset in Harlan KY for you. God bless

  4. God bless the miner. Resonates with my soul.