But it seems like one of the reasons for the huge success of the song is that it's not just a song about Loretta Lynn. It also tells a story about thousands of people with similar experiences, and their relationship to one looming fixture: the coalmine.
"Coal Miner's Daughter" means something because so many people out there know what it's like to live a life dominated by coal. Images of coal miners with coal-blackened faces and wearing headlamps are almost a cliché, representing everything from the story of industrialization to the power of union organizing in its hey-day. In Loretta Lynn's Kentucky hometown of Butcher Holler, coal mining was the only real job available, and almost all the men she knew did that work. In the time of her childhood, union organizers, coal bosses, and government regulators fought tooth and nail over the future of coal.
Now the future has arrived, and coal is still the cheapest and most important energy source in the United States today, generating over half of the nation's electricity. The U.S. also produces about 35% of the world's coal, more than any other country. Coal is also still dirty, and still dangerous. Coal is not a thing of the past—and the debates surrounding it are as heated as ever (no pun intended... or maybe it was).
Take just a few examples. Now that global warming is widely accepted as a problem, people are arguing more and more fiercely about how to reduce the environmental harm associated with burning coal. Coal miners are still in serious danger of injury and death as a result of mining accidents and black lung disease, despite attempts at government regulation. (This makes the 2010 rescue of 33 miners in Chile, who spent 69 days trapped underground, all the more miraculous.) And in Lynn's homeland of Appalachia, some are trying to stop the bulldozers of mountaintop removal coalmining, a practice that strips all the trees and surface rock off of coal-rich hills in order to dig shallow mines. To continue with the obvious cheesy pun, the coal issue is only getting hotter.
To try to understand the utter dominance of coal mining in Loretta Lynn's world, let's start at the beginning (or at least closer to the beginning—the real history of coal mining began over 10,000 years ago in China). Anyhow, in the United States the story of the massive coal industry begins back in the 1800s with the Industrial Revolution, when changes in technology and production led to a sea-change in how European and American societies produced and consumed their most basic needs. Factories replaced individual craftspeople, large farms with single products replaced family farms, and railroads and steam engines made long-distance transportation much easier, which in turn supported even larger-scale industrial production.
Coal was the fuel for many of these changes. By the end of the 1800s, electricity was a household word, and it was coal that kept the trains running and the lights on. Urbanization and a slew of new inventions meant that whole cities were being built whose operations depended on those little black pockets of energy. The Appalachian region, ranging from southern New York State all the way down to northern Alabama (click here for a map), was the center of coal production, and whole towns (called "coal patch towns") grew up around coal mines.
Coal production soared, doubling every ten years from 1850 until 1918, when it peaked at 680 million short tons per year in the U.S. due to the demand created by World War I. But a gradual decline in the twenties became a steep one in the 1930s. The sudden economic changes of the Great Depression cut coal production to 360 million short tons in 1932, just over half of what it had been at the end of World War I. (A short ton, by the way, is 2,000 pounds. A long ton is 2,240 pounds. Go figure.) At the same time, increased mechanization of the mining process cut coal-mining jobs, in some cases replacing almost 70 percent of human work with machines that could mine, load, and transport coal.
Entering into a second World War required coal for industrial production and transportation. The industry in Lynn's region of Eastern Kentucky got enough of a kick that her father gained regular employment as a miner during the early 1940s. Everyone likes a steady job, especially after a recession, right? Unfortunately, by most accounts, mining was a harsh life at best, and a lethal career path at worst.
There were a million reasons to dread working in the mines. Mines were dark, dirty, and cramped. Miners could look forward to lousy wages based on how many tons of coal they produced, which meant that if you were sick, tired, or slow on the job, you could make less money or even no money at all. Mining bosses could easily cheat workers by under-measuring the weight of the coal collected, or refusing to pay for cars of coal with too many rocks in them (even though this coal could still be used). Coal dust entered the lungs, leading to illness and death, and in the 1940s there was still no such thing as workers' compensation or disability payments. Miners who got sick were kicked to the curb with no benefits, which is precisely what happened to Lynn's father in the years before his death. Mining disasters such as fires, explosions, and collapsing mines have also claimed thousands of lives and are still a risk for coal miners.
These nasty conditions spurred plenty of pushback from the large and well-organized labor unions of the earlier twentieth century. The United Mine Workers of America (UMW) was founded in 1890 and grew to be one of the most powerful members of the AFL-CIO under the leadership of John L. Lewis. Unionized miners fought for an eight-hour workday, fair wages, health and retirement benefits and safety protections. But unionizing could be risky: miners often lost their jobs as a result of getting involved with unions. Mine owners hired private guards who beat up and intimidated union organizers and their families (and since mine owners often ran the governments and police forces of tiny mining towns, it was nearly impossible to stop them). Some of those who did organize strikes were murdered in incidents like the 1917 Ludlow Massacre and the 1927 Columbine Mine Massacre in Colorado. Both involved the fatal shooting of striking miners and their families by national guardsmen. Not far from Lynn and her family, Harlan County, Kentucky, became known as "Bloody Harlan" in the 1930s because of ongoing violent clashes between miners and the bosses' henchmen.
Loretta Lynn's dad, Melvin Webb, probably benefitted from some of the victories won by union organizers. But by the time the federal government passed the first ever Coal Mining Safety Act in 1952, Webb's career was nearly over. More comprehensive bills were passed in 1969 and 1977, mandating regular inspection of the mines for safety, and compensating workers who got sick from inhaling coal dust. By that time, Lynn's coal miner father had died of a stroke at the age of 51, unemployed, infected with black lung, and lacking even basic health care.
Without a doubt, coal mining work isn't what it once was. It's safer, more tightly regulated by the federal government, generally less fatal, and at least a bit higher paying. Even though the U.S. produces about twice as much coal now as it did in the 1950s, fewer people are employed in the mines due to changes in technology. But miners still contract black lung, and as recently as April 2010, 29 men died in a mining explosion in West Virginia. The Upper Big Branch mine explosion was the worst U.S. mining accident since 1970, and the tragedy called mining safety and regulation back up to the forefront.
In addition to the health and safety costs of mining, the reality of global warming has been putting pressure on the coal mining industry for a couple of decades now. One of the by-products produced by burning coal is carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere. Coal emissions are also linked to acid rain and respiratory illness, and coal mining can destroy ecosystems by tearing up the earth's surface and polluting nearby rivers and lakes.
Coal these days is all about electricity. In 1950, only about 19 percent of the 560 million tons of coal produced went towards producing electric power—the rest of the coal went to steam engines and industrial uses. By 2003, the measure of coal production had almost doubled, but about 90 percent was used for electric power. Coal mining fuels our laptops, lights, cell phone chargers, machinery and appliances.
With a dozen options for cleaner, renewable energy sources, why is coal still such a big thing? The long and the short of it is that coal is cheap. As long as the demand is there, coal corporations will keep up a steady supply unless government regulation stops them. And despite health risks and environmental devastation, many are dependent on the mines for their livelihoods. In Appalachia, where mining jobs have declined due to mechanization and the western migration of the industry, lots of people still favor mining in the region simply because it is their livelihood.
What is the future of this dirty, dangerous, and powerful industry that is literally keeping our lights on? Will renewable energy overcome nonrenewable resources like coal, oil, and natural gas anytime in the near future? Obviously Loretta Lynn can't tell us all that, but "Coal Miner's Daughter" paints a clear picture of a tough lifestyle that might become (but is not yet) a thing of the past.