Study Guide

Coal Miner's Daughter Lyrics

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Well, I was born a coal miner's daughter
In a cabin, on a hill in Butcher Holler

Quick Thought

Lynn's lyrics showed the world that she was not ashamed to be what others would call a "hillbilly."

Deep Thought

Lynn grew up poor in the Appalachian hills of Eastern Kentucky. During her childhood in the 1930s and 1940s, the "hillbilly" was the stereotype for all poor white people from the hills.

They were often represented as ignorant, naive, and lacking civilization. The hillbilly image was popular stuff for jokes and B-movies, ranging from the comic strip L'il Abner to horror flicks featuring killer cannibal hillbillies.

Lynn says that when her song and biography were turned into a movie in 1980, she'd "handpicked Sissy Spacek to play [her] in the movie." In her 1976 memoir by the same name as our song of the hour, she writes, "I was dumbfounded the first time I saw the movie. It was hard to watch my life flashing before my eyes [...] and I am still proud. It's a good movie." (Source)

So, they must've portrayed those hillbillies well. 

He shoveled coal to make a poor man's dollar

Quick Thought

"A poor man's dollar" is a pretty accurate term. But a lot of the time, miners weren't even paid in real dollars.

Deep Thought

Coal miners like Lynn's father were paid a pittance for dangerous, exhausting work. Often the pay came in the form of "coal scrip," bills or coins that could only be spent at stores owned by the same companies that ran the mines.

In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act established a federal minimum wage of 25 cents per hour, but coal miners were paid by the ton, not the hour. At most, Lynn's father made a few dollars per day of work in the mines.

My daddy worked all night in the Van Lear Coal Mines

Quick Thought

Lynn's father, Melvin Webb, hadn't always been a coal miner.

Deep Thought

Before the Great Depression, Loretta Lynn's young father worked in lumber mills. 

But when work got more and more scarce in the 1930s, Webb found a job through Franklin Delano Roosevelt's recovery program, the Work Progress Administration (WPA). Webb built roads on WPA crews until coal mining picked up again in the 1940s.

In 2009, federal workers were out building roads and rails again as part of President Obama's recovery programs, established by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Obama seemed to be imitating Roosevelt with certain elements of the recovery plan, but, unlike Obama, Roosevelt threw in funds for arts, music, theater, and writing projects in addition to the kinds of infrastructure projects that supported Lynn's family.

Daddy loved and raised eight kids on a miner's pay

Quick Thought

In her autobiography, Coal Miner's Daughter, Lynn says her father "kept his family alive by breaking his own body down."

Deep Thought

Lynn's father died of a stroke in 1959 at the age of 51. He had black lung disease and his health had deteriorated rapidly. 

A stroke had already cost him his job at the coalmines, and Lynn's parents moved to Indiana to seek employment. When Webb died, he was still unemployed, and Lynn's mother, Clara Webb, was raising a gaggle of kids on a waitress' pay.

Mommy scrubbed our clothes on a washboard every day

Quick Thought

Lynn's mother, Clara Webb, was born in the mountains to a Cherokee father and a white mother and lived a life of housemaking and healing.

Deep Thought

Way before Lynn's time, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 authorized Congress to forcibly push the Cherokee people from their original homes in the Southeastern United States to a life of displacement in Oklahoma. 

The forced migration of thousands of people and the death of nearly a third of them is now known as the Trail of Tears.

Of course, many refused to leave their lands east of the Mississippi and instead remained in the Southeast to fend for themselves. Loretta Lynn's maternal grandfather descended from Cherokees who resisted the push and stayed in Kentucky, and she writes and speaks proudly about her mother's Cherokee cultural heritage. 

Lynn, known for being straightforward about her views, is still upset about the Trail of Tears. "I used to respect Andrew Jackson until I found out how he pushed the Indians around," she wrote in Coal Miner's Daughter.

From a mail-order catalog, money made from sellin' a hog

Quick Thought

In the days of the internet, the mail-order catalog is mostly a dead institution. The entire postal service might be the next to go.

Deep Thought

According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago History, mail-order catalogs peaked in popularity between 1890 and 1910. The massive, hand-illustrated catalogs gave rural Americans—over half the population at the time—access to a wide variety of cheap goods ranging from dried food to new shoes.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago History explains that "the catalogs served not only as a marketing tool, but also as school readers, almanacs, symbols of abundance and progress, and objects of fantasy and desire."

As a result of the Great Depression, increased urbanization, automobiles, and a shift from mail order to big proto-Wal-Mart type retail stores, mail order declined in importance throughout the second half of the 20th century. And with the total dominance of the internet plus the recent recession, these days the mail service itself is in rapid decline.

First it was the Sears-Roebuck catalog, and then it was the written invitation—yes, people used to send those—and now the entire postal service could become an entry in an encyclopedia of history. Unjust as that seems, it could make for some great lines in country songs of the future.

I never thought of ever leavin' Butcher Holler

Quick Thought

Of course, Lynn famously left Butcher Holler after she married 21-year-old Mooney Lynn at the age of 15.

Deep Thought

Oliver "Mooney" Lynn, also known as Doolittle or Doo, was a World War II veteran who grew up in the same tiny holler as Loretta Webb.

Holler, by the way, is another way of saying "hollow," a valley or basin between two hills.

Doo's dad was a coal-mining boss, but the young man dreaded working in the mines for the rest of his life. Mining was basically the only economic option in Butcher Holler, so Doo decided to go West to Washington to seek work a matter of months after marrying Loretta.

At only 15, Loretta Lynn was pregnant with her first baby when Doo took off. Loretta followed him there, had four kids by the time she was 20, and didn't launch a music career until 1961. By then, Loretta Lynn was in the middle of her '20s, had six kids, and despite her childhood expectations, had lived away from Butcher Holler for ten years.

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