In the Hunter Valley I found Jock Graham, a retired miner who had lost his leg in a mine collapse.
A prolific poet, Jock was a solid union man who dreamed of a socialised coal industry. He had seen it all, including the Rothbury revolt where miners stood up to the Government and a young miner, Norman Brown, was shot dead by the police. Jock wrote songs about the mining life that rang true. His poem ‘Man of the Earth’ sends a shiver down my spine, some thirty-five years later.
Man of the Earth
By profession and birth, I’m a man of the earth,
I dig in it like a mole;
I dig it and drill it, and blast it and fill it
For that great commodity coal.
To some I’m a brave man, to others a knave man
Who’s putting the land in a hole;
A strike and attack man, a black and a slack man
Who plunders the country of coal.
It’s narkin’ at times to be blamed for their crimes,
And placed in a villainous role
Invented by story, press, jury and tory,
The profit-made agents of coal.
No story of men who are suffering pain;
Of heroes who starve on the dole;
Nought written or spoken of hearts that are broken:
The windows and orphans of coal.
The court is the gauge which determines my wage,
The parson looks after my soul;
My hands are my boss’s, his gains are my losses;
My body is bartered in coal.
The gaps in our lines: ‘Red Rolls’ of the mines,
Show death has been takin’ his toll,
While snipers at maimed men and dead men and famed men
Grow fat on the blood of the coal.
Yet through muck and mire and lung-dust and fire,
More clearly I’m seeing my goal:
Of diggin’ and drillin’ and blastin’ and fillin’
Supplying a socialised coal.
Not all so-called ‘folk songs’ are anonymous and several mining songs can be attributed to known authors. This has not prevented these songs from entering into oral circulation, and that’s where they legitimately get tagged as folk song. Often such songs get changed as they are passed down the line. Once again, this is a feature of folk song. The late poet and playwright, Dorothy Hewitt, wrote a poem in the 1960s about the 1929 Rothbury Coalfields Riot and the tragic death of a coal miner picketer Norman Brown. Mike Leydon put the words to an equally stirring tune and that song, simply titled ‘Norman Brown’, has seen continued circulation and refuses to disappear. I recorded a version in 2010 which, I hope, does the two creators justice and helps commemorate a dark side of Australian mining history that should never be forgotten.