The story behind Bloody Harlan  

While on a songwriting retreat in Banff, Alberta, I watched a PBS documentary series about Harlan, Kentucky, and its coal-mining history. For most of the 1930s, Harlan was the location of an ongoing battle between the coal miners’ union organizers and coal company owners. The conflict escalated to deadly gunfights between deputies assigned to protect strike breakers, and the unionizers. In many cases, union men were beaten, their homes burned or riddled with bullets. Since the coal companies provided homes for the miners, they felt within their rights to terrorize the strikers, even at the high cost of lost lives.  

The story stayed with me, and a song began to take shape, inspired by the documentaries, the names of which I have forgotten. The song makes passing reference to the conflicts through the dialogue of a hard-living older man and his younger companion, as he recalls the boom days of the coal industry, during his father’s era, and the aftereffects of the industry’s collapse. Mining in Harlan County continued, but on a greatly reduced scale, and by 2016 the unemployment rate in the county was 38%. 

An opioid crisis swept through the communities of Harlan County in the same way it swept through so many communities across North America. I have seen first-hand in small towns throughout Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, the ravages of economic collapse—boarded up businesses, architecture once beautiful, now crumbling, and people lingering on corners with no prospects and nothing to do. 

Despite the hardships endured by the citizens of Harlan County, interviews of present-day citizens revealed a deep-rooted devotion to Harlan County itself. Leaving it, they expressed, would be a betrayal, a disloyal act, an abandonment of their history and denial of their heritage. I found this intriguing and foreign to me, which was the reason I wrote the song—I had to understand the mindset.    

My stories come from an emotional centre, a place of empathy. I have never been to Harlan County, and some might interpret the story as cultural appropriation. But I believe a writer must write what inspires them, or attracts them because of mystery, an invitation to understand. Bloody Harlan is an allegory for people in small towns and their deeply rooted spiritual commitment through times of prosperity and resiliency during times of hardship.  

The song, Bloody Harlan, takes place on a riverbank, away from the probing eyes of authorities, a safe place for a fix. The older narrator warns his younger companion not to follow along in his footsteps. Get out of dodge, kid and don't look back. But will the young companion take his warning, as he was unable to do? The song touches on three generations, with the narrator convinced of a curse that howls through the hills and his family's bloodline. His ancestry is like a river running through his heart, haunting him with the ghosts of past, present, and future, ghosts that hold him to his fate. 

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