Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"Precious Memories" revisits music & mining

As a native West Virginian the idea of coal mining has always been part of my life. My great grandfather was a union organizer. He died before I was born. But if you’re a West Virginian you have a sense of what coal mining means to the state and how it has shaped the people. So when I met with internationally renowned songwriter, playwright, and community organizer Si Kahn earlier this fall for coffee, I was immediately interested when he told me about his next project, “Precious Memories.”

“Precious Memories” premiered locally Sunday at Evening Muse. It’s a one woman play with music starring musician and activist Sue Massek (the Reel World String Band) as Sarah Ogan Gunning and written by Kahn. Gunning was a coal miner’s wife in Kentucky in the 1930s who moved to New York as did her famous half-sister Aunt Molly Jackson and her brother Jim Garland - both musicians and union activists. The trio was friendly with folk legends like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger before Gunning’s life turned less glamorous. When the audience finds her strumming her banjo to “Precious Memories” she’s 50, living in a ramshackle apartment in Detroit where her husband is the janitor, and kind of mourning her half-sister Molly who died four days before the play takes place.

 I say “kind of” because Gunning’s relationship with the sister that was 30 years her senior was complicated to say the least. Gunning remained in Jackson’s shadow until Sarah was discovered in that Detroit apartment and began a folk music career late in life. She even played the Newport Folk Festival in the mid `60s. In the play, Gunning is still a bitter, aging woman that’s lost one husband and two of her four children all because of the mines. She recounts her backstory, her hardships, and her strained relationship with Jackson between songs like “Dreadful Memories,” “Girl Of Constant Sorrow,” and picket line protests like “I Hate the Capitalist System.”

Massek (above) handles the music well and many in the crowd wondered how she remembered her countless lines. I haven’t listened to Gunning’s originals, but I wonder if Gunning’s voice could be as strong and smooth as Massek’s.  Gunning certainly sung her own praises in the vocal department (she’s not modest).

Kahn crafted the occasional funny line for a character that’s certainly a character, but mining isn’t a pretty subject. After the play was over a friend looked at me and said, “That was depressing.” I didn’t find it depressing. Maybe because I knew what to expect. I was thinking driving to the Muse that night that I know very little about my great grandfather’s work as a union organizer.  That side of the family has never been forthcoming with information. I do know coal mining was work my father and grandfather both steered clear of - literally (grandpa drove a bus before driving trucks in Europe in World War II and then becoming a radio technician for the local police department).

My friends’ dads were miners. My high school boyfriend’s father was killed in a mine explosion 10 years ago, but much of my knowledge is gathered from “Matewan,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and stories my father would tell about people living in coal camps during Sunday drives through those old coal towns. My family hasn’t mined in generations, but lots of folks do because there are few other jobs that pay as well and require as little education as coal mining. Today my friend’s daughter’s ex pays his child support on time because he works in the mine, but listening to Massek (as Gunning) discuss the cold, damp, dark, and horrid conditions it’s hard to imagine a kid that is barely 21 going there willingly each day. No it’s not 1932, but it’s no air conditioned cubicle.

Partly because my family didn't pass down stories, Gunning’s history brings me closer to my own. What I walked away from “Precious Memories” with is people - especially young people - need to hear this history and stories like it. A show like “Precious Memories” performed in schools, for instance, would give teens a brief taste of mining life while presenting a history lesson in a different way.

The only thing I wish is that the play had been performed in a small tiered theater or black box because Massek was seated for much of the show and from the back of the room it isn't easy to see. The crowd still got the gist of the story and the sound was impeccable. They were filming the show, so movement was limited. It is hard to sit still in those chairs at the Muse for very long, but it's nothing like swinging a pickaxe
in the dark on your back in cold water for 10 hours.

Hopefully the Kentucky-based Massek, who is recording the “original cast recording” with Kahn at Chris Garges’ studio this week, will be back for another performance. 

(Photo courtesy of