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  • Anthracite Fields at the Kennedy Center

    Posted February 9, 2018 at 2:20 pm

    Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields at the Kennedy Center March 13, 2018 at 7:30 PM.

    In this multimedia D.C. premiere, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Choir of Trinity Wall Street, and conductor Julian Wachner reprise their Grammy®-nominated account of Wolfe’s Pulitzer Prize–winning oratorio recalling Pennsylvania’s coal-mining past.

    “I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania – Montgomeryville. When we first moved there the road was dirt and the woods surrounding the house offered an endless playground of natural forts and ice skating trails. At the end of the long country road you’d reach the highway — route 309. A right turn (which was the way we almost always turned) led to the city, Philadelphia. A left turn on route 309 (which we hardly ever took) led to coal country, the anthracite field region. I remember hearing the names of the towns, and though my grandmother grew up in Scranton, everything in that direction, north of my small town, seemed like the wild west.

    When the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia commissioned me to write a new work for choir and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, I looked to the anthracite region. Anthracite is the diamond of coal — the purest form. At the turn of the century the anthracite fields of Pennsylvania became the power source for everything from railroads to industry to heating homes. But the life of the miner was difficult and dangerous. I had been immersed in issues of the American worker — composing Steel Hammer, an evening length art-ballad on the legend of John Henry. For Anthracite Fields I went deeper into American labor history — looking at both local and national issues that arose from coal mining. I went down into the coal mines, visited patch towns and the local museums where the life of the miners has been carefully depicted and commemorated. I interviewed retired miners and children of miners who grew up in the patch. The text is culled from oral histories and interviews, local rhymes, a coal advertisement, geological descriptions, a mining accident index, contemporary daily everyday activities that make use of coalpower, and an impassioned political speech by John L. Lewis, the head of the United Mine Workers Union.

    My aim with Anthracite Fields is to honor the people who persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region during a time when the industry fueled the nation, and to reveal a bit about who we are as American workers.

    In the first movement, FOUNDATION, the singers chant the names of miners that appeared on a Pennsylvania Mining Accident index 1869-1916. The list is sadly long. I chose only the Johns with one-syllable last names in alphabetical order. The piece ends with a setting of the very colorful multi-syllabic names. The miners were largely from immigrant families and the diversity of ethnicity is heard in the names. At the center of Foundation is text from geological descriptions of coal formation.

    BREAKER BOYS follows next. There were many boys working in the Pennsylvania coal mines. The younger ones worked in the breakers, which were large ominous structures. The coal would come running down shoots of the breakers, and the boys had the painful job of removing debris from the rush of coal. They weren’t allowed to wear gloves, and as a result their fingers were cut and bleeding. The central rhyme of this movement, Mickey Pick-Slate, is from the anthracite region. Others were adapted from children’s street rhymes. In the center of this movement are the words of Anthony (Shorty) Slick who worked as a breaker boy. The interview is taken from the documentary film, America and Lewis Hine directed by Nina Rosenblum. Hine worked for the National Child Labor Committee, and served as chief photographer for the WPA.

    SPEECH is the third movement. The text is adapted from an excerpt of a speech by John L. Lewis who served as president of the United Mine Workers of America. Lewis was an impassioned spokesperson for the miners and fought hard-won battles for safer working conditions and for compensation.

    The fourth movement FLOWERS was inspired by an interview with Barbara Powell, daughter and granddaughter of miners. She grew up in a Pennsylvania patch town and had many stories to tell about her family life. She never felt poor. She had an amazing sense of community. Barbara talked about how everyone helped each other. In one interview Barbara said, in order to brighten their lives, “We all had gardens”, and then she began to list the names of flowers.

    The last movement APPLIANCES ties the new to the old. I was struck by John L. Lewis’ line “those of us who benefit from that service because we live in comfort.” Our days are filled with activities that require power. Even today coal is fueling the nation, powering electricity. When we bake a cake or grind coffee beans we use coal. The closing words of Anthracite Fields are taken from an advertising campaign for the coal-powered railroad. In 1900 Ernest Elmo Calkins created a fictitious character, a New York socialite named Phoebe Snow, who rode the rails to Buffalo It used to be a dirty business to ride a train But with the diamond of coal her “gown stayed white from morn till night, on the road to Anthracite” — a stunning contrast to the coal darkened faces underground.”

    — Julia Wolfe


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