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Leaving Harlan Alive

This past week Patty Loveless and Chris Stapleton captivated the audience at the CMA Awards by performing You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive, which could have served as a theme song for Eisenhower Babies, except that I did leave Harlan County, Kentucky, alive and in good health (thanks for asking) many years ago.

But the song and its lyrics do serve as a reminder of the county’s reputation – established in the early half of the 20th century – as a violent place, as well as a region where toiling in the coal mines can take years off a person’s life. The song’s writer, Darrell Scott, has said he saw the title phrase on a headstone during a trip to Harlan County to research his great-grandfather.

Certainly, the song’s title can be considered fitting to the place, because Harlan County’s violent clashes between coal miners and coal operators drew national attention in the 1930s. New York Times headlines from that era included: “Kentucky Troops Mobilize in Harlan” and “Bomb in Auto Kills Kentucky Official.” The latter referred to the 1935 murder of County Attorney Elmon Middleton.

The violence also caught the attention of literary stalwarts such as Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, and Sherwood Anderson. They and other writers launched a journalistic investigation into the brutal way in which coal companies treated miners and their families, and in 1932 released a book titled Harlan Miners Speak: Report on Terrorism in the Kentucky Coal Fields, which detailed their findings.

Anderson, best known for his book Winesburg, Ohio, was especially incensed about conditions in my home county, writing:

The eyes of the whole country had become focused on that little spot. It had become a little ugly running sore, workers being beaten, women thrown into jail, American citizens being terrorized, newspaper men trying to investigate, being shot and terrorized. When you have got a disease inside the body it has a nasty little trick of breaking out in little sores of that sort.

I did not arrive on the scene until 26 years after Anderson wrote those words, and by then our county was no longer an “ugly running sore.” As a geographic location, Harlan County is central to my memoir, but I must confess that I never felt in danger growing up there in the 1960s and 1970s, or spent anxious nights worried I would never leave the place alive. We kids roamed the hills, swam in rivers, and followed the railroad tracks from one end of town to the other, unperturbed by the area’s notorious reputation. Our equally unworried parents would go hours without knowing our whereabouts, grumbling only if we did not arrive home by the time the streetlights flickered on.

But pride of place bubbles up when moments happen like the one at the CMA Awards as Loveless and Stapleton sang You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive. Across the country, former Harlan County residents could sing along, putting great feeling into those haunting lyrics, even if they did leave Harlan years ago, more or less serene and largely intact.

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