Springhill Disaster / The Ballad of Springhill
There are several different songs about the 23 October 1958 “bump” collapse at No. 2 Colliery of the Cumberland mines in Springhill, Nova Scotia.
Maurice Ruddick, a 46 year-old African Canadian, was one of the seven last miners to be found alive after the disaster. The poem he wrote about it was expanded by Bill Clifton with local friends and musicians, Paul Clayton and Sonny Pembroke. Clifton sang this Springhill Disaster on the 1966 album Folk Scene.
Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl composed The Ballad of Springhill, which they originally performed as an a cappella duet in 1959. They recorded if for their 1960 Folkways album New Briton Gazette Vol. 1 .
Nigel Denver sang Peggy Seeger's song as Springhill Disaster on his 1964 eponymous Decca album Nigel Denver. He noted:
This song was written by Ewan MacColl after a mining disaster in Nova Scotia in 1958 where only a small percentage of the miners came out alive. The words and theme of the song shows how completely in touch with the situation MacColl was.
Martin Carthy sang Peggy Seeger's song with the new title Springhill Mine Disaster on his 1965 eponymous first album, Martin Carthy. This track was also included in 2001 on The Carthy Chronicles. He noted:
Probably the most terrifying of industrial accidents is the mine disaster. In 1958 in Springhill, Nova Scotia, there was an accident in one of the deep pits. After being trapped underground for eight days, five of them without water, a handful of the miners were finally rescued. This ballad was written shortly afterwards by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger.
Julie Felix sang The Spring Hill Disaster (Ballad of Spring Hill) in the 1970s on the double cassette Folk with Julie Felix & Foggy Dew-O.
Barbara Dickson sang Ballad of Springhill on her 1995 album Dark End of the Street. She noted:
I love the songs of Ewan MacColl and have known this but never sung it before now. I particularly admire the strength of the narrative and the beautiful melody.
Landless sang The Ballad of Springhill on their 2018 CD Bleaching Bones. They tersely noted:
Words and music by Peggy Seeger, 1960; arr. Landless. With kind permission from Peggy Seeger.
Michelle Burke sang a third song, called Springhill Mine and credited to Chris Stuart, on her 2009 CD Pulling Threads.
Bill Clifton sings Springhill Disaster
The twenty-third of October, we’ll remember that day;
Down the shaft underground in our usual way.
In the Cumberland pit how the rafters crashed down
And the black hell closed ’round us ’way down in the ground.
Now when the news reached our good neighbors nearby,
The rescue work started; our hopes were still high.
But the last bit of hope like our lamps soon burned dim;
In the three-foot high dungeon we joined in a hymn
In that dark, black hole in the ground.
Only God will ever know all that happened down there.
How we watched Percy Rector die gasping a prayer,
And young Clarke had his birthday, he thought, in his grave;
After days of cruel torture we’d no hopes to be saved.
We sang altogether, though racked through with pain.
When they broke through we knew that our prayers weren’t in vain.
I crawled through the tunnel, they helped me along.
I said: “Give me some water and I’ll sing you a song
Of that dark, black hole in the ground!”
I’ll sing you a song of the bravest of men,
Of those who remained to go digging again
To bring the coal up from ten thousand feet deep,
And the others who stayed there forever to sleep.
Oh, be thankful you fellows brought back from the dead,
And pray for your friends who have gone on ahead.
And you boys up in heaven as you look on down,
Don’t forget to remember Springhill mining town
And that dark, black hole in the ground!
Martin Carthy sings Springhill Mine Disaster
In the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia,
Deep in the heart of the Cumberland Mine;
There's blood on the coal and the miners lie
In roads that never saw sun nor sky,
Roads that never saw sun nor sky.
In the town of Springhill, you don't sleep easy,
Often the earth would tremble and roll;
When the earth is restless, miners die,
Bone and blood is the price of coal,
Bone and blood is the price of coal.
In the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia,
Late in the year of fifty-eight,
The day still comes and the sun still shines
But it's dark as the grave in the Cumberland mine,
Dark as the grave in the Cumberland mine.
Down at the coal face, miners working,
Rattle of the belts and the cutter blades;
Then a rumble of rock and the walls close round
Living and the dead men two miles down,
Living and the dead men two miles down.
Twelve men lay two miles from the pitshaft,
Twelve men lay in the dark and sang;
Long hot days in the miner's tomb,
It was three foot wide by a hundred long,
Three foot wide by a hundred long.
Three days passed and the lights gave out
When the leading man got up and said,
“There's no more water nor light nor bread,
So we'll live on songs of hope instead,
Live on songs of hope instead.”
Listen for the shouts of the bare-face miners,
Listen through the rubble for the rescue team;
Six hundred feet of coal and slag,
Hope imprisoned in a three-foot seam,
Hope imprisoned in a three-foot seam.
Eight days passed and some were rescued,
Leaving the rest to die alone;
Through all their lives they dug a grave,
Two miles of earth for a marking stone,
Two miles of earth for a marking stone.
Acknowledgements and Links
Bill Clifton's verses are from the Disaster Song Tradition page Springhill Disaster. Thanks to Alistair Banfield for referring me to it. Garry Gillard transcribed Martin Carthy's version.