This week, co-producer Kelly Vines sits down with Dwight Billings, Emeritus Professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky. Billings researches social inequality and poverty, especially in Appalachia, where Kelly’s family has a long history. The pair discusses what drew the coal mining industry to southern Appalachia and the future of the region.
Dwight grew up in West Virginia, where he was surrounded by coal. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the industry took a downturn, poverty returned to the region, and an Appalachian Renaissance spurred creative works, tax reform, and unionizing. Appalachia studies became an established field. The excitement of the era inspired Dwight to become a sociologist and study Appalachia.
Appalachian studies are also personal for Kelly. Though she didn’t grow up in the region, most of her family lives in the “coal counties” Dwight writes about, and his work was first place in graduate school where Kelly saw people like her family represented in academic texts.
There was a time before Appalachia was known for coal mining. Toward the end of the 19th century, the majority of Appalachians worked in subsistence farming. Families bore many children in order to have more people sharing in the labor. Each generation, plots of land got smaller. Farmland eroded, and the food supply in the region diminished. The prospect of abundant cheap labor and robust coal resources led coal investors Appalachia around 1900.
More than century later, Appalachia remains at the center of conversations around coal mining. Dwight says the sheer number of coal workers — the individuals who risk “life and lung” in mines — distinguishes Appalachian coal mining from machine-based work in places like Wyoming. “It has a kind of nostalgia. It has a kind of romanticism about it,” he says.
In reality, coal mining isn’t so romantic, and movements to preserve the industry are a double-edged sword. Kelly thinks of her cousins who enter the mines at age 18, lured by the hefty salary. “I know on the one hand that it provides a lot of the economic stability for my family, for their families,” Kelly says, “but on the other hand, it eats them up.”
Most of our music this week is by Jack Wright. You can learn more about his work on the music of coal here.