The Great Depression with its national reach exacerbated the already grim economy in the coalfields. John Hennen writes in Harlan Miners Speak that “[b]y late 1931, four thousand Harlan County miners, more than one in three, were out of work. Working miners made as little as eighty cents a day and worked only a few days a month.” For miners and their families these were indeed desperate times.

In this section (see documents at the bottom of this page), you will view an excerpt from Mimi Pickering's documentary Dreadful Memories: the Life of Sarah Ogan Gunning, 1910-1983.  Also, you will listen to "Which Side Are You On," one of today's most well-known protest songs, written during the strike by Florence Reece, whose husband Sam was an NMU organizer. The lyrics to "Ragged Hungry Blues" by Aunt Molly Jackson, a singer/midwife and half sister to Sarah Ogan Gunning are included as well as Aunt Molly's testimony from Harlan Miners Speak.   Begin to analyze these materials along with the accompanying correspondence and photographs by answering these questions:

  1. Who are the narrators (authors) of your documents and in what context are they speaking or writing?
  2. What points of view are being expressed in the materials under review?
  3. How do these sources add to your understanding of the strike?
  4. Music is often used during labor conflicts and strikes to boost spirits, create solidarity, construct ideology, and tell a story about what is happening and why.  Scholars often refer to this as “cultural production.”   You have been exposed to the music of Sarah Ogan Gunning, Florence Reece, and Aunt Molly Jackson.  Which of their songs best illustrates this strike and why?  Or put another way, which example of cultural production tells you what you most need to know to understand this strike?


To view this film, enter the password, "sarah" in all lower case letters.

This film is used courtesy of Mimi Pickering & Appalshop. Complete film available from www.appalshop.org.  

Herndon J. Evans Photograph Collection, 1929-1982, PA82av1; Box 1, Item 1; Special Collections, University of Kentucky Libraries, Lexington

Carawan, Guy and Candie. (1975). Voices From the Mountains. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Used with the permission of Guy and Candie Carawan.

Note that the version the Carawans collected from Florence Reece is slightly different than the version as performed by Reece in the link below. The difference illustrates how folksongs are living cultural artifacts that performers feel free to change as the situation demands.

Click here to listen to Florence Reece singing, "Which Side Are You On".♫

Courtesy of Rounder Records.  Used by permission of Concord Music Group, Inc.  


Protest march. "Men march past Bell County jail. About 2000 miners in Pinevillle early in January in answer to call for 'mass demonstration' by Communist National Miners Union" noted on back photo.

Herndon J. Evans Photograph Collection, 1929-1982, PA82av1; Box 1, Item 21; Special Collections, University of Kentucky Libraries, Lexington


1931. Written on the back of the photograph: "Crowd of protesters assembled in front of courthouse Pineville, Ky., protesting arrest of Communists held on criminal syndication charges."

Herndon J. Evans Photograph Collection, 1929-1982, PA82av1; Box 1, Item 27; Special Collections, University of Kentucky Libraries, Lexington

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