We interviewed Jay Smar, an accomplished local musician, to learn more about the folk music of the Anthracite Coal Region. Smar has toured Scotland twice, recorded music for the BBC Documentary “The Welch in America,” and has been recognized by Pennsylvania Performing Arts on Tour and by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Later this month, he will perform at the Philadelphia Folk Festival for the third time in his career. In 2009, he released the album, Heritage & Coal Mining Songs of Northeast Pennsylvania. His new album, titled Giving Back: A Tribute to my Peers, features a song about the Molly Maguires.
Anthracite Unite: Tell us about your music.
Jay Smar: I do a variety of acoustic music. Some of it is traditional American folk music, meaning stuff from when our country was first formed, in the late 1700s, and I do some original guitar instrumentals.
I also do some coal mining music from our region. Some of it is original and some of it is actually songs collected by a gentleman named George Korson, who is from Pottsville – well, who lived in Pottsville, I should say. This is during the early to mid-1900s. He worked for the Pottsville Republican and had this infatuation with coal mining songs and stories. He was Ukrainian-born, from what I’ve read. Apparently, he couldn’t find any books or recordings or anything like that so he took it upon himself and just started tape recording songs from this region. He traveled Schuylkill County and Carbon County and recorded people singing these songs and telling poetry and so forth.
There is a series of books out called Pennsylvania Profiles by a gentleman named Patrick Reynolds, who is still around. Years ago, I happened to stumble upon this caricature at a festival I was playing at. It was a drawing of a musician fiddling and dancing on a piece of sheet metal. In his book, Reynolds states that there were musicians in our region that would do this. In fact, he names some of the musicians who did this. Con Carbon from Hazleton; Martin Muhall from Shenandoah; William Keating from Pottsville; Patrick and Jack Johnson from Summit Hill; Barney Kelly from Ashland. He goes on and on – there’s about a dozen people he names. So to emulate these coal mining musicians, at the end of my program I do the same thing.
Back to Korson, he had a couple of different books out. One is called Minstrels of the Mine Patch. It’s really weird how I stumbled across that one. I was living in Harrisburg at the time, doing my laundry one day and there was an elderly gentleman there and we got to talking. He said he noticed my Coal Region accent. I told him I was a musician and he said, “Did you ever hear of George Korson?” I said no, and to make a long story short, he had a book at home and we went to the local printing company and we printed out many of the pages and that is kind of how I got started with coal mining music.
But another large interest came because my grandfather was a coal miner in Coaldale, and my mother had told me a lot of stories about him. About 7 years ago, I put out an album called Heritage and Coal Mining Songs of Northeast Pennsylvania. It’s a compilation CD, done with other musicians in this region who also had written songs about more contemporary issues in coal mining – and by contemporary, I’m saying, like after 1900. The other guys are: Tom Flannery, Lorne Clark, Van Wagner, and Josh Pratt. I contacted these guys and we actually did a concert together at the Detrich Theatre up in Tunkhannock. I didn’t quite have enough songs for an entire CD, so I asked these guys whether they wanted to do their songs on my CD, and they all generously agreed.
One of the songs I do is called “Three Jolly Welshmen,” which mentions my hometown of Coaldale, which I thought was pretty cool. I do another song, “The Avondale Mine Disaster” that was recorded inside of a coalmine in Tamaqua. Mr. Korson recorded John Welch singing it back in 1946. They sang inside the coalmine. Then there’s a lot of original compositions by myself and these other guys.
Anthracite Unite: How are the acoustics inside of a coalmine?
Jay Smar: Pretty good! You don’t have to use a reverb, put it that way.
The thing is, there’s all kind of coal mining songs out there, but they’re very generic. The songs on my album are all indigenous and pinpointed towards Northeastern Pennsylvania. I wanted the people to see what our ancestors did. I mean, I understand what they did in West Virginia and Kentucky and I know it is just as hard, but there were some incidents up here – like Centralia, stuff like that – that I wanted the general public to be aware of.
Anthracite Unite: On your album, you have an original song about your grandfather, is that right?
Jay Smar: Yeah, it’s called “I am an Old Coalminer.” Actually, I recorded it twice on the album. In the first one, which opens up the album, I’m doing some clogging and have an accordion player playing with me and I’m also playing fiddle. So it gives you that real old time, almost Irish-type of feel. And its supposed to be about a jovial coalminer. I am an old coalminer / I work in the mines all day / now how could I feed my family / with hardly any pay?
But then after I was thinking about the words, I figured it is kind of a sad song in a way, too. So, at the very end of the album, I re-recorded it in ¾ time, almost like a Waltz, and it added a whole different character to the song. It’s the exact same lyrics, and the exact same melody but only it’s a lot slower. I thought it came pretty good. I liked ending the album like that.
Speaking of my grandfather, he was Slavic. In those days, if you were Slavic, you couldn’t be a mine boss. Most of the bosses were German and Welch, and maybe a few Scots. Some of them had prior experience in coal mining so the owners made them the mine bosses. And so my grandfather, no matter how hard he worked, he wasn’t going to be a boss. Because ethnicity was a big thing in the mining era. For some of the Irish, they were ejected for even stepping foot on the soil. There’s an old coal mining song called “No Irish Need Apply.” They would think of them as being alcoholics and so forth.
I guess that is kind of where the Molly Maguires fit in. They were often striking for better conditions. It is said that the Mollies came up and started creating havoc in the mines, but they were just trying to fight for better wages. The first song on my new CD, Giving Back, is actually a song about the Mollies. Its called “The Rise and Fall of the Molly Maguires.” That one is an original song.
There is a similar theme in some of these other songs, too. I also did the song “The Lattimer Massacre.” Van Wagner wrote that song when he was 17! He recorded it and put it on my coal mining album. But I thought it was such a strong song and I’ve been getting such a positive reaction from it when I perform, that I included it on my CD with a whole ensemble behind it. Van recorded it with just a guitar. On my CD, I added mandolin and stuff like that.
Anthracite Unite: To close us out, can you talk a little about what these songs and this music means to you as someone with roots in the Coal Region?
Jay Smar: For me, and for these other four gentleman, we’re trying to make the public aware of what our forefathers went through, bringing to light some issues that are not talked about or really widely known about. Everyone knows songs like “16 tons,” and stuff like that, but those are more generic. I want the public to be aware of what our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers did.
I don’t think anybody ever comes out of the Coal Region saying, “People were rude, they were nasty – they didn’t offer us any food or anything.” If anything, it’s the exact opposite. When I bring people up here, they are amazed at the hospitality and the overall friendliness of everybody.
I do a program for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and its all coal mining songs about our region. The first thing I do is have everybody say ‘hi’ to everybody. That’s how the Coal Region is; it’s one big family. Families fight and they argue, but when the chips are down, the family is there for you. That’s how I feel the Coal Region is: When the chips are down, the coal folks are really behind you.
But back to these songs: I want the general public to be aware of the oppression and so forth – to be aware of what our ancestors had to go through just to make an honest day’s living.
You can see Jay Smar perform live at these upcoming shows:
Aug 18-20, 2017 – Philadelphia Folk Festival; Schwenksville, Pa.
Aug 26, 2017 – Cornfest; Shippensburg, Pa.
Sept 10, 2017 – Coal Cracker Rock the Block Fest; Coaldale, Pa.
Oct 6, 2017 – Covered Bridge Fest; Elysburg, Pa.
Thank you for this wonderful interview. I have seen Jay perform and was so surprised how instantly I connected with his music. Not only is the music beautiful, it is also passes on the history of the everyday coal miner.