This is the first in a series of interviews we’ll be doing with local musician and educator Van Wagner, discussing songs he’s written about the Anthracite Coal Region. In this first installment, we talk about “Ballad of a Broken Man” – a song that touches on several deep themes about working class life.
ANTHRACITE UNITE: Even though you wrote it back in 2002, this song clearly still resonates today. What was it you wanted to accomplish when you wrote it?
VAN WAGNER: I rarely set out with a mission when I write. A song will hit me and I’ve learned I need to write it down on paper fast or it’s gone. I remember being at my hunting cabin in Clinton County huddled around a wood-stove when this song hit me. I grabbed a beat up guitar we keep on the wall and banged out the song in less than 10 minutes. So it’s not so much about what I hope to accomplish with my songs. It’s more about getting them written down and then watching where the songs go and what they mean to other people.
ANTHRACITE UNITE: Clearly this song resonates beyond the Anthracite Coal Region, but it seems especially fitting here. Even if it hit you suddenly, do you think there was a particular inspiration?
VAN WAGNER: In 2001 I worked underground as a coal miner in Schuylkill County. I only worked that one year in the mines but I made friends that I keep to this day. It gave me a front and center view of where working class people were here in Pennsylvania. Some of the guys I worked with had been laid off from a manufacturing job and the mines were a way to pay the bills.
ANTHRACITE UNITE: The song is an interesting take on the notion of the “Company Man.” On one hand, many of us long for these days, don’t we? Economic stability. Benefits. Predictability. Yet on the other hand, as I think you capture so well, it might’ve all just been a farce. The economic stability is temporary at best, the pension an empty promise. Thirty years and “I have to wonder if they even know my name.” Can you say more about that?
VAN WAGNER: Well said! We working class folks flirt back and forth with our employers, sometimes we’re assets, other times we’re pains in the ass. I think working folks from the coal region come from generations who realize that our labor is our greatest resource. We work and we work hard around here. Yet, at the end of the day, year, fiscal year…you have to wonder if the employers pause to think of us as individuals. We workers appreciate our employers. Maybe now more than ever! We are thankful for the job. It’s just nice to see that “thanks” reciprocated.
ANTHRACITE UNITE: Along those same lines, what does this song say about nostalgia? I think there’s a widespread feeling now that returning to the past is the answer to the problems of the present. It doesn’t sound like that’s what you had in mind when you wrote this song – which I think is especially noteworthy considering that you’re a person with such a strong appreciation for history.
VAN WAGNER: Let me reflect on this from a 2018 point of view more so than where I was in 2002 when I wrote this…very recently the coal region became a talking point in presidential politics. There was all kinds of talk about bringing coal jobs back. As someone who worked and bled in the mines (I have the “coal tattoos” to prove the bled part) let me tell you, bringing coal jobs back is not some glorious thing our region should aspire for. I love history. I learn from our history. Our rich coal heritage is an invaluable part of our story. It’s who we are. That does not mean I want my two young sons to be in those mines. Jobs? Yes! Jobs in the mines? No thanks.
ANTHRACITE UNITE: Staying on that point, I have to say that this story reminded me a bit of my father. He worked in the same factory for about three decades. Of all things, I was always fascinated by his coat closet. All those jackets and hats with the company logo. They’ve got an interesting existence, ya know? He wears them sometimes because, well… why wouldn’t he? Not with pride. Not at all in the same way he wears his Eagles hat, for example. Though I wouldn’t say it is with disgust either. Ambivalence, maybe? Acquiescence? I don’t know. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the clothes are almost a part of him – the part of him that’s broken but still somewhat stable, disappointed but clinging to whatever pride remains, frustrated but yet mildly content… that whole complex web of emotions. Is what I’m describing similar to what you’re tapping into here?
VAN WAGNER: This is exactly the relationship with employer and employee I was channeling when writing this song. What you say about your father is powerful!
ANTHRACITE UNITE: While hearing about this man’s life, I couldn’t help but wonder where women fit into this story. Hypothetically, if you were to write a song called “Ballad of a Broken Women,” what kind of themes would you evoke?
VAN WAGNER: I wish you could have met my grandmother Ethel Van Hinkel (yep, I’m named after her). She was born in 1912 to immigrant parents. She was such an advocate for women. I spent a lot of time with her as a child. I don’t think I could ever accurately write a song from a women’s point of view, but I do often think about my grandmother and how I feel she may view certain situations. She would not tolerate disrespect of women in any way. Not at the work place, not in social discussions, not at church.
ANTHRACITE UNITE: One of the things I really appreciate about this song is its subtle message of solidarity. As “Broken Men” and “Broken Women,” we’re very vulnerable to fear. The powers that be know we’re looking for someone to blame and so they try to get us to point our fingers at people from, say, Mexico, or at people from the opposing political party. Too often, we oblige. But it’s clear you don’t want to go there. You say “If you’re Republican or Democrat” and even though the character in the song bemoans his job being sent to Mexico, he acknowledges that whoever gets this job next is going to be “broken down” in the same way. He doesn’t accuse that person of “taking his job”; he empathizes with him. Can you speak to that a little bit?
VAN WAGNER: One thing I see again and again in labor history is the system’s ability to deflect blame. In the era of the Molly Maguires in our region, the coal bosses were able to pit ethnic group against ethnic group. Later as unions tried to organize – like in the era of the Lattimer Massacre – this tone was still loud and clear. “It’s the foreigners that are to blame for your current situation.” Miners were still barely earning a dollar a day. Meanwhile the coal companies were making thousands of dollars in profits. The great labor leader John Mitchell said something to the effect of: this isn’t Slovak coal, it isn’t Irish coal, it isn’t American coal…it’s MINERS’ coal. Workers in other regions or of different ethnic backgrounds are not our enemy, they are our brothers and sisters.
ANTHRACITE UNITE: When I first listened to the song, I heard the story of a man who felt crushed by the weight of capitalism. People with power are too busy “countin’ votes” and “shuffling digits” to even know his name, even though he gave them thirty-years-worth of labor. But when I listened again, something different hit me: I realized this man was also a father – a father who did exactly what he was supposed to do – he worked hard, he loved his kids – but still couldn’t give his children what he wanted to give them. They’re going off to war and have only a “rotten tree” to lean on. You can’t help but think this man’s children are at risk of becoming Broken Men and Women, too. Is it fair to say that this is also a song about a broken family, a broken community… a broken working class?
VAN WAGNER: In the coal region there is a phrase, “once a man twice a boy.” This is still too often the case for many families. Years ago it referred to the fact that as a child you worked in the breaker picking slate. Later, when your body became fatigued or injured, you ended life back in that same breaker picking slate. I see too many local families where the elderly members of the family live in need. Instead of enjoying the pride of feeling like a pillar of financial stability they feel like a burden. Thankfully our region has a culture that values our elders and holds them in high esteem. Our elders are not a burden; they are an asset. We, as families, see it this way… but how about their former employers or our government? How do they see these people?
Van Wagner is a former coal miner from Danville, PA. He worked in the mines of Schuylkill County and now teaches high school in Lewisburg, PA. He has released 21 albums of songs he has written about the Anthracite Coal Region. For more, see www.VanWagnerMusic.com.