The Power Of Bluegrass Music In Coping with the Death of 29 Coal Miners


Donald Blankenship, owner of Massey Energy Company and one of the wealthiest men in Appalachia, was convicted yesterday of conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards in the case of an explosion that killed 29 miners. He conspired to force employees to ignore safety standards that threatened profits. His sentence is one year in prison, if his appeal fails. He made tens of millions of dollars from the mines, but was ordered to pay a mere $250,000 ~ none of which is financial restitution to the families of the miners. He still maintains his innocence. He does not know the name of a single man who died in his mine. His crime is a misdemeanor.

How in the world can people maintain even a flicker of hope living in Appalachia, an area of immense poverty where the only source of employment is often the dangerous mines? One answer is that their faith gives them hope. There are many other reasons and way to keep faith and maintain hope; including the Bluegrass music that is strongly identified with Appalachia. But how can people in Appalachia create such upbeat, beautiful, nature-loving, family-hugging, and profoundly spiritual music living in such dire circumstances? How do they not only cope and survive ~ but manage to thrive? Is the strength, courage and spirituality expressed in the Bluegrass music rooted in Appalachia somehow related to the Scottish, Irish and Welch origins of this music?

We are now in the fourth year of a series called “The Spirituality of Music”. The latest in the series is titled, “The Spirituality of Bluegrass.” It will be held on the evening of Sunday, April 17th at the church of which I am the pastor. I am also the author of the series, which is a musical and narrative exploration of the spirit (religious or not) that flows in and through the music and musicians who create and perform it ~ in this case, Bluegrass, which is (like the Christian church) deeply rooted in tradition, as well as constantly being reinvented. The church has Progressive Christianity and music has “Newgrass Bluegrass.”

The thousands of people who have come to this series in the past four years have left behind tens of thousands of dollars that help to feed the guests of the soup kitchen and food pantry located at the church. They also have their own souls fed in an atmosphere free of doctrine, judgment and diatribe. In less than two weeks, I will invite the audience slash congregation at “The Spirituality of Bluegrass” to celebrate music, remember the dead, feed the hungry, consider community, activate advocacy and ponder faith. They may even feel inspired to assist churches in Appalachia that are or were affected by this mining disaster. While this event held at the church is technically not “church” ~ it sure seems like it. And, at the moment, that is plenty good enough for me.

Dwight Lee Wolter is pastor of The Congregational Church of Patchogue on Long Island, New York and author of several books. He blogs at

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