The Ballad of Springhill

This is perhaps the most famous of all the Springhill disaster songs, not least because of Seeger’s and MacColl’s high profiles in the folk music world.  Having received international news coverage, Seeger learned of the disaster while living in France.  She did not record it right away, unlike most of the other Springhill songs, but instead performed it with Ewan MacColl (who helped write some of the verses) while in tour in Canada in 1959 and apparently performed it on a Halifax television show.  Rosenberg points out that whereas other Springhill songs reached a more limited regional and working-class audience, this one reached the young, middle-class audience drawn to music of the folk revival.

In 1960, it was published in Sing Out!, a major American folk revival magazine and that year Seeger and MacColl premiered the song in America at the Newport Folk Festival.  It was subsequently recorded, from the 1960s right up to the present, by a significant number of Canadian, American, and British folk artists, explaining why this song has become so well known

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Performances

Peggy Seeger  and Ewan MacColl
Freeborn Man, Rounder 3080, LP (1983)
Greatest Folk Singers of the Sixties, Vanguard VSD 17/18 (no date)
Newport Folk Festival, Vanguard VRS 9084 (1960)
Newport Folk Festival. Recorded Jun 24/26, 1960. Vol.2, Vanguard VSD 2088, LP (1961)
New Briton Gazette, Folkways FW 8732, LP (1960)

This song has been recorded by many other artists, including:

Dubliners/Luke Kelly: The Best of Luke Kelly, IML Irish Music Licensing, CD (2004)
Bikel, Theodore: Folksinger’s Choice, Elektra EKS 7250 (1964)
Blarney Folk: Let Those Irish Brown Eyes Smile at Me, Babe, London International SW 99512, LP (1969)
Brothers Four, The: The Brothers Four Sing of Our Time, Columbia CS-8928 (1963)
Carthy, Martin: Martin Carthy, Topic 12TS 340, LP (1977/1965)
Dickson, Barbara: Dark End of the Street, Transatlantic TRACD 117, CD (1995)
Gibson, Bob: Yes I See, Elektra EKL 197, LP (1960)
Harter, Bob: The Bob Harter Songbag, Liberty LST 7330 (no date)
Highwaymen, The: Encore, United Artists UAS-6225 (1963)
Ivy League Trio, The: Folk Songs: Rare and Well Done, Coral CRL 757404 (1963)
Kindred Spirits: Kindred Spirits (1996)
Men of the Deeps: Men of the Deeps II, Waterloo WR4-7 (1977) reissued on B.U.R.I.E.D. T.R.E.A.S.U.R.E.S., Atlantic 04-50322 (1995)
Murphy, George & The Black DonnellysThe Ballads of Archie Thompson Ashtown Records, CD (2009)
Reilly, Paddy & The Dubliners: Paddy Reilly Sings the Songs of Ewan MacColl, Harmac HM 65, CD (1990)
Peter, Paul and Mary: Song Will Rise, Warner WS 1589, LP (1965)
Porter, Kay and Fred McKenna, Singalong Jubilee, vol 1, Arc 608 (1972)
Scanlon, Pauline with Damien Dempsey: Red Colour Sun, Compass 7 4393 2, CD (2004)
Travelers, The: A Century of Song, Arc 261 (1967)
U2: performed during 1987 Joshua Tree tour

Many other amateur musicians have made their own versions which can be readily found on youtube and myspace.

Lyrics

In the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia
Down in the dark of the Cumberland Mine
There’s blood on the coal and the miners lie
In the roads that never saw sun nor sky
Roads that never saw sun nor sky

In the town of Springhill, you don’t sleep easy.
Often the earth will tremble and roll.
When the earth is restless, miners die;
Bone and blood is the price of coal.

In the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia,
Late in the year of fifty-eight,
Day still comes and the sun still shines,
But it’s dark as the grave in the Cumberland Mine.

Down at the coal face, miners working,
Rattle of the belt and the cutter’s blade,
Rumble of the rock and the walls closed round
The living and the dead men two miles down.

Twelve men lay two miles from the pitshaft,
Twelve men lay in the dark and sang
Long hot days in the miners’ tomb
It was three feet high and a hundred long.

Three days passed and the lamps gave out
And Caleb Rushton he up and said,
“There’s no more water nor light nor bread
So we’ll live on songs and hope instead.”

Listen for the shouts of the barefaced miners,
Listen thru the rubble for a rescue team,
Six hundred feet of coal and slag;
Hope imprisoned in a three-foot seam.

Eight days passed and some were rescued,
Leaving the dead to lie alone.
Thru all their lives they dug their grave
Two miles of earth for a marking stone.

In the town of Springhill, you don’t sleep easy
Often the earth will tremble and roll.
When the earth is restless, miners die
Bone and blood is the price of coal.


11 Responses to “The Ballad of Springhill”

  1. Gary Martin says:

    Where can I find the actual music for this song? Is it written down somewhere?

    Thank you,
    Gary Martin

  2. Nancy Mills says:

    I’m curious about the next-to-last verse and the use of “passes” instead of “passed.” It doesn’t seem consistent with the rest of the song. Is “passes” the actual word used in the original lyrics? If so, do you know why the change in verb tense at that one point?

    Thanks.

    • Heather Sparling says:

      Oops! That was a typo, which I’ve now corrected. I’ve also updated the page to include a link to the original version sung by Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl.

  3. Nancy Mills says:

    p.s. This song has been a favorite of mine since the 1960′s and one of the first that I learned on guitar to sing along with!

  4. Larry A. Ewashen says:

    What of credit for Maurice Ruddick, writer of original poem?

  5. Aaron C. says:

    I love this song!! i’m even doing a heritage fair project about it
    p.s. Caleb Rushton is my great-great uncle!

  6. Geoff C says:

    While looking for these lyrics I found this wikipedia entry https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Springhill_mining_disaster. It’s interesting because it refers to “drägermen” rescuers equipped with breathing apparatus and “barefaced” rescuers without BA. I’ve always wondered what the significance of the “shouts of the barefaced miners” line was.

    • Heather Sparling says:

      Thanks for writing and for clarifying the difference between barefaced miners and dragermen. For anyone else interested, rescue workers can be either barefaced (and usually untrained) or dragermen (who wear special equipment and are trained). Before the development of specialized rescue equipment, rescue workers were barefaced (meaning that they didn’t have any specialized equipment) and they frequently died from exposure to various gases released after a mining accident, particularly carbon monoxide, which is odourless and colourless but fatal in high enough quantities. Specialized equipment, including breathing apparatus, was developed to protect rescue workers when working in a precarious mine. However, the equipment is heavy and cumbersome, making it more difficult for rescue workers to navigate small spaces or to undertake extended physical exertion, such as digging through debris. Moreover, there’s only so much equipment to go around. So barefaced miners still do rescue work in areas that have been confirmed to be safe to work without drager equipment.

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