This song commemorates a coal mining disaster, in the Scottish town of Blantyre, in the vicinity of Glasgow in 1877. The explosion was a firedamp, or methane, explosion.
It beggars belief that this initial disaster, killing 207 men and boys, some as young as 11, was followed by others, in 1878 and 1879. Equally unthinkable by today’s standards was the eviction of a number of widows of the killed miners in the months following the disaster (Sim 2017). Many of the workers and their families were Irish emigrants, fleeing the poverty and deprivation of the potato famine. The mine continued operating until 1957.
The exact provenance of the song is unclear. John Raven writes that the song was collected by A. L. Lloyd, the noted folklorist, the text first appearing in LLoyd’s 1951 book “Coaldust Ballads”. The earliest recording I can find is by Ewan MacColl, but sounds somewhat dated. The next earliest recording I have found is by Christy Moore. Scroll down to find a YouTube clip of a a live rendition of his performance of the song, and a rendition by Luke Kelly. Other recordings of the song are too numerous to list, with slightly varying lyrics and arrangements. One common distinctive feature is the modulation from a minor key to its tonic major in sections of the song; in my arrangement, from Am to A major.
Notes on My Arrangement
This arrangement, for a small mixed choir, has male voices singing most of the 1st verse, matching the narrative of the song. This is mostly 2 part harmony, with the exception of the 5th line, bars 22 to 26.
The last line of the 1st verse is given to female voices, and then the male voices are reintroduced, 1st with the tenor and then with the bass. From this point on, the melody is primarily alternated between the soprano and alto parts.
These are all best listened to in conjunction with the sheet music. Firstly, here are practice tracks presented in SATB order. However, note that the female voices don’t come in until the end of the 1st verse. In all tracks the “target voice” is played by the piano, and is significantly louder. To find out how to download practice tracks from this site, scroll down, or click here.
This is primarily a harmony line, with the exception of bars 2-6, 22-26, & 62-64, where tenor 1 has the melody.
This line has the melody for most of verse 1, up until the female voice entries, except for bars 22-26, where it provides harmonic support. When the part re-enters in verse 2, it becomes the bass line until the end of the piece.
Tenor, Melody Verse 1
This track cherry picks the melody from tenor 1 and 2 in verse 1, until the female voices enter, then continues with the T1 line. It may be suited to a single tenor as a solo.
This is identical to the Tenor2/Bass line above, throughout, except for bars 22-26, when it is a distinct bass line.
Finally, here is an all parts demo, played by wind instruments, with an organ bass.