Béla Fleck, Abigail Washburn and renowned dance troupe Pilobolus have created their own timely ghost story by pairing two songs off their latest album, Echo in the Valley (Rounder), “Come All You Coal Miners” by Appalachian ballad singer, Sarah Ogan Gunning and the duo’s own “Take Me to Harlan.”
Harlan, Kentucky is an important area for its connection to Appalachian heritage and connection to the struggle for workers’ rights, as told by Gunning, an early 20th century wife of a coal miner. “The dancers watched the movie "Harlan Co.," says Pilobolus producer, Jake McIntyre, who originally had the idea of choreographing Béla and Abigail’s murder ballad, “Shotgun Blues.” “We talked about music and history and movement. We listened to Sarah Ogan Gunning, really listened, and the piece started to reveal itself as a ghost story. We had our murder ballad after all.”
Coal mining is the most dangerous work / in our land today / with plenty of dirty slaving work / and very little pay / coal miner won’t you wake up / and open your eyes and see / what the dirty capitalist system / is doing to you and me
The companion song “Take Me to Harlan” celebrates the “profound love that remains in our old home place, despite the pain we might have experienced there,” says Abigail, who simultaneously sings and clogs the tune (her doctor cleared her to perform it at the NPR Tiny Desk in the final month of pregnancy).
“We loved the experience!” says Fleck, who describes their time at Pilobolus’ rural Connecticut studio as “one of those pure exchanges, what you wish all collaborations would be. Everyone is affected by each other, but still retains their individuality.”
Along with the video, Fleck, Washburn and Pilobolus created Echo in the Valley, a 20-minute performance piece that premiered at the American Dance Festival in Durham, NC in 2017.
Béla added this about Harlan, KY:
"My connection to Harlan began when I was 17, and got my first ‘big time’ gig, playing with the great Hazel Dickens.
Hazel was promoting the film Harlan County USA at Lincoln Center, and she was performing songs before the film was shown.
Because of my experience I got to see the film, which was very powerful and deep, all about the battle between the coal companies and the miners for human right.
Since then I have been aware of Harlan, and that name brings a lot of images.
When we were writing the song, I could access those images and they created a starting point for my part of the story that we told."
Béla and Abigail will be on the road in late 2018 and 2019. They'll make stops in California, Virginia, South Carolina, Florida, North Carolina, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Michigan, Indiana, New Jersey, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Purchase tickets here.