The history of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship's fall has been recorded in a veritable mountain of legal documents. But art and song have also begun to have a say in the saga of the once high-flying, all-powerful coal mining magnate.
On May 12, Blankenship began serving a one-year sentence in a California prison for conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, where 29 miners died in April 2010 in America's worst coal-mining disaster in decades.
Two artists were on hand during the trial, which was closed to photography. Jeff Pierson produced illustrations for the Gazette-Mail's coverage and Rob Cleland did likewise for WOWK-Channel 13 News.
On March 17, the Taylor Books Art Gallery in downtown Charleston featured the artists' work in the exhibit “Drawings from the Blankenship Trial.” (The exhibit has since concluded, but a handful of works still remain on view.)
Meanwhile, well-known Charleston graphic designer, songwriter, poet and sometimes activist Colleen Anderson has been performing a new song called “The Don Blankenship Blues” as part of a long Appalachian tradition of folk music absorbing and responding to current headlines from the coal fields. (Hear Anderson and Julie Adams sing the song on the Mountain State of Mind podcast blog.)
For Pierson, documenting the trial was more than just transcribing what he saw.
“My take on it is, really, I approached it like I approach all my illustration work — I was telling a story,” he said. “I did more looking than I did drawing, if that makes sense.”
His personal favorite piece was a shot of Blankenship, arm draped over his chair, staring tight-lipped at the proceedings unfolding before him.
“That was the iconic piece of the trial for me,” he said.
Pierson found it interesting and quite natural to have his artwork from the trial presented in a gallery.
“The idea of that kind of work being in a gallery — we're still recording a piece of history, and I think that art allows us to record that history visually,” Pierson said. “For that reason, I think it's just as justified in being in an art gallery as any other kind of artwork, in my view.”
For the Taylor exhibit, he included 10 of about 30 colored pencil sketches, including some of the preliminary sketches which preceded the works finally printed in the newspaper. This was a way to portray some of his “thought processes,” Pierson said, “and how an artist thinks about their work before they actually go to the final version of it.”
One of the pieces from the exhibit, a portrait that depicted Judge Irene Berger and a court reporter listening as Bill Ross, a key witness, testified, was purchased by CBS for its archives as a “60 Minutes” correspondent covered the trial.
He had a big response to his documentation of the trial, Pierson said.
“I was really surprised at the response that came from people from all over the state and, in fact, from all over the country from the courtroom art,” he said.
Cleland had 50 colored pencil and watercolor illustrations from the trial and four from the sentencing featured in the Taylor show.
The exhibit will never be seen in its entirety again as both he and Pierson sold works from the show. The vantage point that the two artists were able to provide offered a glimpse that otherwise would have been denied.
“I think it's important. It's kind of an inside view of the courtroom,” Cleland said. “You see it in its entirety, and it's pretty cool. And I think it's of interest to the public.”
However you feel about Blankenship and coal mining, coal mine disasters have long produced an intense body of work in song.
Anderson has just begun performing her song around the state, “The Don Blankenship Blues.” Here are part of the lyrics and chorus:
“My granddaddy worked in the mines/My daddy went underground, too./We built this American country with coal/made billionaires out of a few./ And they kept us under their thumbs./They owned us body and soul/We were the ones who got the black lung/ while they got rich off our coal
Mr. Blankenship talks about jobs/setting up there so mighty and high./But he's not the one who goes down in his mine/and he doesn't care if I die./
Now, mining is dangerous work/But greed is a powerful god./When safety cuts into the profits they make/Well, the miners don't stand such good odds./ At Sago and Upper Big Branch/Oh, the grieving will never be done./And all of the money in Blankenship's bank/can't bring back our fathers and sons ... ”
Anderson said she wrote the song to communicate what she felt was the heart of the matter.
“I think I find songwriting like poetry, a good way of kind of getting down to the essence of a story,” she said. “Also, I think that combination of words and melody is sometimes more powerful than either one alone.”
She said the song just poured out, and she hasn't even given thought to putting it on a record.
“People who've heard the song, including a woman whose husband died in a coal mine, have thanked me for telling that story. And that's gratifying enough.
“I just hope that it contributes something to the music that's been written about coal mining and to the whole narrative about coal mining in West Virginia, even a tiny little part,” Anderson said.
Oral historian, folklorist and performer Michael Kline of Elkins said folk music, far from being a static reminder of past events, is constantly reflecting the current news.
“The music is a living thing. It borrows from the past as it looks to the future and enlightens the present,” Kline said.
Part of the issue about living in West Virginia, Kline said, “is that life is very confusing here in this state because most of the natural wealth is owned by people who don't live here. It's hard to pin the blame on somebody you can't see. So these songs help you to see the cause.”
As for the “The Don Blankenship Blues,” Kline — who is a song collector and performer of long standing — had one forecast for the song's future:
“I'll probably be singing it before very long.”
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-3017 or follow @douglaseye on Twitter.