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Mrs. Clara Sullivan's Letter background


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GUEST 06 Dec 18 - 01:38 PM
Joe Offer 06 Dec 18 - 03:43 PM
GUEST 14 Dec 18 - 11:22 AM
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Subject: Mrs. Clara Sullivan's Letter background
Date: 06 Dec 18 - 01:38 PM

“Mrs. Clara Sullivan’s Letter” was adapted by Malvina Reynolds in 1965 from a letter (full text below) written in January 1963 to the Progressive Labor News (or possibly the Progressive Labor Journal). Her husband was one of many miners in eastern Kentucky who went on strike in the early 1960s, traveling from mine to mine and closing them down. Known as the Roving Picket Movement, it evolved by 1964 into the Appalachian Committee for Full Employment, an antipoverty organization whose goal was to organize unemployed miners and make the local War on Poverty programs more responsive to poor people.

Buck Maggard, a coal miner and labor organizer said: “The women were the strongest ones on the picket lines. The men weren't goin' to do anything. The women just showed the way. You know men's always good about sneakin' around after dark where nobody can't see 'em. The women, they do it openly. I don't think it was just the thing of using their sex for protection either; they were just damned determined. That's all you can say about 'em. When the women went off the picket lines, that's when the whole thing just fell apart. Clara Sullivan was just a coal miner's wife until she got hungry and mad, like all the other women did.”

    Scuddy, Kentucky, January 21, 1963

    Dear Editor: I recently read a magazine of yours about the labor unrest in Perry County and surrounding counties. I would like very much to get one of these magazines to send to my son in the service. I don't have any money to send you for it, but would you please send me one anyway? I am a coal miner's wife. I have been married 26 years to a coal miner and you can't find a harder worker than a coal miner. We have been treated so unfair by our leaders from the sheriff up to the president.

    I know what it is to be hungry. My husband has been out of work for 14 months. He worked at a union mine at Leatherwood. Now the company has terminated the union contract (UMWA) and plans to go back to work with scab workers. It isn't just here that all this is happening. The company will say they have to close as they are going in the hole. Then they will re-open with scab laborers that will work for practically nothing as long as the boss smiles at them and gives them a pat on the back. These men just don't realize the amount of people they are hurting or just don't care. The operators have the money and the miner doesn't have anything but a bad name.

    You couldn't find better people anywhere in the whole world. But we have our pride too. We are tired of doing without. The operators have beautiful homes, Cadillacs and aeroplanes to enjoy, and our houses (camp houses, by the way) look like barns. We don't want what the operators have. All we want is a decent wage and good insurance that will help our families. Is this too much to ask? The operators wouldn't go in a mine for $50 a day.

    I've seen my husband come home from work with his clothes frozen to his body from working in the water. I have sat down at a table where we didn't have anything to eat but wild greens picked from the mountainside. There are three families around me, that each family of seven only had plain white gravy and bread for a week is true. Is this progress or what? I just can't understand it. I have two sons that go to school and they don't even have decent clothes to wear. No one knows our feelings and I'm quite sure the coal operators don't care as long as they get that almighty dollar. Of all the things that were sent here to the helping fund not one of these needy families received a thing nor did anyone here in camp. Where did it all go? Somebody got a real good vacation with it I suppose.

    All the newspapers are against us because of political pressure, but our day is coming. The government talks of re-training. My husband went into the mines in Alabama at the age of 11 with only the second grade of schooling. How could he retrain now, and him 52? It is silly to even think this will help the older miner. All the state thinks about is building up the tourist trade. How will that help us? It would just put more money in the big shots' pockets - not ours. No one would want to spend money to come here for a vacation to see the desolate mine camps and ravaged hills. Happy A.B. Chandler lost his election by siding against the laboring class of people; by sending the State Militia and State Police in here to use as strikebreakers in 1959. Wilson Wyatt lost because of Governor Combs doing the same thing, only in a more subtle way. How can he hope to get elected to the Senate? How does he think Ed Breathitt will fare by endorsing him?

    The truth will out someday. I'm sorry I have rambled on like this. It just seems so unjust, especially to the poor. Please, sir, could you send me a magazine?

    Thank you sincerely,

    Mrs. Clara Sullivan, Scuddy, Kentucky, Perry County

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Subject: RE: Mrs. Clara Sullivan's Letter background
From: Joe Offer
Date: 06 Dec 18 - 03:43 PM

Hi - that is a great find - where did you find it? I posted the Malvina Reynolds lyrics here (click):

Thread #40846   Message #849076
Posted By: Joe Offer
17-Dec-02 - 02:42 PM
Thread Name: Help: Everything Malvina!
Subject: Add: MRS. CLARA SULLIVAN'S LETTER(Reynolds/Seeger)

(Malvina Reynolds & Pete Seeger)

Malvina Reynolds puts together many of her songs out of things she reads in the newspapers -- and this was directly made up from a letter written to a newspaper by a woman named Mrs. Clara Sullivan, down in the Eastern part of Kentucky where they been having the troubles in the coal mining area.
So. Malvina called her song "Mrs. Clara Sullivan's Letter."

Dear Mr. Editor, if you choose,
Please send me a copy of the "Labor News;"
I've got a son in the Infantry,
And he'd be mighty glad to see
That somebody somewhere, now and then,
Thinks about the lives of the mining men
In Perry County.

In Perry County and here about,
The miners simply had to go out.
It was long hours, and substandard pay;
Then they took our contract away.
And now fourteen months is a mighty long time
To face the goons on the picket line
In Perry County.

I'm twenty-six years, a miner's wife,
There's nothing harder than a miner's life.
But there's no better man than a mining man,
You couldn't find better in all this land.
The deal they get is a rotten deal,
Mountain greens and gravy meal,
In Perry County.

We live in shacks that the rain comes in,
While the operators live high as sin,
Ride Cadillac cars, and drink like a fool,
While our kids lack clothes to go to school.
Sheriff Combs, he has it fine;
He runs the law and owns a mine
In Perry County.

I believe, the truth will out some day
That we're fighting for jobs at decent pay.
Why, after work, my man comes in,
With his wet clothes frozen to his skin.
Diggin' coals, so the world can run
And operators can have their fun
In Perry County.

Lyrics as performed by Pete Seeger, "The Complete Carnegie Hall Concert, June 8, 1963" (COLUMBIA CSK-45312), 1989; transcribed by Manfred Helfert.

Pete Seeger performance:

John McCutcheon:

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Subject: RE: Mrs. Clara Sullivan's Letter background
Date: 14 Dec 18 - 11:22 AM

Thanks, Joe! Sorry, I should have included credit links. I sing in a wonderful women's choir called Echo in Toronto, and do some research into the background of our songs. We performed this in December along with three of Malvina Reynold's other songs: "Green Shadows," "No Closing Chord," and "God Bless the Grass."

I compiled the background info from "They Say in Harlan County: An Oral History They Say in Harlan County: An Oral History " (1912) by Alessandro Portelli, a history of the area where the strikes took place, and "Voices from the Mountains" ed. Guy and Candie Carawan (1975); a collection of songs, stories and photos from Appalachia.

I initially found the song lyrics in "Calling Home: Working-Class Women's Writings: An Anthology," "Calling Home: Working-Class Women's Writings: An Anthology, (1990), edited by Janet Zandy, a collection of poetry, testimonials, histories, and short stories from working-class American women in the twentieth century.

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