September 16, 2020

My last word (for a while) on a fallen friend and comrade

 Elaine Purkey, 1949-2020. Vintage early 90s, wearing a tee-shirt expressing solidarity for union Steelworkers locked out of Ravenswood Aluminum Corporation from 1990-1992. Story below.

The labor movement and the people of West Virginia lost a powerful voice (literally) last week with the death of Elaine Purkey from COVID-19. Among many other things, she was a singer/songwriter whose music has reached many around the United States and beyond. And she was my friend.

We met during the UMWA-Pittston coal strike of 1989-90, my first big fight after joining the American Friends Service Committee. The strike wasn’t about wages; it was about protecting health care and benefits for retirees, miners with disabilities and their families.

It was a wild and uncut struggle that rumbled throughout the coalfields beyond the Pittston mines. Two union miners were shot, one fatally. I remember burning buildings, vehicles smashed by nonunion coal trucks, evictions from land company property, private “goon guards,” State Police and federal marshals, arrests — but also music, laughter, humor, mischief and love.

(I’m not necessarily proud of this, but some of us were having the time of our lives.)

Elaine’s husband, Bethel, still among us, was a grassroots union leader. Elaine was just finding her voice writing labor songs. At first, I thought Bethel was running the show, at least as far as Logan County was concerned. He was a natural leader who radiated charisma, looked out for everybody and got things done. I’m not even sure he had an official position at the time. A big man with red hair and a red beard, he struck me as your basic Viking, although to my knowledge he never raided an Irish monastery.

I had my first major conversation with Elaine at the Hardee’s in Chapmanville, where she was working at the time. Strike support from the union helped, but it didn’t make up the difference from working miner’s wages.

I was just learning to play guitar, so wanted to talk music as well as strike. I asked an incredibly stupid question in retrospect: Did she flat pick or finger pick? As if a self-respecting mountain singer would arpeggiate on nylon strings. The immediate result was an impromptu concert in the parking lot. It never took a whole lot of effort to get Elaine to perform.

Nothing was ever the same afterward. We did a lot together over the years, not just labor related, but also things like fighting racially motivated police violence and even doing mountain stories and songs with kids.

Elaine grew up in a large musical family near Harts Creek, in Lincoln County. Her father, Winford Moore, was a railroad worker and musical prodigy who could play any instrument he picked up and never bothered with sheet music. Most of the rest of the family was musical, as well. I still remember a magical summer day long ago that I was absorbed in the embrace of several generations of the family.

When Elaine was a child, Winford would pick her up and put her on a rock so that she could sing to whoever was there. While you could never forget that she was a powerful woman, I always also saw in her the little girl singing on a rock for her daddy.

She was very intuitive, like someone who could solve complex math problems without showing her work. Sometimes I’d pitch her a bare song idea, which she’d weave into gold in short order. I think her best is “One Day More,” which was written in 1992, when 1,700 steelworkers were locked out of their jobs at Ravenswood Aluminum Corp. for nearly two years.

Their average age was over 50 and most had worked at the plant for more than 20 years, yet the company declared them permanently replaced, despite the union’s willingness to continue working under their old contract.

Some things are addictive, and a justified fight is one of the best addictions, as such things go.

A lot of people thought the fight in Ravenswood was hopeless. I asked Elaine to write something to boost morale, suggesting a theme like lasting one day longer than the company, something Bethel always said in the earlier fight, and recommending a minor key. Always a lover of snarky banter, Elaine shot back, “Do you want to tell me the words and melody while you’re at it?”

We met in Logan the next morning and I gave her some info on the situation there. At about 11 p.m., I got the call and heard her sing it for the first time. Even then, I felt sure people would be singing it long after we were gone.

The Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple filmed the first performance at the USWA Local 5668 union hall while doing a documentary for PBS on the lockout (I think you can see the neck of my old 12 string on it, too). I knew music was powerful in the struggle, but never saw anything like that, with people crying, clapping and singing along the first time they heard it. The song became their anthem.

And the good guys actually wound up winning.

That song had legs, even showing up in a songbook of the 2011 Wisconsin protests against union busting. I just heard that a co-worker of mine learned it at a rally for hotel and restaurant workers in California in the 1990s. It was included in the Smithsonian’s collection of labor songs. Who knows where it’s been or where it will show up next?

Over the years, we’d sometimes go a good while without seeing or talking with each other, but the connection was always like a live electrical wire. As the ancient Chinese classic the Tao Te Ching says, “That which is firmly established cannot be uprooted.”

I can’t imagine a world without her in it, one way or another.

Along with her family, she took her religion very seriously and was a devoted member of the Church of Christ. If anybody was ever right with Jesus, I’m sure Elaine would make the team, assuming the latter had a sense of humor and a tolerance for banter.

I think her message to us in these dark days would come straight from that song: Hold out, one day more.

(This appeared as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail)

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