Voices of Coal

This exhibit highlights musical perspectives on life in the coalfields, featuring recordings from the Lewis Deneumoustier Collection and other collections in the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University.

Extractive industry in Appalachia began in the late 1800s when new roads gave access to untapped resources such as coal and timber. Expansion of the railway system made coal a greater commodity, bringing about the need for more and more mines. Iron mills were some of the main consumers of Appalachian coal during World War II. Once the war ended, the market was flooded with coal, and mines began closing, leaving miners without jobs.

Many of the musicians in the Deneumoustier Collection represent Appalachia. Some personally felt the effects of extractive industry on their families and throughout their childhoods.  In this way, young artists grew to become the voices of the coal communities, becoming advocates for their mountains, forests, and streams. 

Lewis Deneumoustier was an avid collector of old-time, bluegrass, and country music history. Over several decades, he acquired a significant collection of magazines, booklets, concert programs, and festival flyers. He also compiled a large amount of correspondence with fellow collectors looking to obtain recordings. The core of the Deneumoustier Collection, though, is the nearly 25,000 recordings, in a range of formats, that document the history of old-time, bluegrass, and country music. Through this extensive collection, we can see not only the history of Appalachian music but also the impact the coal industry had on the Appalachian region.

Significant Moments in Appalachian Coal Mining History

1870s – Railroads came to Appalachia

  • Established a need for more coal
  • Allowed access to previously hard to reach areas to mine resources
  • Coal production in Appalachia skyrocketed

1890s – Initial establishment of large mining companies in the mountains of Appalachia

  • Mining communities were started

1910s – Many large coal companies were established in the mountains of Appalachia

  • The market was flooded, the price of coal plummeted and caused a recession
  • Miners lost their jobs, caused out-migration to urban areas for better job opportunities

1960s – Surface mining techniques for coal extraction gained prominence

  • Nearly 7,000 miles of streams were damaged by mountaintop removal (MTR) and strip mining practices
  • Caused more out-migration


Curated by Amanda Morgan