If you’ve attended one of our live shows, you are probably aware that band member Stephen Lee Canner writes nearly all our material. We do often add a “cover” or two to our set list—songs written by other songwriters we admire, and that for one reason or another we like to share with our audiences.
Among our favorites is the heartbreakingly beautiful song, “Henry Russell’s Last Words,” written by Diana Jones. Inspired by an historical event, the song documents the final moments of a West Virginia coal miner trapped underground following a mine disaster.
In The Victor Mourning’s version of the song, guitjo player Lynne Adele contributes lead vocals, Stephen Canner takes a rare break from singing duties to focus on delicately textured guitar accompaniment, and Stefan Keydel lends soaring fiddle solos that build dramatically to the song’s tragic climax. We hope to record the song for our next album.
Henry Russell was born in 1885 in Hamilton, a town near Glasgow in the west central lowlands of Scotland. He worked as a miner in Scotland before emigrating to the U.S. with his pregnant wife, Mary, and their two young children. They moved to Monongalia County, West Virginia, where Henry found work at the Federal No. 3 coalmine in Everettville.
The day of April 30, 1927 probably began like just any other workday for the miners of the Federal No. 3. But the day came to a sudden end for 111 of the miners when a massive explosion ripped through the mine, killing most of them instantly. Only nine miners working that day survived. Several men survived the initial blast, trapped hundreds of feet underground for several hours before succumbing to gas fumes. Among them was Henry Russell.
Russell gathered pieces of coal and scraps of paper torn from cement sacks, and began to write notes to his wife. The notes, which he placed carefully in his lunch box, were found along with the bodies of Henry and his coworkers and passed along to Russell’s widow, Mary. Their daughter, Marguerite, was just six years old when her father died. Now in her 90s, she still has her father’s handwritten notes.
In 2006, songwriter Diana Jones accepted the challenge to write a song to help raise awareness for a memorial to the miners of the Federal No. 3 mine. Inspired by Henry Russell’s notes, she set them to music and created the intensely moving song “Henry Russell’s Last Words.”
On April 30, 2011, 84 years to the day after the disaster, the memorial was dedicated in the town of Everettville in memory of 149 coal miners who lost their lives in accidents there during the years the mine operated, 1918 to 1951. The memorial, which stands on a hillside overlooking the former Federal No. 3 Mine, is a 7.5-ton stone inscribed with the names of the miners, many of whom lie buried in unmarked paupers’ graves.
For more information, visit the Everettville Historical Association website: http://www.wveha.org/wveha2/home