Where Things Are Beautiful: Time Spent with Nimrod Workman

What follows are notes written for “I Want to Go Where Things Are Beautiful,” an album (CD & LP) devoted to the coal miner, union activist, and singer Nimrod Workman. It’s the first solo CD (however posthumous) of the late Workman, and his first LP in 30 years; it’s also the first release on Twos & Fews, an imprint I’m curating in conjunction with the Drag City label in Chicago.

I’m really excited to be starting with this record of Mike Seeger’s recordings of Workman. I first discovered Nimrod while digging through Lomax’s record collection in 2000, where I found a 45 released on an Appalshop-related imprint called Dillon’s Run, and which featured what have become – if anything can be so-called – Workman’s most famous compositions; namely, “42 Years” and “Coal Black Mining Blues.” The cover portrait of the man, his face stricken with deep rivulets, like a parched and lonesome scrubland, attested to his many years spent underground and along the picket line, and was a visual correlative to his eerie, bristling songs. Those songs floored me. I had never heard anything as starkly intimate and honest, bearing not a trace of romanticism, born as they were of decades of personal experience and hardship. I’m not indulging in hyperbole when I say that they scared me, and made me chilly and uncomfortable. But though they might have slightly repelled me, they were deeply moving, and with each listen they didn’t necessarily soften up, but I began to ken their inherent warmth.

I listened to that 45 into the ground, and turned to eBay for more, winning as the only bidder copies of Nimrod’s 1978 Rounder LP “Mother Jones’ Will” and his “Passing Through the Garden,” a record he made with his daughter Phyllis Boyens (now Boyens-Liptak) for Appalshop’s newly launched June Appal label (1974). They lightened my impression of Nimrod a bit, with their inclusions of the tongue-twisters and nonsense songs that Nimrod obviously loved to sing. By that time I had become friends with some of the Appalshop crew, and they passed on a VHS of To Fit My Own Category, which is a beautiful, if spare, portrait of Nimrod as singer, ginsenger, and father. And then I spent time with Lomax’s raw footage of Nimrod, shot in 1982 (just weeks after Mike Seeger made his first recordings) at Nim’s home in Mascot, Tennessee, near Knoxville. Portions of that footage appeared in Dreams and Songs of the Noble Old and Appalachian Journey, two of the six films produced for Lomax’s American Patchwork PBS series, and to watch Workman ease his way one moment through his seven-minute “Lord Bateman” (which he called “Baseman”), accompanied by his elaborate and unique hand gestures, to drop to the floor to show off his spider walk the next, was a happy thrill. The fearfulness with which I heard his most mournful performances and beheld his visage was replaced by intense respect and affection. He had survived brutal social and occupational conditions without sacrificing his pride, his anger, or his allegiance to the good fights for equality and justice. But nor did he surrender his childlike mischievousness and his obvious love of hilarity and the absurd.

Nimrod, c. 1980s. Courtesy Phyllis Boyens-Liptak.

Nimrod, c. 1980s. Courtesy Phyllis Boyens-Liptak.

This is all to say that it’s an absolute honor to have worked on this record, in the hope of bringing Nimrod Workman to more willing and sympathetic ears. He’s not an easy listen. My father, for one, tells me Workman’s singing literally inflicts pain to him. But I’ve found him to be one of the most satisfying traditional singers ever recorded, as his performances are near to bursting with humanity and honesty. Several of his granddaughters have written on the Twos & Fews Myspace page short but loving tributes to their Paw-paw, making me all the more sorry that I never knew him while he lived. I would have loved to have sat on the porch “visiting,” as Mike Seeger writes fondly of doing, while Nimrod sang and joked and told his stories. Doing this record is the closest I’ll get to him; and it’s been time well spent. I hope you’ll spend some of your own, and that you’ll come to agree.

* * *

Nimrod Workman was born near Inez in Eastern Kentucky in 1895, into a family that boasted frontiersmen, panther-killers, Civil War veterans both blue and gray, and a great Cherokee warrior as forebears. His family’s subsistence farming in the coves and hollers of Martin County made for no easy way of life, but it soon gave way to one even tougher, as the coal industry moved into the mountains. At the age of 14, like many of his generation, Workman went to work in the mines. He moved to nearby Chattaroy, in Mingo County, West Virginia, where he’d live and work in various mining capacities for, as his composition tells it, “42 Years,” when black lung and a slipped disc forced him into retirement.

Nimrod told Alan Lomax in 1983 that “I been though some great things and some dangerous stuff.” In the wake of the Matewan Massacre of 1921, he marched with hundreds of fellow miners (and, he claimed, Mother Jones too, though this has never been proven*) into neighboring Logan County and what became the Battle of Blair Mountain in an effort to organize the coal fields. Although martial law was declared and the union drive stalled, the experience confirmed his life-long commitment to the UMWA and the Democratic Party. Forty years later, he was part of a contingent of West Virginia miners that visited the nation’s capitol to lobby Senator Robert Byrd for black lung compensation, which they ultimately received.

But, as Mike Seeger wrote in a 1987 report to the NEA, which had given him a Folk Arts grant to make the recordings on this album, singing was “at the center of Nimrod Workman’s life…. When I first visited him in the early ’70s, he sang nearly our entire visit, not necessarily to perform but as an important part of his relating to people.” His upbringing was steeped in lyric songs, comic play-party pieces, dance tunes, hymns and sacred material from the Baptist church, and the mournful Scots-Irish ballads that filled the Southern Appalachian mountains. He learned them from his parents, his grandfather, his neighbors (especially Uncle Peter McNeely, who “came over here from England,” “shantied all the time” and would teach only Nimrod the songs in his bag), and he composed them himself. After leaving home for Mingo’s Howard Collieries, as he recalls to Mike Seeger here, he’d sing to keep himself company. “I’d be in there by myself, couldn’t hear nobody nowhere. Just nothing but me and my light, in that dark place. I’d be a’loading my car, and I’d sing till I get it loaded.” Out of this dark place came Workman’s best known compositions, “42 Years,” “Mother Jones’ Will,” and “Coal Black Mining Blues.”

Later in life, when he began touring the folk and heritage festival circuit extensively, Nimrod would add to these fundamental, formative elements in his repertoire others’ topical material (Hazel Dickens, Si Kahn, Jean Ritchie), popular country compositions (Merle Haggard, Norman Blake), and the songs of his wife Molly’s Pentecostal Holiness Church (tracks 1, 5, 24, 25). He discriminated on his own terms — those songs appealed to him on the basis of his traditional background — if he heard a song that he liked, he learned it, sang it, and often claimed it as his own. Seeger addressed this penchant of Nimrod’s in his NEA report: “Nimrod takes songs and personalizes them, puts them into his own style and changes a few words. He takes great artistic liberties with some songs and possibly with the old ballads. I believe that this might also have something to do with his not being literate, having a strong ego and some measure of rascality. There is no doubt that most of his songs are living things, especially melodically and in mode of presentation.”

Appalshop produced a documentary of Nimrod in 1975 called “To Fit My Own Category,” the title of which was drawn from notes appearing in Nimrod’s first LP (“Passing Through the Garden,” June Appal 001, 1974). Rich Kirby quoted Nimrod as saying in reference to one of his compositions: “I made this song to fit my own category.” Deeply religious, joyfully mischievous, fiercely independent, uncompromising but always adaptable, Nimrod was a tradition-bearer who didn’t let tradition dictate the full contours of his remarkable artistry: an artistry in a category entirely its own.

Nimrod Workman died in 1994 at the age of 99. It’s an honor to make these recordings available.

It’s amazing that Nimrod learned and retained these songs, that he can compose on the spot, that he survived 40 years of mining life and many more years than that of tobacco and alcohol use, and that he remains at the age of 92 vital and able to talk and sing with strong conviction. He is a treasure.
—Mike Seeger, 1987.

*This caveat did not appear in my notes to the album. Jack Wright, producer of the Music of Coal box-set and of Nimrod’s first recordings, has looked into this and can’t substantiate Nimrod’s claims. I took Nimrod’s telling of the tale at face value – something I should have known better than to do – and for that I’m regretful. What a thrilling image it musters.

5 responses to “Where Things Are Beautiful: Time Spent with Nimrod Workman

  1. Pingback: Louisville Label Lets Loose Nimrod Workman « State of the Commonwealth·

  2. Pingback: Louisville Label Lets Loose Nimrod Workman « The Other Side of Life·

  3. Pingback: down home radio show » Blog Archive » Twos & Fews’ first release: I Want to Go Where Things are Beautiful·

  4. Pingback: Happy Nimrod Workman’s Birthday! « WMMT·

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