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The saddest songs are written when a person is happy. I was driving home after a date with a beautiful girl in Redondo Beach, California. I had a recording session to do the next morning and needed some material. I parked my car under a street light and wrote the verses to "Dark As A Dungeon." I got the idea from growing up around the coal mines in Kentucky. My father and brothers were coal miners.
Merle Travis, interview, Nashville, TN, Jul 8, 1973 or telephone interview, Sep 7, 1973, reprinted in Dorothy Horstman, Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy, New York, NY, 1976, p. 246.
I have known the fruits of strikes. The bitter and the sweet. Hunger and music... Who deserves more credit than the wife of a coal miner? Mother was one. She never complained about the hardships that were hers in abundance. Lighting the coal-oil lamp long before daylight, and cooking breakfast for her children and husband.
Taylor, my oldest brother, would come home and get 'washed up.' How well I remember the galvanized tub set in the middle of the floor -- the big black pot of water poured in -- the steam -- and then enough cold water to make it just right. When I'd watch him wash the black coal dust from a little rose tattoo on his arm I longed for the day when I could work in the mine and have a tattoo... He practically broke every rib in his body in a mine accident and it changed his whole life...
Merle Travis, United Mineworkers' Journal, reprinted in Edith Fowke & Joe Glazer, Songs of Work and Protest, New York, NY, 1973, p. 51.
Lyrics as recorded by Merle Travis on Aug 8, 1946, Hollywoood, CA, originally released as Capitol 48001.
It's as dark as a dungeon way down in the mine...
SPOKEN: I never will forget one time when I was on a little visit down home in Ebenezer, Kentucky. I was a-talkin' to an old man that had known me ever since the day I was born, and an old friend of the family. He says, "Son, you don't know how lucky you are to have a nice job like you've got and don't have to dig out a livin' from under these old hills and hollers like me and your pappy used to." When I asked him why he never had left and tried some other kind of work, he says, "Nawsir, you just won't do that. If ever you get this old coal dust in your blood, you're just gonna be a plain old coal miner as long as you live." He went on to say, "It's a habit [CHUCKLE] sorta like chewin' tobaccer."
Come and listen you fellows, so young and so fine,
And seek not your fortune in the dark, dreary mines.
It will form as a habit and seep in your soul,
'Till the stream of your blood is as black as the coal.
CHORUS: It's dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew,
Where danger is double and pleasures are few,
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines
It's dark as a dungeon way down in the mine.
It's a-many a man I have seen in my day,
Who lived just to labor his whole life away.
Like a fiend with his dope and a drunkard his wine,
A man will have lust for the lure of the mines.
I hope when I'm gone and the ages shall roll,
My body will blacken and turn into coal.
Then I'll look from the door of my heavenly home,
And pity the miner a-diggin' my bones.
ADDITIONAL STANZA RARELY PERFORMED BY MERLE TRAVIS:
The midnight, the morning, or the middle of day,
Is the same to the miner who labors away.
Where the demons of death often come by surprise,
One fall of the slate and you're buried alive.
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