Jóhann Jóhannsson – The Miners’ Hymns

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“I’m still down there where the seams are deep
Digging a hole, away in the coal, go down…go down”
Ewan MacColl, “The Big Hewer”

The opening of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s latest album features the sound of a church organ playing huge, slow, mournful chords, rising in volume as if asking a question in increasing desperation. The call goes out into a huge and seemingly empty chamber, echoing and gradually falling away into a dark silence. After a few minutes, it finds an answer, a two note response from a solitary trumpet, initially hesitant, but gradually growing in strength. Still here. Still here. The church is Durham Cathedral, and the brass is provided by members of what was once the band of the nearby Pelton Fell Colliery. The Pelton Fell Colliery was sunk into the hill in that locality in 1835, and generations of men from the village worked there until 1965, when the mine finally fell silent forever. The colliery was a prop for the whole village, and when it snapped, much else came down with it: the Miner’s Institute, the working men’s club, the two pubs that the miners frequented, and the entire livelihood and social fabric of the village in a foreshadowing of the events of the early 1980s.

But yet: still here, still here. There are no mines left in Durham, but over 100,000 people attended the Durham Miners Gala in 2009, which comprised not just marching trade unionists and speeches from the likes of Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone and Billy Bragg, but also a strand celebrating the traditions of the miners, including their brass bands. One project which was commissioned as part of the Gala was a new film by the American experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison. I haven’t seen the film, but the way that the trailer (above) cuts from the ranks of men descending for the start of their shift, to the battle lines of protests, suggests it is likely to be a deeply moving piece of art: the men who once stood together to perform this most dangerous of jobs in the service of the nation, coming together once more to object to the violence being perpetrated on the working classes purportedly on behalf of the nation. The choice of Jóhann Jóhannsson to produce the score makes sense, given not only the Icelandic composer’s previous soundtrack work, but also his obvious interests in old technologies (IBM 1401: A User’s Manual) and workers’ revolts (Fordlândia).

Not only does Jóhannsson make use of locally-hewn musical sounds – the Durham cathedral organ, the Pelton Fell brass – but he mixes these with chunks of recordings from the mines themselves: deep explosions and the clanking and rumbling of machinery. It makes for a rich and evocative collage; in fact the whole project at times reminds me of Ewan MacColl’s BBC Radio Ballad on the subject of coal-mining called The Big Hewer, which knitted the sounds of the pit together with folk song, and the recollections of the miners themselves. MacColl’s work was produced in 1961, just a few years before the Pelton Fell colliery closed, and it even then had the feel of a look back at a way of life that already was beginning to be threatened, the eventual collapse being portended by the miners’ worries for their livelihoods (for example, through modernisation, with the introduction of new technology which would displace their jobs). Morrison and Jóhannsson pick over the rubble and find the same remains, that same humanity, those same hopes and fears, and that unbreakable sense of solidarity.

So, fifty years later, the colliery lifts groan back into action, dropping us back down to the pit bottom. The descent is marked not only by an increasingly menacing atmosphere as the noise from the coalface gets louder (you can almost taste the coal dust flaking from the walls), but by a correspondingly deep and descending musical sequence. It is a lamento figure, stretched out over a long period of time, a sobbing, shuddering expression of grief for those who fell over the years, and all that has been lost since. When the descending motif recurs later in the first half, this time on solo trumpet, it feels in fact almost like a last post. Yet The Miners’ Hymns is not a wake for the working class, more a celebration of it, and the brief crescendo on “There Is No Safe Side But The Side Of Truth” where the trumpet escapes to spiral up to the surface, gives hope where there was previously just darkness. This prefigures a closing track in which, over an insistent percussion, the massed brass all come together, marching in step, and singing with one voice. Even without the accompanying images, you’d have to have a heart made of the hardest, blackest coal not to be moved by this.

That last piece is called “The Cause Of Labour Is The Hope Of The World”, and it is worth noting that the release of The Miners’ Hymns comes soon after a huge display of trade union protest in the UK, at a time when once more the working classes feel under attack from an unforgivingly right wing government. The poorest parts of the country, such as the former mining communities of the North East, are suffering disproportionately from the deep ideologically-driven cuts that are being imposed. Yet, despite everything, the character of those communities will not die. That mining spirit is still here. Still here.

The Miners’ Hymns is released on CD and LP by Fat Cat on 23rd May. Bill Morrison’s film is released on DVD by BFI on 20th June.

One thought on “Jóhann Jóhannsson – The Miners’ Hymns

  1. I’m from the Pelton Fell area, and I was brought up when the pits were still running, and I remember the strikes well.

    The mines were slavery. Children worked in darkness for twelve hours a day, and old men died when their lungs gave out to the emphysema. “The Cause Of Labour Is The Hope Of The World” is typical Victorian moralising – what if you had no choice?

    The strikes were not a battle against oppression, they were the political games of greedy, lazy men, played with the lives of the poor. The modern view of the period is a sanitised, chocolate-box image – a way of convincing ourselves that there was some sort of nobility in it somewhere. The ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ of British Socialism.

    The music of the bands is the gospel of the north – an expression of beauty from people who were treated as worthless, and that’s how it should be remembered.

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