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Blackleg Miner is a 19th-century English folk song, originally from Northumberland (as can be deduced from the dialect in the song and the references in it to the villages of Seghill and Seaton Delaval). Its Roud number is 3193.
The song is believed to originate from the miners' lockout of 1844. Although this was a national lock-out, the language of the song suggests that it refers to the dispute in the north-east coalfield, which lasted roughly 20 weeks. The lockout largely collapsed as a result of "blackleg" labour.
The village of Seghill, mentioned in the song, was the site of a mass eviction of striking miners during the 1844 lockout. Thomas Burt wrote of the situation:
- the very magnitude of the evictions, extending over nearly the whole of the mining districts of Northumberland and Durham, made it impossible to find house accommodation for a twentieth part of the evicted. Scores of the Seghill families camped out by the roadside between that village and the Avenue Head.
The lyrics, which are traditional, depict the determined, uncompromising stance against strikebreakers adopted by unionized strikers. The term blackleg for a strikebreaker has its origins in coal mining, as strikebreakers would often neglect to wash their legs, which would give away that they had been working whilst others had been on strike. The coal-mining sector in the UK was always heavily unionised and mining strikes such as in 1926, 1974 and 1984-5 have had big impacts on British society. The strikes caused bitterness both within and between pit communities, but also gave rise to expressions of solidarity such as sympathy strikes, material assistance such as food, and a feeling of belonging to a proud and powerful community of workers.
For a period in the 1960s and 1970s, the song's uncompromising lyrics were appreciated for their directness and militancy by many young people radicalized by the student rebellions of 1968, and the song was often sung at folk music societies. In particular, a 1970 recording by Steeleye Span became very popular.
Use in '84-5 strike
The song gained another revival during the hard-fought strike of the 1980s, and the Steeleye Span recording was often played to intimidate working miners. Some of the violent clashes during the 1980s strike (most notably the attacks on Michael Fletcher and David Wilkie) caused many to feel uncomfortable with suggestions of violence against strikebreakers. Thereafter, playing the song became a political statement in support of the strike and some folk clubs avoided the song due to its description of violence used by others than the army and the police. This was counterbalanced by an increase in bands that played the song.
Scottish folk musician Dick Gaughan wrote of the change in attitude to the song after the strike of 1984-5:
- ...many folksong-loving conservatives who the previous year would have quite cheerfully sung that quaint old ditty, Blackleg Miner, were suddenly forced to confront the unpalatable fact that what they had always regarded as a harmless little song about some far-off past events was in reality a venomous attack on scab labour and that it was now impossible to sing it without that being interpreted as a thunderous declaration of support for the NUM.
Other artists to have played this song include Steeleye Span, the Ian Campbell Folk Group, the High Level Ranters, Highland Reign, the Houghton Weavers, Broom Bezzums, Ryan's Fancy, the New Minstrel Revue, Blue Horses, New Celeste, FinTan, Duo Noir, Cameron Muir, Smoky Finish and Clatterbone, Len Wallace, John Maggs, Seven Nations, Sol Invictus, Louis Killen, the Angelic Upstarts as well as Richard Thompson, Ewan MacColl, Dick Gaughan, Aengus Finnan, Jon Boden, Maddy Prior, Andy Wainwright, John Hewitt, The Inchtabokatables, Banjax, Eric Fish, The Dixie Bee-Liners, Settlers Match and David Wrench with Black Sheep.
It's in the evening after dark,
When the blackleg miner creeps to work,
With his moleskin pants and dirty shirt,
There goes the blackleg miner!
Well he takes his tools and doon he goes
To hew the coal that lies below,
There's not a woman in this town-row
Will look at the blackleg miner.
Oh, Delaval is a terrible place.
They rub wet clay in the blackleg's face,
And around the heaps they run a foot race,
To catch the blackleg miner!
So, dinna gan near the Seghill mine.
Across the way they stretch a line,
To catch the throat and break the spine
Of the dirty blackleg miner.
They grab his duds and his pick as well,
And they hoy them down the pit of hell.
Doon ye go, and fare ye well,
You dirty blackleg miner!
So join the union while you may.
Don't wait till your dying day,
For that may not be far away,
You dirty blackleg miner!
- Amos, David (December 2011). "THE NOTTINGHAMSHIRE MINERS', THE UNION OF DEMOCRATIC MINEWORKERS AND THE 1984-85 MINERS STRIKE: SCABS OR SCAPEGOATS?" (PDF). University of Nottingham. p. 289. Retrieved 19 July 2015.
The song, Blackleg Miner, is thought to originate from the 1844 Miners' Lockout in the North East Coalfield. The Miners' Association of Great Britain and Ireland (MAGBI), founded in 1841 by Martin Jude, was in dispute over the yearly bonding systems. The union was demanding fortnightly contracts. The lockout in the North East lasted twenty weeks and collapsed largely as a result of the introduction of 'blackleg labour'.
- Thomas Burt, An Autobiography (1924), pages 36-37 in Douglass, David John (2005). Strike, not the end of the story. Overton, Yorkshire, UK: National Coal Mining Museum for England. p. 2.
- Douglass, David John (2005). Strike, not the end of the story. Overton, Yorkshire, UK: National Coal Mining Museum for England. p. 2.
- Amos, David (December 2011). "THE NOTTINGHAMSHIRE MINERS', THE UNION OF DEMOCRATIC MINEWORKERS AND THE 1984-85 MINERS STRIKE: SCABS OR SCAPEGOATS?" (PDF). University of Nottingham. p. 291. Retrieved 19 July 2015.
The song 'Blackleg Miner' was revamped by the folk-rock group Steeleye Span in 1970, and became part of their repertoire in live performances during the 1970s and 1980s. During the 1984-85 miners' strike the song was used by striking miners in some coalfields to intimidate those who continued to work. The song became a political statement for supporters of the strike.
- Historical footnote to the album True and Bold: songs of the Scottish miners, Dick Gaughan
- "David Wrench/Black Sheep — Spades & Hoes & Plows". Headheritage.co.uk. Retrieved 2011-09-02.