Anthracite Tales, Part 2

CpM alto Sophie Crafts is on her way to visit the anthracite region in Pennsylvania. Read along as she shares her Anthracite Tales.

On Friday, I will be as close as I can get to the anthracite fields of Pennsylvania. Ever since Chorus pro Musica began rehearsing Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields, I have been extraordinarily taken with the piece. I love how evocative and spooky it is and how each movement is a distinct and crucial part of the story. Its repetitive rhythms, often with crunchy, “ugly” harmonies, perfectly capture the unpleasant grind of working in the mines. It’s this precise, sometimes chaotic quality that makes the “beautiful” passages exceptionally powerful.

The focus required to learn the piece paired with an intensive foray into this specific history made me want to bring the music to life by visiting coal country in Pennsylvania over February break. After spending some time in the energy-guzzling city of Philadelphia, I will drive north to the Eckley Miners’ Village, Anthracite Heritage Center, and Steamtown Railway Museum, notebook and camera in hand.

There are several key takeaways I hope to get out of these visits. My first introduction to the piece, at our first rehearsal in January, was movement two, “The Breaker Boys.” Since we started here, I have grown quite attached to Mickey, the little boy who went missing from his job as a breaker boy. Therefore, I am hoping to see a real or replicated breaker, to get even a glimpse at the life and death he and many others experienced in those unimaginable working conditions.

Another “character” who is special to me is Lino Tarilla. After an intense and foreboding build-up about the heat and time required to form coal in movement one, “The Foundation,” the chorus sings the names of the recent, non-Anglo immigrants to the region who lost their lives in the mines. This sweet, sweet passage comes to its climax, with every singer singing beautiful four-part harmony, the whole ensemble singing together for the first time. We sing the name Lino Tarilla, followed closely by his musical/lyrical/alphabetical neighbor Premo Tonetti. This two-minute section is heart-wrenching in a totally new way, and the placement of Lino’s name gives him a special place in my heart. I am hoping to see any photos or plaques with some of these names, also including alto favorites Ignatz Stancheski, Olif Sweedbury, Lathrie Symmons, and Julius Tamanini among many more.

At the railway museum, I hope to simply see frequent mentions of the coal required to power trains and more clean, pure anthracite marketing campaigns. I also hope to check their database for mentions of my great and great-great-grandfathers and uncles who worked as engineers, machinists, apprentices, decorative painters, and messenger boys on the Lackawanna Railroad in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. In the immediate aftermath of my grandmother’s death, this anthracite pilgrimage has taken on an intertwined family roots mission as well.

Overall, I am hoping to get a feel for the area. Although the region and its labor practices have changed, this history sculpted these towns and their residents. The visiting mines are closed for the winter so I cannot literally descend into them, but I’m sure the region’s monuments, scenery, and current, modern coal mining practices will evoke an emotional, familiar reaction. At the very least, when I sing about poor Mickey, Lino, and Phoebe Snow at the March 14 concert, I will be able to conjure up images of the forget-me-not filled fields (well, imagined since it’s February) of northeastern Pennsylvania.