-Photograph by Emily Hilliard, October, 2016. Used with permission.
Elaine Purkey was a singer/songwriter, community organizer, host and creative director of The Wallace Horn Friendly Neighbor Show.
Elaine resided with her husband, Bethel, a retired coal miner and United Mine Workers (UMWA) organizer, on the banks of the Guyandotte River in Lincoln County, West Virginia. I have been given the signal honor of sharing a few remembrances of Elaine. I first met Elaine about twenty years ago when I was a member of the Mountain Stage production crew. Elaine, along with Hazel Dickens and Ginny Hawker, performed a set of great Appalachian ballads. It was an amazing performance. When you have the “high lonesome” times three, you can hear the mountain wind in their harmonies.
Hazel Dickens once commented to Elaine “You sing like I do, you just rar’ back and let ‘er fly!” And it was true, Elaine knew how to hit the high notes just right to make the holler ring; she had learned it standing on a big rock in the front yard singing for her grandpa. When I began working with Elaine on the Wallace Horn Friendly Neighbor Show, her big voice could be challenging to capture without overload. Elaine Purkey had one speed, and that was GO—fast and loud. Whatever she did, she did with heart and soul, using her persuasion and, yes, her iron will, to encourage others to meet their challenges.
Elaine spent many hours with her grandpa and grandma Shelton, learning the mountain ballads and Gospel standards that made up the fabric of her family’s musical heritage. Grandpa Shelton’s home sat above the Guyandotte River on Riverbend Road near Ranger, West Virginia, many years later Elaine and her husband Bethel would move into the old home place. A few years after I first met Elaine, I had an opportunity to work with her again when I collaborated with Jen Osha to produce the first Moving Mountains CD. The CD compiled original songs and interviews about the impact of mountaintop removal on the land and the people of the southern mountains. I handled the mixing and mastering of the CD while Jen enlisted musicians and activists. Elaine graciously contributed a haunt - ing a cappella performance in tribute to Larry Gibson of Kayford Mountain, founder of the activist group Keepers of the Mountains. That CD was far from the first time that Elaine contributed her songwriting and musical talents to the struggles of working folks.
Elaine first joined her husband Bethel on the picket line during the Pittston Coal strike in 1990, bringing her full throttle personality to bear on saving health care benefits for thousands of retirees, widows, and disabled coal miners. Elaine helped lead the women of the coalfields par ticipation in the labor action, a strategy that helped bring pressure to bear on the company. And Elaine didn’t reserve her talents and abilities for just the coal miners, her most famous song arose out of her participation with the United Steelworkers strike in Ravenswood, WV in 1990. “One Day More,’” is a labor anthem that booms with Elaine’s holler-bustin’ voice, instilling pride and endurance into the hearts of the workers with all the grit and confidence of Mother Jones.
Elaine‘s time on the picket-line taught her the lessons of endurance and fortitude that she shared in the words of her song: Fight one day more, one day more, If the company holds out 20 years, we’ll hold out one day more Smithsonian Folkways later included “One Day More,” on their Classic Labor Songs Collection. For several years, Elaine had been a featured performer on the Friendly Neighbor Show, a community radio show from Chapmanville, WV founded by Wallace Horn in 1967.
Wallace was quite the figure in Chapmanville. I first met him in 1985 when I helped him install a Pioneer professional reel-to-reel tape deck to record the show in his TV shop on Friendly Neighbor Drive. After Wallace passed about ten years ago, Elaine took the helm of the show and I joined to help with production. We feature local and regional musicians from six to ninety years young, with a volunteer crew, to produce a one-hour live music radio show that airs on WVOW-AM/FM in Logan County every Saturday morning, “Regular as clockwork!” as Wallace would say. We often take the radio show production to many different venues. Sometimes it can be challenging setting up a digital recording studio in many different locations, but we enjoy bringing the show to our listeners’ communities. During load-in at the various venues, Elaine would arrive with her music stand and guitar case, sometimes a little later than scheduled. She would set down her guitar, take her stand, and set it in the middle of the stage area, staking out her real estate. And that really was Elaine, she would take her stand and stake out her real estate in any struggle she found herself in, never yielding, and always with her eyes on the prize.
One of Elaine’s proudest moments came when the show participated as part of the Grand Opening of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum in 2015. Elaine has been a featured performer at the United Mine Worker’s Labor Day celebration in Racine, WV for decades. In addition to Elaine‘s connection with the UMWA, many of the Friendly Neighbor Show’s singers and musicians are union miners, including Gil Conley and Curtis Adams, so performing at the museum was a special time for everyone on the show. Early that morning we set up in the Museum, located in the old Chambers Hardware building, still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Matewan Massacre in 1920.
In order to honor the vintage vibe of the Museum, I wanted to employ period recording equipment to capture an authentic tone. We set up an RCA 77DX ‘velocity’ microphone from the 50s, an Electro-Voice 726 from the ‘40s and for Elaine, an RCA 44BX from the ‘30s, known as the ‘Elvis microphone’. These vintage ‘ribbon’ mics do the best job of capturing that big vocal sound that Elaine was known for, Kate Smith used the identical microphone for her landmark recording of ‘God Bless America’ in 1943. Elaine’s beautiful rendition of ‘Fire in the Hole’ on the vintage RCA capped off her performance at the Museum, bringing her lonesome mountain sound echoing into downtown Matewan. And the UMWA featured that very recording of Elaine at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum when Cecil Roberts dedicated their (virtual) 82nd annual Labor Day celebration to Elaine Purkey. But Elaine wasn’t just about organizing and advocacy, she also cared deeply about preserving traditional music and educating a new generation about their culture and traditions. She taught music classes at the Big Ugly Community Center and provided after school music programs for kids throughout the coalfields.
I worked with her at some of these projects to record the songs so the children would have a permanent record of their experiences. It was a precious time to watch Elaine take these kids, preschool to preteen, and in a few short weeks meld them into a singing group belting out all the songs we remember from childhood. Elaine knew that she was a very important link in the chain that connects folks with their past and she felt a deep responsibility to do her part to carry on the musical traditions of the mountains. But Elaine’s music classes were canceled and we put our radio show recording sessions on hold, because COVID-19 had started marching into the hills and hollers of Appalachia, taking mostly the elders of the community and their knowledge and experiences with them. And one of those elders was Mrs. Ethel Elaine Purkey.
On a warm afternoon this past September, Elaine‘s brother Randall and second generation Friendly Neighbor Band member Bill Hunter led us as we ‘sang Elaine home’ on the banks of the Guyandotte near her home in Lincoln County, West Virginia. Elaine often sang an old Jim Anglin tune from the ‘40s that resonated with her years on Riverbend Road, I think it’s appropriate that we share the chorus in remembrance of her life. As Elaine would say, “Children, lift your voices and sing!” Down where the river bends With God’s help, we’ll meet again Under the same old sycamore tree Proud of each other in the land of the free.
Elaine passed from complications due to COVID-19 on September 2, 2020.
-written by Jeff Bosley, January 2021, used with his permission