Evening Breezes Sextet
The Evening Breezes Sextet was an ensemble of Black harmony singers based in and around the Vivian coal camp in McDowell County in the 1930s and 1940s. In their repertoire was an almost dirge-like song concerning the Bartley mine disaster that killed nine-one men twenty-five miles from Vivian, just five months before the folklorist George Korson recorded them in Welch, West Virginia. In their song they don’t narrate the story of the explosion itself, but intone these lines in tribute to their fallen fellow miners: “We’re going to see our friends again/Alleluia oh my Lord;” they told Korson they sang this at a memorial service for the miners lost in the explosion. Like so many other Black West Virginia miner quartets, they employed the contemporary jubilee style of sacred singing, and in other songs they sang of the mechanization of the mines that was depriving them of their livelihood, and they celebrated the unionization that was helping them to better their lives.
In May 1940, The Evening Breezes sang not only The Bartley
Mine Disaster but also The Coal Miners Versus the Machine Loaders, and The
Battle of the CIO.
The Coal Miners Versus the Machine Loaders is described in
this way in the liner notes to the Coal Digging Blues album:
“Although the mechanization of coal mining in America had
begun in the late nineteenth century, it was not until the late 1930s that the
use of labor-saving machinery, such as the Joy Company’s line of coal loaders,
began to put a significant number of West Virginia miners out of work. African Americans in particular took an
especially hard hit as they were concentrated in the more labor-intensive
coal-loading positions due to a variety of reasons, including racism.”
And in that album, the Battle of the CIO is contextualized
in this way:
“In the early 1930s, the then beleaguered UMWA was
challenged by the Progressive Miners of America (PMA), an organization that
comes in for criticism here. However, by
the time of this recording, the CIO and the UMWA, both led by John L. Lewis,
had prevailed over such opposition to become the vanguard of America’s
burgeoning labor movement. Consequently,
they receive generous praise here.”
The six men in the Evening Breezes Sextet were:
Leonard Holland Jr. 1st
James Wormley 2nd tenor
William Bigelow 2nd tenor
Roscoe Harris 1st bass
Emanuel Young 2nd bass
Leonard Holland Sr., 1st and 2nd bass
They were all members of the Lovers of Zion Baptist Church
in Vivian, at which Leonard Holland Sr. was the chorister, the leader of
singing for the congregation. Given that
many coalfields churches also served as
union halls, it is perhaps not surprising that harmony quartets sprang up from
among church congregations.
Leonard Holland Sr. was born 6 August 1892 in Bedford City,
Virginia, of parents who had been born in North Carolina. By the time he was twenty-five years old he had
been educated through the eighth grade and was working as a miner in McDowell
County. He seems to have lived and worked at Vivian for at least thirty-five
years and during that time, in addition to being the chorister at the Lovers of
Zion Baptist Church he was also a member of the Second Baptist Church and Gospel Choir, and director of the
Male Chorus. Late in his life he moved to
Columbus, Ohio, where he died in 1957; he’s buried in the Evergreen Cemetery there.
Mr. Holland’s son Leonard Holland Jr. also moved to Columbus
and there he became active in the NAACP and attended their state-wide meetings.
James Wormley was born in 1915 in Berwind in McDowell
County, West Virginia, and by the time he was fifteen years old he was living
with his grandparents in Vivian, where his grandfather, Matthew Mitchell,
worked as a coal driver in the mines. On his WWII draft card he indicated that
he was at that time working in Vivian for the Peerless Coal & Coke Company.
Later on he served as the pastor of Mt. Nebo Church in Kimball, McDowell
County. Mr. Wormley died in 1994 at the
age of seventy-nine, and is buried at Restlawn Memorial Garden in Bluefield,
On his WWII draft card, William Crockett Bigelow indicated
that he was born in Vivian, where his father was a coal miner, on 6 April 1920. He too was working there as a coal loader by
the 1940s, for the Peerless Coal & Coke Company. During the war he served
as a private in the US Army and when he died in 1996 in Queens, New York, as a veteran
he was buried in the Calverton National Cemetery, Section 17 Site 1118, in
Calverton, New York.
Roscoe Harris was born about 1916 in Vivian where his father,
Joe Harris, had been working as a miner at least since 1910. In 1959 Mr. Harris moved to Michigan with his
wife Eleanor Browning Harris and died in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1983.
Emanuel Young was born in 1917 in Vivian and lived in the
Vivian/Kimball area for most of his life, working for more than thirty years as
a coal miner at the Peerless
Coal & Coke Company.
He served as deacon and treasurer of the Lovely Zion Missionary Baptist Church. In 2003 he moved to Chesapeake, Virginia and died there in 2005 at the age of eighty-nine.
—Gloria Goodwin Raheja, February 2021.
of Gloria Goodwin Raheja, for her forthcoming book Logan County Blues: Frank
Hutchison in the Sonic Landscape of the Appalachian Coalfields.