In episode 8 of Dolly Parton’s America, a podcast that takes its name from a history class taught at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, the program makers visit the class filled with students who grew up in rural Appalachia. Many of these students are the first in their family to attend college and some recall learning to read from books provided by Dolly Parton’s Imagination library that has given away more than 100 million books to improve literacy. The class examines the archetypes and prejudices held against southern folk. Those “Hillbillies” whose hills are removed by coal mining companies and sold to the benefit the economic powerhouse in the North. The “Rednecks” who wore red scarves to identify themselves as unionists and who were bombed by their own government* as they held strike in an attempt to organise labour in the coal mines. The “White trash” who are dehumanised in popular culture to justify further exploitation.
Extraction Capitalism drives empires by taking advantage of cheap resources and labour from remote locations and moving that wealth across the map. With little alternative employment for such people coal companies have provided subsistence wages for dangerous and deadly work, but they have been ruthless in the pursuit of profit and trashing the environment. Unlike Dolly.
Coal seams are geological remnants of past plant life that lie sandwiched between other inert layers of the earth’s crust. Coal burns because it represents stored solar energy trapped by biochemistry of lost worlds of extinct plants large and small. Taking that coal from the ground can occur in an open meadow where the coal happens to emerge or from the side of a hill where you can pick geological strata as if taking a book from a stack. Mining into the hillside might be easier, no pit is needed to descend and with a gentle incline into the mine coal ponies might be used to drag coal carts out. Such were the early days of coal mining in the hills of the south where the land had little value for large scale farming. Tunnels wormed almost invisibly underneath the wooded slopes still able to provide food and shelter for the people who were closely connected to the land. An almost idyllic rural existence, except that coal mining was low paid and dangerous work.
At the outset of the industrial revolution there were no barriers to employing children and no safety regulations, whole villages would work down in the mines, men women, boys and girls. Workers are essential to coal production; their blood sweat, and tears brings the coal to the surface. While miners are essential to the operation of extraction, they are also problematic. Miners protest against their working
conditions - deadly lung disease is an occupational hazard and gas explosions and tunnel collapses take a regular cull of miners’ lives. Miners also unionise, forming labour movements with real political clout both in collective bargaining but also as a voting bloc. In a democratic setting a large organised work force is an existential threat to the profit margin of a business built on extraction. At the same time, the democratic process can also be captured by business interests able to use profits to purchase political influence.
By the 1920s labour disputes in the Appalachian Mountains had led to the Coal Wars, the largest labour uprising in US history and the largest armed uprising since the civil war. Coal companies hired armed strike breakers and co-opted government support and the army to quell the strike with military force. Up to 100 people were killed and countless families of strikers were evicted from their homes and remaining miners would wait a decade to address working conditions in the mines.
As well as providing coal for the industrialisation of America the Appalachian Mountains provided Hillbilly music, the rootstock of the folk and country music that delivered the story tellers of American popular music. Dolly Parton is one such dream weaver with a literal rags to riches story, from a childhood wearing a home-made coat of many colours to running a corporation selling not only music but an aspirational dream that can be lived out in the Dollywood theme park. Her story of hope and forbearance appeals directly to the downtrodden and oppressed, Nelson Mandela was a big Dolly fan playing her records over the PA inside Robin Island prison. Dolly Parton is a major employer in her home town and a major philanthropic contributor across the country. Her business is her social capital built on her sense of identity which grows from her community and her connection to the land.
In the 1970s’s as Dolly was ascending the peak of her stardom a new method of coal mining in the hills of Appalachia was developed. Now the coal trapped in mountains could also be extracted by using explosives to obliterate the unprofitable “overburden”. As much as 120 metres of pristine mountain top would be removed and dumped in the adjacent valley. At the same time in the Great Smokey Mountains Dolly bought Locust Ridge where she had grown up. She preserved her log cabin home on one side of the mountain and on the other side of the mountain she built Dollywood a southern culture theme park. In a quiet corner of the park stands a replica cabin where fans can make that journey home to Dolly’s childhood. The cabin was featured on the cover of her album My Tennessee Mountain Home and in the song of the same name. The lyrics of that song are all about the quiet contemplation of nature
Honeysuckle vine clings to the fence along the lane Their fragrance makes the summer wind so sweet and on a distant hilltop, an eagle spreads it's wings An' a songbird on a fence post sings a melody
In my Tennessee mountain home Life is as peaceful as a baby's sigh in my Tennessee mountain home Crickets sing in the fields near by
Coal companies had also expanded operations out of the troublesome hills and started strip mining farmland where large machinery could replace the labour intensive work of tunnelling into hillsides. They argued that strip mining was safer than traditional bord and pillar mining and this justified the move onto arable land. Large machines could simply scoop coal straight out of the ground. Coal mining had become a challenge of mechanised logistics rather than a problem of organised labor. Fewer workers meant less labour problems. One man doing the work of many could also be paid a bonus, mining became relatively well paid work. This large scale extraction increased profitability but it also scaled up environmental destruction.
Peabody also have a musical story to tell about a sense of place, but rather than preservation the theme is now one of destruction. In 2015 Peabody contested the inclusion of lyrics in court proceeding bought against the company for environmental damage. The song titled Paradise was written by John Prine and describes the removal of the town of Paradise by the Peabody coal company:
When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there's a backwards old town that's often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn
"And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the green river where paradise lay?"
"Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away"
The legal argument was that the song was inaccurate, the town was not “hauled away” in a coal train. In fact, the town stood too close to the power station that consumed the coal dragged from the farmland that once surrounded the town. Paradise was made uninhabitable by the fly-ash raining down from the coal furnace. The cheapest solution to the public health concern was for Peabody to simply buy up all the properties in town and have them bulldozed, leaving not a trace of Paradise.
Peabody lost that legal argument and the song subsequently grew more in stature.
The development of strip mining in Kentucky by Peabody meant building bigger machines; huge bulldozers, mega-trucks and the world’s largest shovel known as the “Big Hog” were used to handle ever-increasing volumes of coal. Big Hog could chew up an entire football field in a single scoop of 88 cubic metres. At the end of its service life in the 1980s Big Hog dug a massive hole that it was able to haul itself into to be buried in a grave of its own making. Innovative methods of increasing extraction while decreasing labour costs and other outputs like tax liabilities and bonds for environmental rehabilitation became key business strategy. One way to shift all these constraints on profit was to take the business elsewhere in the world were regulations were less onerous
In 1962 Peabody looking for greener pastures expanded operations with an open-cut coal mine in Queensland. Coal from Australia would be sold to the expanding steel industry in Japan. The Australian operations proved profitable. In 1993, Peabody Energy expanded their holdings with the acquisition of three more mines and a fourth operation in New South Wales. Today Australia remains an ideal extraction operation for the Peabody group of companies now the largest coal mining outfit in the world. While profits declined from the US sector the access to Asian market using Australian coal was lucrative. Peabody pay a royalty to state government for removing the coal but the bulk profits remain untaxed and wealth flows back to US shareholders.
In Australia Peabody developed yet another mechanised technique that would reduce labour costs. Longwall mining meant that deep coal seams could be extracted without the need for engineering an elaborate network of tunnels. Rather than keeping the mine open by leaving behind suﬃcient pillar support to avoid collapse, the mine is now deliberately collapsed as mining proceeds. By collapsing the mine a greater volume of coal can be removed, but the vast scale of the extraction creates massive damage to the landscape above as the entire coalfield subsides into a rumpled quilt of deformed rock. Creeks no longer follow water courses smoothed over millions of years, the water will now disappear into cracks in the ground and re-emerge elsewhere laden with the metals and trace elements exposed by the broken rock. Ancient aquifers are cracked and the water table falls away drying out the ecology above. Land that was once pristine is now irreversibly damaged.
Longwall mining continues to take place underneath the protected water catchment of Sydney, despite the objections of water authorities. The workforce required to do the work has dwindled to less than 200, jobs are no longer in mining but in an allied steel making operation that is also in decline.
Coal mining in the US became less profitable as manufacturing declined and environmental regulations tightened. Thermal coal used to generate power was under pressure for aﬀecting air quality as well as contributing CO2 emissions. Until 2015, Peabody had claimed that global warming isn't a threat and emitting carbon dioxide is beneficial to agricultural production. The company funded at least two dozen climate change denial organizations and front groups as well as supporting scientists famous for their contrarian opinions.
In 2015 Peabody declared bankruptcy in the US allowing themselves a business reset. Liabilities held by the company for the remediation of mined areas could now be renegotiated and the need to account for emissions sidestepped. The Australian arm of Peabody was unaﬀected. Although mining under the Sydney water catchment breaches legislative protections a local public backlash has not been suﬃcient to warrant a shift in the political permission granted to continue extraction. The destruction of the Juukan Gorge by the Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto may have provided a jolt to the political class as Australia wears the international scorn for allowing the destruction of invaluable indigenous cultural heritage.
Climate change, the desiccation of river systems, the wildfires and the extinction of koalas are other issues that have captured public concern, but a major shift in the social licence given to extraction industries is yet to reach the policy platform of the major parties.
During the Covid pandemic the transition away from fossil fuel extraction has been ruled out and policy on economic development has been surrendered to gas company executives.
Following the Unite the Right white supremacist and neo-Nazi rally that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, Dolly Parton had pause to rethink. Parton had always been inclusive; by being scrupulously apolitical she had brought all political persuasions to her broad church. But allowing some stories to flourish was causing pain by denying other stories.
The history of slavery was being re-examined with the Black Lives Matter movement and Parton had been guilty of unwittingly romanticising slavery. Parton had sanitised the symbols of white supremacy, much as plantation life had been sugar-coated in the film Gone with the Wind.
In an attempt to cater to southern pride, Parton had built a business named the Dixie Stampede, a family event held in an indoor arena built to resemble a southern plantation mansion. Based on a feast of southern cooking the stampede divided the room into two sides, North and South and re-enacted the civil war with the assistance of performing pigs, horses and an MC goading the sides into action. Much eating, hollering and general lemonade fuelled fun brings on the cathartic conclusion that north or south, black, or white, win or lose we are all part of the same family. It was an attempt to bring people together, except it was not working. Black history had been minimised. Slavery was the foundation of capitalism in the US and the civil war was not a battle of moral equivalence. The war fought over the right for landholders to keep slaves is not yet water under the bridge.
Now the Dixie Stampede has been rebranded, the word Dixie representing southern pride in the confederate cause has been dropped. The traditional battle colours of the south dressed in grey and the north in blue have changed. There is a new framing of opposites seeking to be unified; red and green, the colours of Christmas. The two sides are now the north and south poles with Arctic and Antarctic ice floating in the same global lemonade.
Dolly is hoping to expand internationally and encourage good-hearted feasting, fighting and making-up between red and green sides of the world.