Mack Jenks, Union Bard

By: J. Roderick Moore


The marching miners lost the Battle of Blair Mountain, but within a few years they had won the war. With Franklin Roosevelt's election as president of the United States and the subsequent reform of national labor law, organizers swept across the West Virginia coalfields, swiftly bringing all of the state into the union. Today the long struggle lives only in the memories of the aging men and women who participated and in the stories they have handed down.
Some of the best, most durable stories come to us in the form of songs. Two of the most prolific song-writers from the late organizing period were Orville and Mack Jenks of McDowell County. J. Roderick Moore's 1977 interview with Mack explores this period and the relationship of the songwriting brothers.
Although I spent most of my life in Welch, West Virginia, it wasn't until 1971 that I was introduced to the music of West Virginia coal miners. Like many other residents of McDowell County, I was more familiar with polkas, pop songs, and country sound that saturated the radio waves than I was with our traditional music. It was at the Middle Atlantic Conference on Folk Culture in Pittsburgh in 1971 when I first met Dr. Archie Green, author of the book, Only a Miner. When he learned I had spent some time working in the mines and had been a UMWA member, he automatically asked if 1 was familiar with Orville Jenks. I had to admit that while I recorded some black music in West Virginia, I had done no work with mining songs.
Somewhat chagrined, I began to make in-qniries about the Jenks family and posted a notice in the Welch newspaper that I was looking for information about Orville Jcnks. Almost immediately I heard from Orville's daughter Ruby and his brother Mack who invited us to come out and talk about Orville. In his book on mining music, Minstrels of the Mine Patch, George Korson had mentioned Orville but not his brother Mack. It was with some surprise that I learned that Mack was also a singer and songwriter. On December 30, 1971, in a two-hour interview, Mack reminisced freely about the early days of union organization in Twin Branch, Big Sandy, and the region I had known all my life.
While Mack has been unknown to folk-lorists, his brother Orville was a nationally recognized singer and writer of coal mining songs. These songs were a social history and commentary on unionization and the daily life of coal miners. During the interview, Mack produced some new material-songs, stories, and observations-previously unrecorded, on the development of UMWA strength in McDowell County as seen through the eyes of a union organizer.
As I prepared this interview for publication, I did not know that Mack Jenks died late in December of 1974. His brother Orville, also known as Jake, had died in New Mexico in the early 1960's.
J. Roderick Moore: I was talking to Orville's wife in Welch. She's just going back to Ohio. She said you used to sing with Orville at the union meetings and things.
Mack Jenkins: Yeah. Yeah, we made up any number of songs. Some of it we made together, and some of it he made a song and I made a song. And now, I have about maybe eight or nine that, well, there was one or two that he helped in and some he didn't. I don't know whether he put it on himself or whether he had some recording artist to put it on, but he put on record the song about the little lump of coal.
RM: Yes.
MJ: And it's in Washington in the Library, at Washington, D.C., and it costs you $4.75 to get a record of it. I talked to his wife and she said, "I know that's your song and Jake didn't have nothing to do with it." See, it was my own composition. But he recorded it, or had it recorded. I don't know which, and had it put on record.
RM: Well, when did you start singing together?
MJ: Oh, all our lives. Me and him, we've sung together in churches. We'd sing together. He accompanied us with the guitar.
When we was young, right up here at Big Sandy and right here in this camp, too, he used to operate the harps all the time. I'd keep as many as four or five harps-different keys. And we would play for dances up here at Big Sandy. On Friday night they would Let us have the theater after the show, and we'd just move the seats back and get all the room we wanted. Sometimes I've seen as many as 20 and 24 couples on the floor, square dancing. And, me and him, and one of my brother-in-laws and a boy by the name of Frost, one of the Frost boys out of Henson Hollow, we played music all the time for 'em to square dance. We'd start square dancing right after the show and be right there when broad daylight come the next morning.


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Permission given by J. Roderick Moore. Article published in The Goldenseal Book of the West Virginia Mine Wars

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