I wrote an article with my friend and co-worker Tom last week about a proposed increase in coal trains coming through the city. One of the companies involved was Peabody Coal. We even interviewed a representative from the company. About halfway through the article, I realized why that name nagged at me. I was up there in the newspaper office quietly singing the song to myself that is as familiar to me as the faces of my parents.
“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.
Well sometimes we’d travel, right down the Green River
To the abandoned old prison down by Adrie Hill
Where the air smelled like snakes and we’d shoot with our pistols
But empty pop bottles was all we would kill.
Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.
When I die, let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am.”
Growing up, Friday nights were punctuated with music. My dad was in a motley crew of musicians who played bluegrass music late into the night. The artist John Prine is a favorite of my dad’s, and his songs remind me of whirling around to the rhythm of guitar, banjo and mandolin. The song above is called ‘Paradise’ and it is about the destruction of Prine’s ancestral home when the coal companies took over. I’ve been able to recite these lyrics for as long as I can remember; Mr. Peabody, to me, was a great big man in overalls with a black handlebar mustache and angry, beady eyes wielding a giant shovel. I couldn’t, and still can’t, comprehend why someone would destroy a place as beautiful as Muhlenburg County.
Now I have to reconcile this ingrained image with a less romantic and more modern version of Peabody. We corresponded with a female representative by the name of Beth. Beth grew very angry with us after the publication of our story because we called the coal that they mine in the Powder Basin ‘dirty’. After making this connection between the streamlined Peabody company of 2012 and the 20th century mustachioed foe that plundered the Kentucky wilderness, I’m glad we gave them a much-needed kick the ass.