Sounds of the Undergound: The Miners' Hymn

By Sophie Mayer

Bill Morrison’s latest film, The Miners’ Hymn, acts as a reminder of the inextricable entwining of mining and music. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score was written for live performance with the projection of the film (cued to the music in a live video mix by Morrison) in Durham Cathedral in July 2010, as part of the BRASS Durham International Festival, and brass is its medium and message. Musicians were drawn from the local NASUWT Riverside Band, drawing on the two-century long association of brass bands and union activism in the coalfields of the north-east.

But The Miners’ Hymn is no Brassed Off, although it manages a triumphant (some critics have said triumphalist) return to Durham Cathedral and the days of mining community through its use of archival footage from several years of the Durham Miners’ Gala or ‘Big Meeting,’ whose origins David Metcalfe discusses in the booklet that accompanies the BFI’s DVD release of the film (which includes footage of the live projection/performance as an extra). It does not just make reference to the relationship of brass and banner and pit pony and pick, but explores the reflection between the repeated motifs of musical composition and the construction of social history. Morrison is known for his use of archival footage, and best-known for Decasia (2002), which can be watched online here in versions of relative decay. Morrison edited together found footage from decayed celluloid reels, with a soundtrack by Michael Gordon featuring a detuned piano and an orchestra playing out of phase with itself (although for me, associatively, the film is soundtracked by William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops).

The Miners’ Hymn works inversely to Decasia: the archival footage drawn from the BFI National Archive, Amber Film and Photography Collective, the BBC, and the Northern Region Film and Television Archive is not pristine, but is well-preserved, while the way of life it documents is almost lost. The grain and contrast of the various stocks and sources echoes the grain of everyday life that the film locates in the mining community, from the era of ponies and traps to the Battle of Orgreave. The most extraordinary sequences, to my eye, were those shot underground documenting working life in the mines; drawing on minimal, but blinding, light sources, the film’s inky blacks and brilliant whites are reminiscent of film noir, and the tight spaces create opportunities for dramatically Expressionist angles on men and machines, suggestive of an underground Metropolis. Gottfried Huppertz’ original score was re-recorded for the 2010 release of the reconstructed version of Lang’s 1927 film; influenced by Richard Wagner, the orchestral score uses leitmotifs to suggest the repeated and interconnected events of the film.

Jóhannsson’s score is similarly concerned with repetition, although less with the tragic mark of the leitmotif. he Miners’ Hymns does not have characters as such, even the types used by Lang in Metropolis. Rather, locations such as the Cathedral, the seashore and, most poignantly, the acid-green fields that have superseded the mines, become characters associated with particular melodic lines and fanfares, suggesting the way in which the landscape and its geology have shaped the social and political history of the north-east. Jóhannsson is an apposite composer, and his music resonates, for me, with the knowledge that Iceland is currently undergoing an inverse but related process of change, with rapid industrialisation over the twentieth-century having displaced rural, shoreline subsistence living with a globalised technocratic role that includes large-scale mining and smelting. County Durham’s past is, in Jóhannsson’s juxtaposition of the local brass and his use of electronic drone, Iceland’s future. Symphonic rather than entropic, the film works, without nostalgia, towards re-integration, returning folk history (in the sense of the people and the music) to our national discourse. And the DVD is in fact part of a 2011 release slate of films about folk from the BFI, including Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow (including a short film by Alan Lomax), and Molly Dineen’s documentaries of Britain’s vanishing agricultural life. 

The Miners' Hymn

But music’s integrative ability has a particular place in the mines and mining films: both Barbara Kopple’s documentary Harlan County, USA (1976) and John Sayles’ feature film Matewan (1987) put music front and centre of their stories of miners’ strikes and unionisation in West Virginia. Here, again, history repeats itself: Matewan concerns events in 1920, while Kopple spent two years living with miners and their families, documenting their strike fifty years on. The films are, in a sense, bridged by Florence Reece’s ‘Which Side Are You On?’, written in 1931 for one of the strikes that resulted from the Matewan Massacre, and performed by an elderly Reece in an electrifying sequence in Kopple’s film. Not only does the moment place women – who were deeply involved in picketing and holding together the community – at the epicentre of the strike, but also the human voice. Bluegrass singer (and daughter of a mining family) Hazel Dickens, who died in April this year, appears on the soundtrack of both films, and sings onscreen in Matewan.

Continuity and rhythm are set against melancholy keening in her voice, and Jóhannsson’s score achieves a similar effect through the relation of brass and electronic drone. At its most effective when suggestive of the sea, the drone then figures the millennia of pressure that convert decaying plant matter into coal, and the tidal and glacial movements that raised up carboniferous land from the sea to make it available for mining. A sequence of archival footage of tideline coal-gleaners, taken from reels from different eras, is scored by intensifying waves of brass, which counterpoint the timelessness/geological time of the drone with the urgent historical shifts that move from sustainable practices such as gleaning to the apocalyptic destructiveness of open-cast mining.

The film is not all melancholy: like Dickens’ most famous song ‘Black Lung', it has a piercing anger tempered by wit. Over footage of a modern electric train, loaded with police, Jóhannsson plays a whistle, a reminder of pitched call of a coal-fired steam train, and of the coal that built the railways. The music enters a bold major key for the first time in the film, a parody of pomp and circumstance, to accompany the police arrival at the picket line. But as battle is joined (with the police horses and chaotic struggles making it look like footage of the 1644 Battle of Marston Moor, a reminder of the long history of political insurgency in the northeast), the music modulates to minor key, becoming keeningly songlike, a snatch of melody just out of memory.

The sense of emotional outpouring is matched, a few minutes later, by pouring-out, a sequence of knocking-off time taken from Mitchell and Kenyon’s lost (and found) reels of early nitrate film. Probably the earliest film shot in that location, Mitchell and Kenyon’s films were also screened that night to their ‘electric Edwardians,’ and The Miners’ Hymn, screened in Durham Cathedral, acts as homage to that virtuous cycle. Caught in the background, behind the flat-capped men streaming from the gates, is a newspaper hoarding advertising ‘Splendid Sensational Serial Story’: what The Miners’ Hymn offers is something different, a demonstration that repetition does not have to mean more of the same, but – through careful composition, be it of found footage or folk music motifs – it can promise change through reintegration, a future that builds on, rather than erases, the past. Aesthetically and politically, it’s a hymn of hope.

The Miners' Hymn

The Miners' Hymn is available from BFI DVD.