West Virginia Folklife deeply mourns the great loss of labor songwriter, musician, activist, radio host, teacher, and devoted mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother Elaine Purkey. Purkey was a commanding advocate for the state’s working people through her resonant original labor songs and interpretations of traditional and gospel tunes that enhanced her invaluable grassroots organizing. In addition, Purkey was a dynamic music educator of the next generation in her home community. Speaking of her role in Appalachian labor music, Pete Seeger said, “Elaine Purkey’s songs carry on the great tradition of Ella May Wiggins of Gastonia, North Carolina, and Aunt Molly Jackson of Harlan County, Kentucky.”
A native of Lincoln County, Purkey was raised in a family of musicians and flatfoot dancers. She attributed her powerful, electrifying voice to the acapella singing she learned as a member of the Church of Christ. She recalls that as early as age five, she would stand on a rock in her grandfather’s yard and sing “Frankie and Johnny” for family and friends. As a teenager she played in bands with her brother, and in early adulthood she was the lead singer of a local country band. When her husband Bethel, a third-generation coal miner, got involved in the United Mine Workers of America strike against the Pittston Coal Company in 1988, Purkey began writing songs for the cause. Commenting on the role of her labor songwriting in birthing a new identity, Elaine said,
My actual natural birthday was May 29, 1949, but I really wasn’t born until in the 1980s after I…got involved in all of this stuff because that’s when my blood really started pumpin’. Before that, I mean I was just mundane, I did all this singing and went to church, did all the things I was supposed to do, had babies and raised ‘em and I cooked and I cleaned and took care of everything, and that was it! I was known by the company I kept, you know, nobody knew who I was. But that changed everything.
When Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers came to sing for the striking miners, she invited Purkey to play. It was there that Elaine first performed one of her original songs, “America, Our Union,” which became, as Purkey says, a “national anthem” for the movement. When union steelworkers were locked out of Ravenswood Aluminum in the infamous Ravenswood Lockout of the early 1990s, Purkey once again wrote a rallying cry for the workers in “One Day More.” It would become her most famous song. Organizer and director of the American Friends Service Committee’s West Virginia Economic Justice Project, Rick Wilson, spoke of the song’s resonance, “Nothing could have prepared me for the effect Elaine’s song had on the union families of the Ravenswood Lockout, a huge labor struggle. The first time she sang it at the union hall, people sprang to their feet, clapped, cried, sang along. At a time when the odds of success seemed small and when morale mattered, this gave people a boost that lasted. And they won.” That performance was filmed by director Barbara Kopple and used in her PBS special Locked Out in America: Voices from Ravenswood for her labor series We Do the Work.
“One Day More” appears on the 2006 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings compilation Classic Labor Songs, alongside songs by Woody Guthrie, fellow West Virginian Hazel Dickens, and Pete Seeger. In the liner notes, Purkey explains the title phrase, coined during the Pittston strike, “No matter how long the company or the corporations can stick around, we have enough strength, friendship, camaraderie about us and enough belief in what we’re doing, we can be there one day more; whatever they do, we’ll be there the day after.”
In 1996, Purkey released a solo album, Mountain Music, Mountain Struggle, which includes her original labor songs, traditional folk songs, gospel, and country. She performed at regional and national festivals, including the 1995 Ralph Rinzler Memorial Festival at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee; the 1997 Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C., and in the Appalachia Program at the 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. She is also included in folklorist Mary Hufford’s Coal River Folklife Collection at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in her role as an organizer in the grassroots West Virginia Organizing Project. For her work with that project, Purkey is portrayed in Penny Loeb’s 2007 book and 2014 film Moving Mountains, based on the Bragg v. Robertson federal case which restored clean water and temporarily halted mountaintop removal in a Mingo County community.
But nowhere is Purkey’s impact felt more than in her home in southern West Virginia. Beginning in the 1980s, Elaine was a featured performer on the Wallace Horn Friendly Neighbors Show, a Logan County live radio program that has been on the air since 1967. After Wallace Horn died in 2013, Elaine took over as the show’s host. When Purkey was organizing with the West Virginia Organizing Project, her local radio celebrity was her calling card; while those in other communities may not have known her personally, they knew her name and voice. For the last ten years, Purkey taught songwriting and traditional song after-school and summer programs to children at Lincoln County’s Big Ugly Community Center, the site of the former elementary school that was consolidated in 1993. Elaine said,
They’re trying to cut the performing arts out of schools? That’s a big mistake. The performing arts are a way for kids to see, ‘you know, I may not be able to play ball, I may not be able to jump the highest of anybody else and I may not make straight As, but hey, I can write a song and I can sing it! I can let people know I’ve got a voice!’
For Elaine, activism and music were not separate entities, but part and parcel of the cultural heritage and sustainability of her community. That’s the lesson she hoped to instill in the children of her home county.
For the past 40 years, Elaine Purkey was engaged in the hard work of labor organizing in West Virginia coalfield communities through her profound songs, committed teaching, and tireless community activism. While her national and international profile may not be as far-reaching than other folk singers of her generation, that’s all the more a testament to her commitment to what was always her singular cause—making life better for working people. Ever that “little girl standing on the rock,” Elaine believed that songwriting, storytelling, and creative work were powerful tools for both personal and collective liberation. She said,
I don’t know who this is gonna go out to, but if there’s anybody listening to this or reading this and you’ve got any idea that you can do anything—write a story about what you’re going through, tell it, write it in a poem, just put it on paper and try to put music to it or put it on paper and try to get somebody else to put music to it. Just get it out there! Just get it out there and let people know what you’re thinking. And you’ll be surprised how much it will free you up and help you out. Cause it did me. It made a monster out of me.