Down In The Mines
A true holiday story by Rik Palieri
While I was in Poland in 1991, I was invited to perform for a group of Polish coal miners. I was the guest of my friend Frank, who was the heath and safety inspector for the region's coal mines. He arranged for me to spend a day at the mine and then later perform at a holiday party to raise money for the orphan's Christmas fund. This was not only a great honor for me to sing for the miners, but also was a return to my roots as my great grandfather worked in both the coal mines of Poland and western Pennsylvania in the USA.
When my friend Frank and I arrived, they brought us into the locker room where we changed into the heavy white overalls, flannel shirt, rubber boots, hard hat and lantern worn by the miners. Once dressed we shot down a fast elevator down deep into the mine. Polish coal mines are much deeper than the ones that we have in America, with some of the shafts reaching below 800 meters. In this region of Poland, what is called Silesia , the coal mines make a labyrinth of tunnels that are larger than some cities.
Down in the mine, a cool damp breeze blew through the shafts. It was so calm and peaceful that it was hard to imagine how extremely dangerous these mines are. We spent a few hours walking through the mines meeting the workers and watching them dig the hard coal from the earth. Later we went back to the elevator and went back up to the top of the mine to meet the president who ran the mine. After a few symbolic shots of strong Polish Vodka I was told about this evenings festivities.
Once a year the coal miners get together a party to raise money for the orphans and widows. It is not only a party but a kind of Kangaroo court, where fines were given and special tasks were ordered by any infraction of the rules. I was issued a jacket and tie and was told to report to the union hall by 7:30.
That evening, I walked into a large room filled with tables, chairs and a large stage. On the stage was a weird assortment of objects; there was an out house, a fenced in jail, a see saw, a table with a hammer and a bag of bent nails, a wooden stock like they used in the old days to lock prisoners in, a huge log with a two man saw and a huge icon of a Polish woman with two large plastic breasts filled with beer, complete with drinking straws!
At the head of the room sat the judges. They were splendidly dressed in the traditional black uniform, with a plumed feather cap of the Polish coal miner's union. As the men walked in the room, a gargantuan pitcher of beer was filling every beer glass in the room. The men sat down and the rules were read by one of the Union officials.
"Welcome to our annual fund raiser for the orphans. If you have not been here before, please be aware that you can be fined by our committee for any breach of our rules. For instance, all those who came without a blue jacket and tie, please stand!"
About twenty-five men jumped to their feet, and were immediately fined. Then the official went on. "We will be observing you throughout the evening; if you drink out of turn, you will be fined. If you don't sing, or sing too loud, you will be fined. If you eat too fast, you will be fined, and every time you leave the room to use the bathroom you will be fined and the more you go, the more you pay!"
As everyone sat down, one of the judges called for a toast, then at once everyone stood and sang an old Polish coal miner song, then picked up the full glass of beer and drank it straight down.
As the evening progressed, more and more fines were handed out. Soon the stage was filled with activity, for not only were you fined with money, but were sentenced to a penalty.
My friend Frank was caught for placing his glass down before he was told and was brought before the judges. They fined him a few dollars then locked his head and hands into the wooden stocks. Soon others were fined and were sentenced. Within an hour the stage had two men sawing wood, a man pounding nails straight, men locked inside the outhouse and jail house,two men weighing their clothes on the see saw, and the most humorous of all, two men of completely different sizes exchanging clothes.
When I saw this huge overweight man jumping up and down in his under ware, trying to squeeze into the trousers and shoes of a man less then half his size, while his comrade was swimming in oversized shoes, with pants reaching all the way to his chin, I lost my control and let out a huge belly laugh!
All of a sudden the room was silent as the judges turned and faced in my direction. "So, Mr. Polish Folklore, you think that this is funny. We will see how good you really are, and if we are not satisfied, you will be issued a fine, so go ahead, sing us a song!"
I stood up and faced the judges, and sang one of the mountain ballads that I learned from Jozef Broda, singing in the characteristic high voice range of the mountaineers, called "The White Voice."
After my song, there was great applause and the judges smiled and handed me a coupon for free unlimited use of the bathroom. The party went on with endless rounds of strong Polish beer and food. The money was collected and the workers were thanked. I was then asked to sing.
I did a short program of American Union songs and told them with the help of my friend Frank what the words meant. Soon the whole room was reverberating with Woody Guthrie's Union Maid as hundreds of Polish coal miners joined in on the chorus "Oh you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union" followed by "Which Side Are You On, "We Shall Not Be Moved" then Merle Travis's classics "Dark As A Dungeon."
After my union songs, I played some country songs and a whole line of men joined me and danced round and round as I played Hank William's "Jambalaya". The men closed the evening with songs of the Polish miners. I never heard such strong beautiful singing in all my life, then the men cried out "Piwo" and drank another round of beer.
It was now early in the morning and the party was coming to a close. The President of the coal mine came over to Frank and I and said this was such a fun evening, Ryki's music was great and the men really enjoyed the banjo. "As you have a long way to go, I want you to be my guest and have my driver take you home. I'll walk!"
We laughed as we loaded my instruments into the sleek black car, and waved to the President of the mine as he began walking back to his house.
Many thanks to Rik Palieri for permission to add this article to the Union Songs website.
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union songs..........a selection by mark gregory