Stairs leading to Robinson's Cave
Listening to Protest and Resistance in the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds”

Listening to Protest and Resistance in the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds”

Robinson's Cave

Robinson’s Cave, New Straitsville, Ohio. Photo by Jonathan Johnson.

Throughout this series of posts, I am presenting portraits of people and places of the Little Cities of Black Diamonds region in Appalachian Ohio. Each post focuses on sounds and how paying attention to them can give insight into issues such as labor, protest, recovery, and social life. Recording and carefully listening to these sounds can also suggest ways of bridging between place and creative sound works.

I am at the mouth of Robinson’s Cave, a small recess in a hill above New Straitsville, Ohio. It is late winter, and the area is overwhelmed with the sounds of melting ice and snow crunching underfoot. The wind stirs fallen leaves and moves the canopy overhead. In the town below, an old school bell is quietly heard, and cars drive through the salty slush and snow. These sounds are a reflection of the cave’s contemporary soundscape, but the past echoes here, too. In the late 19th century, coal miners met here secretly to resist unfair wages and to unionize. Local historians note that the secluded cave had “great acoustics,” and miners could meet quietly and still hear each other. Whispers reverberated and remained there. These meetings were key to the formation of the United Mine Workers of America in 1890.

Inside the shallow cave, I listen to the acoustics of an underground space as it alters natural and human environments. The cave carries an additional significance when imagining another meeting that took place here in 1884. Unknown agitators—perhaps miners or operators—supposedly met here, conspiring to set the mines on fire. These fires ended mining in the immediate region and they continue to burn today, more than 125 years later. Brandon Labelle sees the underground as a place of opposition and resistance, and suggests that it functions as “an explicit zone for transformation.” These events, combined with the fact that the cave was used for its acoustic characteristics, give an aural insight into the cultural identity of the Little Cities.

Protest connected to extraction, quiet for several decades in the area, has undergone a shift from labor to environment. Now, it is groups outside the energy industry who carry on the disruptive acts of striking miners. In an area with many seeking work, the new promise of employment further complicates tensions between industry, labor, and environmental activists. It is against this conflicted backdrop that local groups mount strategies of protest, focusing on hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) in particular. Clashing soundscapes of ecology and politics are revealed, and we hear an arrhythmia of discord between the two.

Stairs leading to Robinson's Cave

Stairs leading to Robinson’s Cave, New Straitsville, Ohio. Photo by Jonathan Johnson

“Direct Action” in Training and Practice

In the basement of a community center, I join a dozen women and men forming two lines facing one another. Over just a few minutes, one side moves from curt conversation to confrontation to yelling. “What are you doing here?” screams a woman, pointing her finger close to a man’s face. “Get the hell off my property! You’ve got no right to be here!” The room is reverberating with anger, shouting, and tension-filled voices. At the same time, some of the participants are quiet and calm. They do not say anything despite the screaming that is directed toward them. My stomach is hurting, and I feel disoriented. The situation seems uncomfortable and out of control. I cannot wait for it to be over. When the yelling tapers off, there is still tension in the room as everyone assesses what just took place.

In this moment, the sonic qualities of silence, repetition, and impassioned shouting are entwined, and perform the logic of resistance. As part of a “direct action” workshop, we were in a “hassle line,” a role-playing exercise where participants act out a confrontation between industry workers and protesters at a fracking site. According to the instructor, direct action is a strategic, non-violent event “unmediated by the political process to stop an injustice where it happens.” Simulated situations are a chance to practice “de-escalation,” and staying calm in the face of antagonism. Here, silence is used as a tool of protest. It helps prevent the situation from getting out of hand. Silence also creates a unified message, simply through the group’s physical presence without further explanation.

The “mock-actions” undergone during the workshop are tested later when the group blocks the entrance to an injection well storage site. Chants such as, “Our water, our air, no fracking anywhere!” are shouted antiphonally across the group. “I’m pissed off because those tanks up there are filled with poison,” a woman announces through a megaphone. As trucks drive by carrying frack-waste, the group sings “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and a version of “We Shall Overcome” altered to “We’ll Protect Our Water.” In the end, eight farmers and local business leaders are arrested. They are quiet while the protesting crowd continues an air of celebration around them. Cheering and clapping erupt as they are led away. Words of encouragement are shouted to the arrestees: a woman calls out, “You look beautiful in handcuffs!”

Fracking Protest in the Wayne National Forest

A group gathers at the Wayne National Forest headquarters to speak against proposed hydraulic fracturing wells. Jack Wright, a musician, filmmaker, and teacher, stands up in front, holding a piece of paper. “Fresh off the press,” he says, to the laughter of the crowd. He sings a modified, unaccompanied version of the well-known Florence Reece song, “Which Side Are You On?” The song was originally written in response to striking coal miners in the 1930s. Wright sings, “You rulers of the forest, this song to you I’ll tell/Do the impact study, save us from fracking hell…” Wright’s adjustments to the song are a part of a folk tradition of localizing music to fit to a place, in this case the Wayne National Forest. They are also a form of musical borrowing with a historical awareness.

“That was a good day,” Wright tells me later. “I wish they could have listened a little bit clearer to what we had to say. We still have to insist that what we believe be listened to.” Wright’s assessment points to the struggles of raising one’s voice to not only be heard, but to change the course of events. Singing becomes a forceful act of resistance and listening is the hoped for goal, but without any assurance of communication or success. Voice and listening may be important tools in the battle over fracking in the forest, but are not necessarily enough to change policy. Wright continues, “It was just for the moment, to try to help get those people together and let the Wayne Forest people know we were there in force. If they could hear the force of the song and hear us shouting, that sort of made our crowd a little bit bigger. Even though in the long haul it didn’t change their minds, at least they knew we were there to contend with their violations.”

Co-presence, Becoming, Returning

In this series, sound, place, and traces of history are bound together as they continue to change through time. Addressing issues of place and sustainability, Jeff Todd Titon cites “co-presence” as a sonic trait that allows one to sense “the presence of something greater than oneself through sound.” As I continue to listen to the Little Cities, I observe co-presence again and again, and it is often contradictory: job growth due to fracking threatens many years of sustained efforts to reverse environmental degradation; “geo-tourism” markets the region as a travel destination, while many residents must commute to larger cities to find employment. These contradictions become a web of environmental, economic, and social issues, and they begin to feel like a never-ending game of rock-paper-scissors.

In the acts of protest cited above, shouting, speeches, chanting, and singing bring groups fighting for environmental justice together. These qualities strengthen the groups’ ability to resist hostile opposition. Sounds of resistance also lend an air of celebration to tension-filled moments. They simultaneously bring together and diffuse, and meaningfully hold in suspension situations that could easily descend into chaos and violence.

Through listening, I too hold these diverse and often conflicting realities together. Soundscapes of protest, recovery, labor, and social life all emerge and dissipate at different rates and rhythms; they affect one another, and are often in tension. Henri Lefebvre understands these rhythms as a fusion of both cyclical and linear time, rhythms of “becoming,” or of clock-time, “returning” rhythms, or metronomic rhythms.

Listening is an unfolding process. It observes continual change, becoming, and returning. It is also stratified, a co-presence that opens a sonic space for critical analysis. These qualities become compositional tools to evoke the many voices and sounds of the region. When Alvin Lucier states that “careful listening is more important than making sounds happen,” he is empasizing attentiveness over compositional virtuosity and technique; listening itself becomes performance. I follow this directive and make listening to the Little Cities the central aspect of my writing and compositional work.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

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