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World Music CD Reviews North American

Nimrod Workman

By Bruce Miller
Published October 21, 2008

I Want To Go Where Things Are Beautiful
Drag City

In Barbara Kopple's brilliant truth-to-power documentary, Harlan County, USA, there's a clip of coal miner, activist and ballad singer Nimrod Workman singing unaccompanied. The performance is powerful enough without realizing that the man, then 80 years old, had been forced into retirement from the mines due to the deadly disease pneumoconiosis ­ better known as black lung ­which afflicted many miners. Aside from being an active member of the United Mine Workers Of America and successfully seeking belated black lung compensation from West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd in 1971, he managed to live 99 years, many of them spent on the folk festival circuit. Thanks to an NEA grant, Mike Seeger made the recordings here in 1987, when Workman was 92. This disc features old time tunes, ballads, miner songs, gospel hymns and tunes of Workman's own composition, sung a cappella, with phrasing as unpredictable and twisted as a stretch of Mingo County back road. Released on venerable Chicago indie label Drag City in collaboration with Louisville-based imprint Twos And Fews, points to both for making these recordings available, thereby announcing (again) Nimrod Workman as a brilliant if often-overlooked artist, and a treasure of traditional North American folk music.