Music’s mining tribute legacy longstanding

Singer-songwriter-patriot Dave Dobbyn is likely to embellish a deep vein of history when he presents his latest work at the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington on Saturday night (May 10).

This time, in a concert entitled Dreams Lie Deeper which also features the 150-strong Orpheus Choir, the award-winning Wellington Brass Band and Wellington Young Voices, Dobbyn has accepted a far greater challenge –- to commemorate the eruption of emotions from the Pike River Mine disaster which claimed the lives of 29 men on November 19, 2010.

Dobbyn follows a fine tradition. His own origins lie in a land where down through the ages emotional events, celebratory as well as tragic, have been memorised in song. None more so, worldwide, than the losses of the mining industry, for mining disasters pull at the heartstrings of communities and nations for generations.

Each dominoes into the long history of underground tragedies.

For the town of Greymouth, the Pike tragedy connected to the impact of the 400 previous mining deaths in the region in more than 140 years. It is more poignant because the Pike 29 remain underground, as do two from the 19 killed at the Strongman Mine near Greymouth in 1967.

Music is an enduring part of mining communities in New Zealand, fostering brass bands and choral groups in the style of immigrant miners’ origins. Denniston, Blackball and Runanga had groups that won national competitions featuring previous British instrument champions who had emigrated here.

Pike River has already germinated the haunting Brothers 29 composed by Greymouth balladeer Paul McBride and sung by him at the national memorial service in December 2010. It has since been used as theme song for an Australian mining safety DVD.

Perhaps the best-known such song is the Bee Gees 1967 hit, New York Mining Disaster 1941. Barry and Robin Gibb created it when sitting on a darkened staircase at Polydor Records in London during a power cut. The echo of a passing lift inspired them to imagine that they were trapped underground. The song recounts the story of a miner trapped in a cave-in. He shares a photo of his wife with a colleague, "Mr Jones”, while they wait hopelessly to be rescued.

According to the liner notes for their 1990 box-set, the Bee Gees say this song was inspired by the 1966 Aberfan mining disaster in Wales where 116 children and 28 adults were killed. Robin Gibb says there also had been a mining disaster near New York 1939, but not in 1941.

In sourcing inspiration for his new composition, Dobbyn has visited the victims’ families on the West Coast and the Pike mine, which is on the fringe of the Paparoa National Park, surrounded by lush rainforest with century-old native trees and abundant vocal native birdlife.

Locals are predicting Dobbyn’s Pike River song will be in the vein of his classic 1984 hit, the violin-tinged Whaling.

Complementing Dobbyn’s work on Saturday night will be 17 Days, a choral piece by British composer James McCarthy dedicated to the 33 Chilean gold miners rescued in 2010. And there will be another world premiere, If Blood Be the Price, composed by Ross Harris, set to a poem by Vincent O’Sullivan, inspired by the 1912 Waihi miners’ strike.

Miners’ concerts are fondly remembered by retired national mining inspector Harry Bell, of Motueka, who lost a nephew at Pike. He recalls a war effort support gig in the Runanga Miners’ Hall in the 1940s in which he played cornet. Scottish miner Abie Airns, not an accomplished vocalist, had dragged the audience painfully through a few Celtic ballads, then announced that he would move on to The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond.

Grizzled union chief Walter Pattinson jumped to his feet and called out: “Thank God for that; I thought you were going to sing here”. Abie forlornly exited stage left to raucous laughter.

As the Gibb brothers sang in 1967, Saturday night’s concert patrons may “… keep straining our ears to hear a sound, maybe someone is digging underground, or have they given up and all gone home to bed, thinking those who once existed must be dead.”


Gerry Morris is a former coal-mining journalist. Three members of his family worked at the Pike River Mine. He is a life member of the Denniston Miners’ Union.