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Dark As a Dungeon (Down in the Mine)

[ Roud 6392 ; Ballad Index LoF155 ; Merle Travis]

Steve Benbow, Shirley Bland and Jimmie Macgregor sang Merle Travis’ song Dark As a Dungeon in 1960 at Cecil Sharp House, London, in a recording made by Peter Kennedy. This was published on the HMV 10"LP Rocket Along: New Ballads on Old Lines. Kennedy commented in the sleeve notes:

Steve Benbow, now one of the most outstanding of modern British folk-singers, accompanies himself with the plectrum guitar. The song was composed by the American guitarist, Merle Travis, who is himself a miner.

The Reivers sang Down in the Mines on their 1960 EP The Work of The Reivers Volume 2. The liner notes commented:

The Reivers, while basing themselves on Scottish material, draw upon a world-wide repertoire. This song was written by Merle Travis and it first appeared in a collection from his native Kentucky called Folk Songs of the Hills. Incidentally, in the same album was his Sixteen Tons.

Alex Campbell with Sandy Denny and others in the background sang this song as Down in the Mine on his 1967 LP Alex Campbell and His Friends.

Hedy West sang Dark As a Dungeon a year later on her 1968 LP Serves ’Em Fine. She commented in the sleeve notes:

When Merle Travis recorded this song 20 years ago, he started off by saying: “I never will forget one time when I was on a little visit down home in Ebeneezer, Kentucky. I was a-talking to an old man who’d known me ever since the day I was born, and an old friend of the family. He says, ‘Son, you don’t know how lucky you are to have a nice job like you’ve got, and don’t have to dig out a living from under these old hills and hollers like me and your pappy used to.’ When I asked him why he never had left and tried some other kind of work, he says, ‘Naw sir, you just won’t do that. If ever you git this old coal-dust in your blood, you’re just gonna be a plain old coal-miner as long as you live.’ He went on to say it’s a habit sorta like chewing tobacco.

Jon Boden sang Dark As a Dungeon as the 31 January 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.


Come and listen you fellows, so young and so fine,
And seek not your fortune in the dark, dreary mines.
It will form as a habit and seep in your soul,
Till the stream of your blood is as black as the coal.

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
It’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew,
Where danger is double and pleasures are few,
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines
It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mine.

It’s a-many a man I have seen in my day,
Who lived just to labor his whole life away.
Like a fiend with his dope and a drunkard his wine,
A man will have lust for the lure of the mines.

I hope when I’m gone and the ages shall roll,
My body will blacken and turn into coal.
Then I’ll look from the door of my heavenly home,
And pity the miner a-diggin’ my bones.