Essential Question

How do Nimrod Workman’s songs and stories about his life as a coal miner illustrate the struggles of working class people during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era?


By the turn of the 20th century, technology had radically reshaped the American economy and the lives of those who worked within it–some for good, some for worse. In American cities, the Edison Electric Company’s ever creeping power grid provided factories with cheaper, more reliable power, and electric lights allowed factories–many of which embraced the “assembly line” pioneered by Henry Ford–to produce goods twenty-four hours a day. Railroads, empowered by the recent switch from timber fuel to the more efficient coal, also continued to expand, driving both the mineral extraction industries and the iron furnaces that produced the essential components of train tracks. The industries powered one another, and the need for labor surged.

One might imagine that such a period in American history would have been a “Golden Age,” a time when the overall quality of life dramatically improved thanks to new technologies, a wider availability of goods, and the heightened flow of capital. Sadly, this was not the case. Whatever “gold” there was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries belonged mostly to the few. As such, the period was better described by Mark Twain as the “Gilded Age,” a time when a thin veneer of gold plating barely covered a tarnished core. The luster was only surface deep.

The increased production capacity and technological advances of the Gilded Age could have reduced the stress on workers of all types, and the larger profit margins on the goods produced could have been dispersed in a way that rewarded all parties involved. However, for the most part, none of this occurred. Whether in factories or coal mines, most laborers found themselves working long hours for wages that left them in poverty. Workers in major metropolitan areas like New York and Chicago, most of whom came from rural America or foreign countries, ended up in overcrowded, dilapidated tenement buildings. Outside of major cities, railroad tracks that carried goods and people operated thanks to workers and miners who toiled long hours, often under the surveillance of armed guards. Meanwhile, industry magnates like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and financiers such as J.P Morgan accumulated unprecedented amounts of wealth and power, ensuring their heirs an enduring aristocratic-like status for generations to come.       

The failed promises of the industrial age were perhaps most pronounced in the Appalachian region in the United States, an area that stretches along the Appalachian Mountains from Southern New York to Northern Mississippi. Rich in materials and culture but economically poor, this region became home to “company towns,” small settlements of miners and their families who worked for a single company. Miners were often treated as dispensable. They were expected to labor long hours underground in potentially lethal conditions. There were no child labor laws and boys started work as young as 10. And there was no illusion of working for upward mobility: miners were often paid not in wages, but “scrips,” credit statements for goods and food valid only at stores owned by the mining company. There was nothing to save, and no way out. Hopeless, and living by the whim of company owners, Appalachian miners became vocal, sometimes violent proponents of unionization and working class solidarity.      

By the turn of the 20th century, the wealth inequality and political corruption characteristic of the Gilded Age had become untenable. Various activist groups, soon collectively known as The Progressives, began demanding a democracy beholden to all, including workers, and a fair balance between the rights of business owners, workers, and consumers. Regularly led by women, the Progressive movement fought for child labor laws, fair working hours, public health regulations, consumer protections, and women’s suffrage. Other groups demanded anti-monopoly legislation, environmental regulation, and governmental policy informed by analysis and expertise. The Progressives found an ally in president Theodore Roosevelt, who advocated for a “New Nationalism” that placed both economic development and public interest as areas of concern, but it was only later, through Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, that much of the progressive’s demands were brought to fruition.

In this lesson, created in partnership with the Association for Cultural Equity, students gain a deeper understanding of what life might have been like for a working class person during this period of American history by examining the songs and stories of Nimrod Workman. Born in 1895, Workman began working in the West Virginia coal mines at fourteen years old, and continued for 42 years. By analyzing Workman’s songs and personal stories, which were recorded by Alan Lomax in 1983, students gain a first-hand account of one of the most dangerous, violent, and least regulated industries in American history, and discover the relationships between labor, industry, and the government from the 1890s to the end of World War II.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The socio-political environment during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
    • The mining industry in West Virginia and the West Virginia Mine Wars
    • The development of unions in America (including the UMWA, the AFL, the IWW,  and the CIO)
    • Historic labor legislation and policy in the early 20th century (including Theodore Roosevelt’s “Square Deal,” The Clayton Antitrust Act, The “Business Decade” under Coolidge and Harding, and Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” and the Taft-Hartley Act)
    • Important moments in US labor history in the early 20th century (The Haymarket Riot, the Ludlow Massacre, the 1902 Anthracite Coal Strike, The Pullman Strike, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire)
    • Important labor leaders (Mother Jones, Eugene V. Debs, Clara Lemlich), and industrialists (John D. Rockefeller Jr., Henry Ford) in US history
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to articulate the relationships between workers, businesses owners, and the federal government from the late 1800s to the 1940s by watching and discussing the work of musician Nimrod Workman.   


Entry Ticket Activity:

  1. Have students read the overview of this lesson before class and arrive ready to articulate what they think the differences might be between a “golden” and “gilded” age.  

Motivational Activity:

The Bosses of the Senate, by Joseph Keppler

  1. Show students Image 1, “The Bosses of the Senate,” a cartoon by Joseph Keppler, 1889, and ask:
    • What do you see in this image? What point do you think Keppler wished to make about life in the Gilded Age?
    • What do you think a monopolist is? Why do you think they’re represented so much larger than the senators?
    • What do you notice about the “People’s Entrance”? Why do you think it’s presented this way?
  2. Tell students that they will explore life in the Gilded Age more closely by assuming the role of ethnographers–social scientists who study people in their own environments. Their subject, who they’ll observe via video recordings, is Nimrod Workman, a musician who spent 42 years as a coal miner. As ethnographers, students should practice a type of detailed description that anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “thick description.” They should observe the subject’s behavior, but also the context behind that behavior (the surrounding environment, the subject’s personal background, etc.). Ask students to take notes that detail the setting of the performance, the performer’s age, attire, body, body language, and anything else they notice. Play Clip 1, “Nimrod Workman, ’42 Years'” then ask:
    • What general observations did you have while watching the video?
    • Where does it seem like the video was shot?
    • How would you describe the house seen in the video? (Students should consider the quality of the house, or the items surrounding Workman on the porch.)      
    • How might you describe the way in which Workman and his wife are dressed?
    • What was Workman doing with his hands as he performed? (Encourage students to consider what he was enacting as he sang.)
    • What do you think Workman might have been singing about?
  3. Give each student Handout 1 – The Lyrics of Nimrod WorkmanHave the students read the lyrics to “42 Years” to themselves, and then watch the video a second time with the goal of noticing things they might not have noticed before. Ask students:
    • What do you think Workman is singing about?
    • Did you observe anything different about the video on the second viewing?
    • Based upon the observations the class has made, what preliminary conclusions might we draw about Nimrod Workman’s life? Do you think he felt represented by the “Bosses of the Senate”? (Encourage students to consider his socioeconomic class, his quality of life, his level of education, and what his life history might have been like).  


  1. Tell students that they will be further investigating Nimrod Workman in order to better understand what life might have been like for coal miners in and after the Gilded Age. Post the Gallery Walk Images throughout the classroom. Tell students that they will be examining photographs documenting the daily lives of coal miners, and that under each photograph is a quote by Workman about his life as a miner. Encourage students to again practice “thick description,” taking notes about the photographs and quotes.
  2. After the gallery walk activity, ask students:
    • What were some of the observations you made about Workman’s life based on your gallery walk?
    • Based on the pictures, how would you describe the typical coal miner? (Encourage students to think about the relatively young age of coal miners, and that they were primarily male).
    • What did the work of a coal miner seem to entail? Was it dangerous? (Remind students of Workman’s description of operating explosives [“shots”], and his medical issues resulting from mining.)
    • How do you think miners got the equipment they needed? (Students should know that oftentimes miners had to rent or buy their own equipment.)
    • How were coal miners paid? Do you think the pay was fair for a coal miner, given the type of work it entailed? (Students should know coal miners were often not paid by the hour, but how many pounds of coal they produced.)
    • What do you think “scrip” and “company store” refer to? (Students should know that a “scrip” was a type of currency given to miners in lieu of money, which could only be used at general stores owned by the company.)
    • How did Workman describe his relationship with the mine owners and foreman? Would you say he had a good or bad relationship with them? Why?
    • Why wasn’t Workman able to fix his house? (Remind students that he wasn’t paid money, but scrips, and, moreover, the mining company owned his house.)
    • When Workman was hurt, why do you think the doctor declared that his injury wasn’t mine related? Who do you think the doctor worked for?
    • What option might have miners had to improve their job?
  3. Show Clip 2, “Nimrod Workman, ‘Mother Jones’ Will'” and refer students to Handout 1 – The Lyrics of Nimrod Workman for the words to the song. Draw students attention to the words that are presented in bold in the lyrics.   
  4. Split students into groups of four, and pass out to each group Handout 2 – The Coal Wars Document Set. Tell students that each member of the group will read one document, and then present their document to the rest of the group. Using the documents as a guide, students will then discuss as a group what the bolded words in the “Mother Jones’ Will” lyrics might refer to.   
  5. As a class, discuss:
    • What might Workman meant when he says he is going to “fight for the union” in the song? (Students should gather that he is referring to the United Mine Workers of America.)
    • What was the union fighting for? Do you think the “fight” was metaphorical, like “fighting for rights,” or physical, or both? Why?
    • Who is Mother Jones? What does her role in mining history seem to be? What do you think “Mother Jones’ Will” might refer to in Document 3? (In the speech, Mother Jones advocates fighting for the union, building solidarity with the railroad workers, and voting.)
    • Who might the “Thugs” be that miners and others refer to in the documents? (Encourage students to look back at Documents 2 and 3 in the packet. There the mine owners and the “Baldwins,” employees of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency who acted as hired guns for the mine companies, are referred to as the enemies.)
    • What is Workman referring to when he sings about “Blair Mountain Hill”? (Encourage students to review document 4 in the packet.)
    • Thinking back to the “Bosses of the Senate” image, where do you think the coal mine owners for whom Workman labored might fit? How do you see the power of such “monopolists” playing out in Document 4?
  6. Tell students they will now examine how the West Virginia Mine Wars fits into a larger historical context. Pass out Handout 3 – American Labor and Working-Class History, 1886-1944 and “whip around” the room, having each student read one event in the timeline in chronological order.
  7. Ask students:
    • How would you characterize the relationship between workers and business owners during this time? Where does the federal government fit into this relationship?
    • Was the government’s treatment of labor issues consistent during this period, or did it change? Which presidents seemed more in favor of workers, and which seemed more in favor of business owners?
    • What industries at this period seemed most likely to go on strike? Why might this be?
    • What sort of external factors influenced the relationship between the government, business owners, and workers? (Examples might include economic booms and busts or the world wars.)
    • Do you think the labor legislation enacted during this era benefited all workers? From what you know about American history, do you think black workers benefited equally under these laws as white workers? (Often, African American workers did not benefit from this legislation to the extent that white workers did.)
  8. Tell students that they will now be looking at some of Nimrod Workman’s stories to better understand how these historical relationships might have affected everyday working class people.
  9. Show Image 2, “Woodrow Wilson’s War,” and ask students:
    • What war is Workman referring to in this story? (World War I)
    • What does he mean when he says “I was ready to go up in the next call”? (He was ready to be drafted [the draft was initiated by Wilson through the Selective Service Act of 1917].)
  10. Show Image 3, “Those Hoover Days,” and ask students:
    • What era is Workman referring to? (Point students to the reference of “those Hoover Days,” revealing that Workman was likely discussing the Great Depression under Hoover.)
    • Why might someone during this period of time be desperate for a job and living on “a cracker a day?”
    • In this case, how did “Mr. Morrison” use the effects of the Great Depression to the benefit of the mine company?
  11. Show Image 4, “Old Roosevelt Said,” and ask students:
  • What is Workman referring to by the “big war”? (World War II)
  • Is he speaking of Theodore or Franklin D. Roosevelt in this story? (FDR)
  • According to Workman, how did President Roosevelt negotiate between the miners and the mine owners?
  • What might Workman’s impression of Roosevelt been? Do you think he agreed with Roosevelt’s policies?

Summary Activity:

  1. Show Image 5, “Writing Prompt,” and have students follow the prompt given, either on paper, or as a class discussion.

Extension Activity:

  1. Visit the West Virginia Mine Wars website to further investigate the history of mining and labor in the state of West Virginia.
  2. Writing Prompt: Compare and contrast the economic and political issues characteristic of the Gilded Age with the economic and political issues you see as prevalent today. Are they similar or different?
  3. Investigate one of the events provided in Handout 3 in more detail. Include the principal actors involved, a rough timeline of important events, the result, and the legacy the event may have attained.
  4. Compare the life of a miner in Appalachia with the life of a sharecropper in the South. What was similar, and what was different?

  5. Nimrod Workman was one of many musicians that wrote and performed songs about mining. Research the life and career of one of the following musicians, focusing on their career as a musician and their affiliation with the coal mining profession:
    • Aunt Molly Jackson
    • Woody Guthrie
    • Hazel Dickins
    • Dock Boggs
    • Sarah Ogan Gunning
    • Jean Ritchie
    • Merle Travis
    • Jim Ringer
    • Carter Stanley
    • Randall Hylton

Explore Further:

  1. Books:
    • Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (Penguin Classics)
    •  Thomas Bell, Out of This Furnace: A Novel of Immigrant Labor in America (University of Pittsburgh Press)
    •  Mary Harris Jones, Autobiography of Mother Jones (Dover)
  2. Films:
    • Scott Faulkner and Anthony Slone, Nimrod Workman: To Fit My Own Category (Appalshop)
    • John Sayles, Matewan (Cinecom Pictures)
    • Barbara Kopple, Harlan County, U.S.A. (Cinema 5)
  3. Records:
    • Nimrod Workman, I Want to Go Where Things Are Beautiful (Drag City)
    • Pete Seeger, American Industrial Ballads (Smithsonian Folkways)
    • Various Artists, Music of Coal: Mining Songs from the Appalachian Coalfields (Full Lights)


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (K-12)

Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Reading 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Reading 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

Reading 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing (K-12)

Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

Writing 7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

Writing 9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening (K-12)

Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Speaking and Listening 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

National Core Arts Standards


  • Anchor Standard #7-Perceive and analyze artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard #8-Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard #9– Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

National Standards for Music Education – National Association for Music Education (NAfME)

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

Career Technical Education Standards (California Model) – Arts, Media and Entertainment Pathway Standards

Design, Visual and Media Arts (A)

  • A1.0 Demonstrate ability to reorganize and integrate visual art elements across digital media and design applications.
    A1.9 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work. ia, and Entertainment |
    A3.0 Analyze and assess the impact of history and culture on the development of professional arts and media products.
    A3.2 Describe how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence and are reflected in a variety of artistic products.
    A3.3 Identify contemporary styles and discuss the diverse social, economic, and political developments reflected in art work in an industry setting.
    A4.0 Analyze, assess, and identify effectiveness of artistic products based on elements of art, the principles of design, and professional industry standards.
    A4.2 Deconstruct how beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence commercial media (traditional and electronic).
    A4.3 Analyze the aesthetic value of a specific commercial work of art and defend that analysis from an industry perspective.
    A4.5 Analyze and articulate how society influences the interpretation and effectiveness of an artistic product.
    A5.0 Identify essential industry competencies, explore commercial applications and develop a career specific personal plan.
    A5.3 Deconstruct works of art, identifying psychological content found in the symbols and images and their relationship to industry and society.

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
    B2.2 Describe how the elements of music are used.
    B2.5 Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given industry generated example.
    B2.6 Analyze and describe the use of musical elements in a given professional work that makes it unique, interesting, and expressive.
    B2.7 Demonstrate the different uses of form, both past and present, in a varied repertoire of music in commercial settings from diverse genres, styles, and professional applications.
    B7.0 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of multiple industry performance products from a discipline-specific perspective.
    B7.3 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the musician in the professional setting.
    B8.0 Deconstruct the aesthetic values that drive professional performance and the artistic elements necessary for industry production.
    B8.1 Critique discipline-specific professional works using the language and terminology specific to the discipline.
    B8.2 Use selected criteria to compare, contrast, and assess various professional performance forms.
    B8.3 Analyze the aesthetic principles that apply in a professional work designed for live performance, film, video, or live broadcast.
    B8.4 Use complex evaluation criteria and terminology to compare and contrast a variety of genres of professional performance products.