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SharePrint Elaine Purkey

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Singer-songwriter and labor activist Ethel Elaine Moore was born on May 29, 1949, in West Hamlin, Lincoln County, the daughter of Winford and Beatrice Shelton Moore. She liked to claim, though, that she “really wasn’t born until the 1980s after I . . . got involved in all of this [labor] stuff because that’s when my blood really started pumpin’.”

Raised in a family of musicians and dancers, she developed her mountain ballad singing style at the local Church of Christ. She commented on her lifelong devotion to the church and its music, “We don’t have musical instrumentation in the worship. We sing a capella. That’s where the feeling and everything for my music comes from.” As early as age five, she was singing “Frankie and Johnny” while standing on a rock in her grandfather’s yard. She played in bands with her brother as a teenager and sang lead in a country band as an adult. She graduated from Harts High School in 1967 and briefly worked for the Naval Ship Service Command in Washington, D.C., before returning home to Lincoln County.

In March 1970, she married third-generation coal miner Bethel Purkey, who would later serve as president of a United Mine Workers of America local and head of a union safety committee. In the 1980s, she was a homemaker raising three daughters when her life turned upside down.

In 1989, Bethel was working for Pittston Coal when the UMWA went on strike against the company. Elaine got a job at Hardee’s to support the family and marched on her husband’s picket line, singing labor songs she had written, including one destined to become a union anthem: “America, Our Union.” She later recalled that the Pittston strike “changed everything.” Rick Wilson of the American Friends Service Committee brought Purkey into schools to talk about the strike and sing for students, and she got a job organizing for the UMWA. She used her music to connect with miners at union meetings, which could get rather mundane at times. One miner commented, “I’ll tell you what. I wouldn’t care how many meetings we had if she’d bring her guitar and sing for us a little bit.”

During the bitter Ravenswood Aluminum Lockout of 1990-92, she wrote another classic. “One Day More” would become her most famous labor song, and was featured in Barbara Kopple’s “Locked Out in America: Voice from Ravenswood,” part of the director’s We Do the Work PBS series. The lyrics include such timeless lines as

One day more, one day more

People let me tell you what we’re fighting for

We’re fighting for our future, don’t you understand?

And we don’t need your pity, we just need your helping hand

To fight one day more, one day more

If the company holds out 20 years

We’ll hold out one day more

In 2006, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings included the track on its compilation Classic Labor Songs — along with fellow West Virginia native Hazel Dickens’s song “Black Lung.”

Purkey worked around the state for the UMWA, leading to a job with the West Virginia Organizing Project, a community-action group. She would go to different towns and teach others how to organize. As a community activist, she also fought for West Virginians whose groundwater had been damaged by acid mine drainage, helped rewrite water regulations, assisted miners with getting black lung benefits, and denounced overweight coal trucks and the poor state of rural roads.

In addition to her activism, Purkey loved sharing West Virginia culture with others. In the 1980s, she became a featured performer on the Wallace Horn Friendly Neighbor Show, which had debuted on Logan County radio station WVOW in 1967. Her regular appearances on Horn’s show had brought her to the attention of UMWA organizers in the first place. When Horn died in 2013, she took over as host, inviting musicians from across southern West Virginia to perform on live radio. For the last 10 years of her life, she taught children about traditional music and how to write their own songs, at the Big Ugly Community Center in Lincoln County and for the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences in Charleston. Decrying the loss of music and other arts in schools, she observed, “The performing arts are a way for kids to see, ‘You know, I may not be able to play ball, I may not be able to jump the highest of anybody else, and I may not make straight A’s, but hey, I can write a song and I can sing it! I can let people know I’ve got a voice!’”

Elaine Purkey died of COVID-19 in a South Charleston hospital on September 2, 2020, at age 71.

Last Revised on May 16, 2023


Sources

Gartner, Paul. "One Day More": Activist Songwriter Elaine Purkey. Goldenseal, 32, 2, Summer 2006.

Harmon, Carolyn. "Pure Entertainment": Wallace Horn and the Friendly Neighbor Show. Goldenseal, 35, 1, Spring 2009.

Hilliard, Emily. Remembering Labor Singer-Songwriter Elaine Purkey (1949-2020). Goldenseal, 46, 4, Winter 2020.

West Virginia Humanities Council, West Virginia Folklife Program. "Oral History of Elaine Purkey," by Emily Hilliard and Rick Wilson. West Virginia & Regional History Center, West Virginia Folklife Program Collection, A&M 4224. October 27, 2016.

Cite This Article

e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia "Elaine Purkey." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 16 May 2023. Web. 25 June 2024.

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