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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Appalachian mountain music in "Shadows of Endurance," documentary short film on TV, web, & your phone, Wed. & Thu. - Aug 1 2018 edtn

Homemade Appalachian mountain music as the joyful soundtrack of a tough life in harder times

"Shadows of Endurance" is a short, compelling, 22-minute documentary film that airs on TV, the web, and your phone, Wed. & Thu.

It's spent the last two years gaining acclaim on the international film festival circuit, including winning the Audience Prize in November 2017 at the On the Road FIlm Festival of Rome.

by Lawrence Wines

Most of our readers revel in Appalachian mountain music. It's the fiddle- and banjo-driven roots music descended from pioneers' old world roots with inducted influences from all who passed through or settled there. It gave birth to bluegrass, influenced the blues, lent founding influence to country music (before that became insufferable pop with a fah-ke tew-wang), and it formed a centerpiece for what came to be known as Americana music.

It's prominently featured in "Shadows of Endurance," centering on Harlan County, Kentucky. It's a compelling documentary by a talented Italian team, led by filmmaker Diego Scarponi. It makes brilliant use of a huge amount of on-camera oral histories collected and recorded by Italian author Alessandro Portelli over his 30 years of field research.

The film sees itself as a sequel to the three decades of work that produced Portelli's landmark book, "They Say in Harlan County," which examined life in coal-mining-based communities in that era, before alternatives of clean energy were a factor. The book was published in English in 2011 by Oxford Press.

The film, like the music which weaves through it, operates expansively. So it's about a legacy of life that isn't easy, where the happy memories included tending the still up the hollar, possum hunting in the deep woods, and fishing along the natural network of rivers and streams that wind circuitously through America's Eastern mountains.

Of course, life there has long been inextricably tied to the dark and dusty life of the underground miner, to the fortunes of coal prices, deadly accidents, the salvation of mine safety regulation when it's enforced, and the tension between those expecting decent wages in return for risking their lives, and mine owners who seek riches.

In the recent decades since the book, coal mining is more about a narrative of fewer jobs with conversion to surface mining. And that is based on mountain-top removal that leaves widespread desecration of the mountains' natural beauty, changing geography, geology, hydrology, agriculture and human culture forever. It's a form of mining that poisons the water with runoff of rain through millions of tons of mine spoils.

Any look at the region today is inescapably about the decline of "king coal."

Mining and all its support industries were once the essential employer. The miners' slice of the pie brought bustling little cities, like Harlan, Kentucky. Coal mining brought the benevolent economic tyranny of company-owned towns with company-owned stores, and hamlets around every mine opening where everybody knew everybody, and joys and sorrows were shared.

In just two decades, other forms of energy -- including those envisioned 40 years ago by Jimmy Carter during his presidency -- have finally arisen and gained market dominance. Wind and solar have become more economical than coal, and an energetic American public demands sustainable and clean power.

Which all conspires to leave behind a declining number of coal-country residents who lack the means to move on. But they remain people capable of changing the world, as they showed in their rejection of Hillary Clinton, who pledged to "Close ALL the coal mines!"

People there look upon deserted main streets bounded with closed storefronts. They live in towns where there is no market to re-sell whatever they worked hard to own.

And through it all, some of them take refuge in playing the traditional music they've known for generations.

The film covers a lot of ground, in the words -- and the music -- of the residents themselves.

Despite many folks in Harlan being too proud to express it openly, much of the population lives in severe economic distress. Some are in abject poverty. Older people are trapped on pittance pensions that wouldn't pay rent anywhere else. Younger -- and not so young -- people struggle with patchworks of far-flung low-paying jobs with no benefits.

Of course that paragraph-full of characteristics are becoming a widespread economic reality throughout America. They've been profoundly true, for decades, in Appalachia. In Kentucky, West Virginia, and the surrounding region, decline and decay may be the prototype for times to come, even where primary employment was never based on mining or a mineral extraction economy. As wealth extraction exacerbates with tax cuts, tax breaks for an elite class of wealth manipulators, landlords, and kleptocrats, a gutted Appalachia with declining resources may portend America's future. Even in California.

That transcends the film, but it gives it immediacy for a wider audience.

In Harlan, growing wealth is the province of a declining few. Wealth redistribution there -- and since the crash of '08, throughout America --  has been about middle-class wealth moving into upper-class hands. The debt of the elite, from playing casino on Wall Street, trickles-down to become the debt of the masses. In so many ways, our debt and our liability drains our labors into black holes of astronomical credit card interest, while offering no access to the other end of interest rates that would encourage saving from meager wages.

In Appalachia, a gutted economy and damned few opportunities are a reality that seems inescapable.

Yet the human spirit, there, as everywhere, finds simply joys in making music.

Harlan, Kentucky, epitomizes all that.

The film contains plenty of vignettes for context. But it is not a nostalgic historical tome. It portrays modern realities, including how prescribed opiods have produced rampant addiction and drug-related crime in a place where everyone used to leave their doors unlocked.

The film's trailer notes, "These people are survivors of a life disappearing before their eyes."

Still, the empowerment of the music is as palpable for viewers as it is for those who find renewed resilience in playing it.

Wednesday and Thursday, August 1st and 2nd, the 22-minute film airs and repeats several times over the two days.

Just tune-in to RT America's listings and look for the daily "Documentary." 

It's available free as streaming simulcast online and on many TV, cable and satellite packages, and on several online TV services -- including free on RT's own website, and free with a few viewing options at the online free Pluto TV.

Online -- and ON YOUR PHONE -- you can either:

a) find the correct tabs for RT America and "watch live" during one of the TV simulcasts, after you go to


b) go to and find RT America, subect to the RT broadcast schedule there.

The listings simply simply say "Documentary" on most cable systems' on-screen guides; coverage of major news events does alter airtimes of topical programming. That said, these are the Scheduled airtimes.

Wednesday -- West Coast, US, Pacific Daylight Time (PDT):

3:29-4 am, 8:29-9 am, 2:30-3 pm, 4:31-5 pm, 9:29-10 pm.

Thursday (PDT):

3:29-4 am, 8:29-9 am, 2:29-3 pm, 4:31-5 pm, 10:29-11 pm.

Highly recommended.

The Guide waives our copyright on this short edition, provided reprint / republication keeps the complete content intact and the source is cited as "Acoustic Americana Music Guide."

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