In August, 1963, a coal mine in Sheppton, Pennsylvania collapsed. The ensuing efforts to rescue three miners trapped hundreds of feet beneath the surface captivated the nation. Among those who closely followed developments was an adolescent boy who lived not far from the mine, Jim Broyles.
Now a singer-songwriter residing in Colorado, Jim has written a folk musical about the collapse called Davey, Do You See The Light?
The events in Sheppton that August clearly made an impression on him, but what compelled him to write an entire folk musical about it?
“To me,” Jim says, the mine disaster provided “rich and limitless material for poetic exploration and songwriting.”
When Jim, joined by Steef and Chris Sealy and Ben Cowhick – performed Davey for a small audience at a private event last summer, those on hand experienced a musical tale about a single event that nonetheless spoke to universality of the human experience, while raising more questions than answers.
Swallow Hill Music is honored to present the public premiere of Davey, Do You See The Light? on Friday, January 25, 2019. Tickets to that performance are sold out, but tickets are still available for a second performance on Sunday, January 27 at 7 p.m.
Jim provided many details about the event, and how he brought it to life in music, in an extensive email Q&A. To learn more about Davey, please read on. If you plan on seeing Davey and want to come into it without knowing how it all unfolds, however, this is a good place to stop reading until after you’ve seen it.
Can you briefly describe what Davey, Do You See the Light? is about?
In August of 1963, three Pennsylvania coal miners (Louis Bova, Henry Throne, and David “Davey” Fellin) were trapped when the tunnels around them suddenly came down. There was little hope that they could have survived. After a couple of days, the authorities were ready to shut down the operation and begin the excavation of their bodies.
The brother of one of the miners emerged as the hero of the story when he went to the courts and insisted that he be able to find them by drilling. Imagine drilling an eight inch wide bore down straight down the distance of a football field and hitting a bulls eye into a tiny chamber. This is actually what happened.
And imagine yelling down into that hole and having someone yell back at you!
When it was learned that the miners were alive, literally thousands of people descended on a little village in the Pennsylvania countryside. The National Guard was called in to keep order. Scaffolds were built to support an array of TV cameras. Banks of phones were quickly put into place. It was the lead story on Walter Cronkite and Huntley-Brinkley for nearly two weeks.
When the two surviving miners – Henry and Davey – were brought to the surface and hospitalized, they told extraordinary stories about the visions they saw below ground.
It was easy for everyone to write off their accounts as hallucinations, because such things were common with trapped miners. The world media was instead focused on the miraculous and unlikely outcome of their ordeal.
But hallucinations, like dreams, are products of the unconscious mind and can tell a tale of their own. As I discovered, these miners had quite a tale to tell. To them, it all was ‘real’.
To me, this was rich and limitless material for poetic exploration and songwriting.
It was fun for me to think of these miners as Shakespearean characters, locked in a deadly struggle and guided by a visitation from beyond this world. And it was fun to experiment with the juxtaposition of dramatic verse and original acoustic songs.
What was it about this incident that inspired you to write a larger piece – a folk opera and epic poem – as opposed to a song?
The story is powerful to me because I have a personal attachment to these events. The mine disaster happened about a half mile down the road from my mother’s childhood home and my grandmother was still living there at the time. I know from my diary from 1963 (I know…that’s hard to believe) that I was there the day of the rescue.
What has always drawn me to this story is that so much is unexplained and will probably never be explained. Was there some link between the miraculous events above ground and the miraculous events below? There is simply too much coincidence to believe that there isn’t.
For instance, when they brought the drilling machine to the site, it was on wheels and broke down well before they could get it to the spot they had marked. After much argumentation and a near-altercation, they decided to simply drill where the thing had broken down. This way, they could feel like they at least had tried. And this turned out to be the precise location of the miners!
Looking back on the accounts, it’s tempting to speculate whether there might have been supernatural forces at work, and I think about that a lot.
My passion to write a folk opera stems from my deep admiration for Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown, which is now on its way to Broadway. When she came to Song School a few years ago, I signed up for a mentoring session and we ended up talking much longer than we were supposed to. She taught me some things about story development and gave me the encouragement I was looking for.
It was soon after that when I remembered the story of the mining disaster and wrote a song called “Davey, Do You See the Light?” For a long time, that is all it was, just a song. One day I started developing some rhymes to tell the story. It all came very naturally. More rhymes, more songs, more story.
Since I didn’t know a lot of the specifics, I started to make stuff up. When you came to the reading last June, there was a lot in there that was inaccurate.
It was just after the reading that I happened upon a web page that talked about a reporter named Ed Conrad, who devoted several years of his life in the late 1980s to interviewing Davey and getting the full story. Ed was a reporter with the Hazleton Standard-Speaker and he took great fascination in documenting the visions and out of body travel that the miners experienced.
I called the newspaper and was fortunate to get connected to an editor named Ed Socha, who talked to me at length and hooked me up with people in the area who are still keeping the story alive. One was Ed Conrad himself, who I called and chatted with. He told me that his wife had gotten rid of all the Davey materials years ago, but said it was OK to call once in a while with questions if I wanted to. I did just that about a week later and instead his wife answered. When I explained what I was up to, she said in fact everything was still there, in their home in Shenandoah, Pa.
I knew right then that I had to book a flight to Pennsylvania and visit the folks that Ed Socha had mentioned. Another was Carol Zielinski, the niece of Davey Fellin, who provided a wealth of information.
I have a cousin in New Jersey who inherited my grandmother’s house and was using it as a vacation home. I contacted him and arranged to stay there during my research. I had not set foot there since my grandmother’s funeral in 1977, so it was quite an emotional journey for me.
I stopped in briefly at Ed Conrad’s house and he gave me a stack that included several VHS tapes, DVDs and his unpublished book about Davey’s revelations. My ancestral home didn’t have cable or Internet, but it did have a DVD and VHS player, so I spent hours watching these amazing interviews and reading his book, Look to the Light!
So you will see that the story has taken a different turn since I was able to fill in some gaps with more realistic content.
As it turns out, the ‘real’ stuff is much more interesting than the ‘made up’ stuff.
As you mention, I was among those fortunate enough to see a live workshop/performance of Davey this summer. You told the audience to imagine it as a radio play of sorts. Do you have any staging – set or props or costumes – planned for when you perform Davey at Swallow Hill?
It’s still very much a radio play that runs in your head. It was just simply easier to stage it that way, especially in a small venue like the Tuft Theatre at Swallow Hill. I’m very interested to see how the audience reacts and hope in the future to possibly make it into a proper musical play.
By the way, I’ve been using ‘folk opera’ as a kind of shorthand, because it clicks with people. But technically, an opera is a story that is told entirely in song, so it’s more appropriate to refer to Davey as a ‘musical’ or a ‘folk musical’. I’m not so sure the label matters right now, but maybe someday it will.
How did your friends and fellow musicians react when you enlisted them to be part of such a grand undertaking?
I am so lucky to have found the partners I have. These are talented and experienced actors and musicians and I am learning so much from them.
When I had a workable draft last spring, I called Steef to see if he and his wife Chris would join me in reading and singing it last April to the Denver songwriter’s group—just for grins. I wasn’t sure how the poem and the music would blend. We played to an audience of seven and I’ll never forget the seven person standing ovation we got. It was so much fun, and unbelievably helpful to get the feedback from the group.
Right after the first reading, Steef suggested that we approach Ben Cowhick to see it he might be interested in joining our ensemble. I went up to Brighton to see him as Johnny Cash in Ring of Fire and was very impressed. I was also delighted to hear that he had learned at bit about Davey and was excited to participate. He joined us for the June reading and has been with us ever since.
Friends and neighbors everywhere have been curious about what I am up to and excited to come to the show. You’ve written a what?
How has Davey evolved since adding multiple voices and instrumentation?
With each rehearsal, the instrumental and vocal work rises to a new level. We share the lead voice from song to song, and this had added new depth since the earlier readings, when I was doing most of the singing. Chris plays mandolin and is a genius at coaching our harmony parts. Ben provides a wonderful bass guitar performance which is subtle and creative. Steef adds a great folk dimension to the tunes with his banjo. And everyone reads the spoken parts with animated voices.
Is there a version of Davey that can be performed solo?
I’ve done a number of solo readings for friends to get their comments, and it’s fun to do that. But there isn’t a solo version, at least not yet.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I want to extend my deepest thanks to the staff of Swallow Hill, who took a risk and offered to present a debut performance like this. It has really energized our work to continually improve Davey and we are looking forward to doing it for the audience coming to Tuft in January.
We are grateful to everyone who has bought tickets and helped to sell out the first show so quickly. Thanks!
I especially want to thank you, Barry, for setting this in motion and getting this wonderful invitation to perform.