Elyssa East is the author of Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town, which won the PEN/L. L. Winship Award for Best Work of Nonfiction of 2010. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, and elsewhere.
In the Eastern Kentucky coalfields, unionism—or its lack—was a creed people held and defended as fiercely as those of the region’s charismatic religions. And the music Sarah Ogan Gunning and her siblings produced between the 1930s and 1960s was as steeped in unionism and communism as it was in the traditional songs, ballads, and hymns of Appalachia.
My family is never mentioned by name in Harlan County, USA, but it is alluded to in many passages about the county’s history. Over this they were none too pleased, which poses a problem: I love the film.
The 1960s were coming to a close when rising country rock musician Gram Parsons posed next to Nudie Cohn, the celebrated Western-wear designer more than three times his senior, for a photoshoot. Neither of them would have predicted that Parsons’s “Nudie suit”—embroidered with rhinestone-studded marijuana leaves, sequin-dotted poppies, and sugar cubes laced with LSD—also foretold of his death.