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Rap song remembers Sago disaster

By Staff | Nov 23, 2009

On Jan. 2, 2006, a disaster occurred at the Sago No. 1 mine, located just outside of Buckhannon in Upshur County. As two carts of workers entered the mine that morning, a pocket of methane that had been previously reported weeks earlier was spreading throughout the mine.

It is unknown what exactly caused the initial spark that led to the explosion (though many believe it was lightning transmitted from the surface), but sometime after the first cart passed the pocket, and before the second cart arrived, the pent up methane ignited, trapping 13 workers hundreds of feet below ground. The event would lead families on a rollercoaster of emotions, capture the attention of the national press, and spark vigils, memorials, and tributes.

One of those tributes resulting from the disaster was a song Paycheck Game called “Sago.”

While on the surface “Sago” appears to focus purely on the end result of the disaster, the song is a display of what happens when safety violations are repeatedly ignored by the safety net put in place to catch them, through use of lyrics and audio clips strewn throughout the song.

A Real Billy Rapper

Paycheck Game is well known for his down-to-earth, blue-collar, everyman persona. In a genre of hip-hop indigenous to West Virginia and relatively unknown outside of the state, “Real Billy,” Paycheck’s songs frequently fall in line with the values and viewpoints of rural West Virginians. Paycheck Game is a native of the state, and a brief skim of his albums reveal his intimate knowledge of the plight of the average citizen.

Paycheck Game was born Jason Hamrick in Webster Springs, Webster County, about an hour from Sago. Growing up, he saw everyday what it was like to be a miner. He remembers uncles coming home covered in black soot, and talking shop amongst themselves at family events.

Friends of Coal?

West Virginia has historically had its economy centered on the mining and production of coal. So ingrained is mining in the state’s culture, it has even spawned culinary dishes almost exclusively indigenous to West Virginia. The pepperoni roll, for one, was created for its portability and its unnecessary need for refrigeration, by Italian immigrants who flocked to the state’s mines, along with other European immigrants and Southern blacks in the 1890s in search of a better life.

Unfortunately, the notoriously hazardous conditions of being a mineworker are also well known. This was especially so in the southern West Virginia coal mines, where the mine barons were in bed with the politicians, and it was frequently hard to tell who was working for whom, as the elite could and would leave a public service job to join the employ of a coal mine and vice versa many times over throughout their career.

The consequences of this particularly cozy relationship have led to the overlooking of safety violations, labor laws, and living conditions of the miners.

As stated before, Paycheck is a West Virginian through and through. His words resound with his audience; often because his lexicon consists of the same verbiage and colloquialisms his audience grew up hearing their whole life. They are as familiar to his audience as the route home. If further proof were needed of Paycheck Game’s hometown appeal, one need only look to his moniker, chosen in half from the country singer Johnny Paycheck, himself choosing an ironic name. Johnny was known for his simple yet honest portrayal of the oft forgotten about working poor, and is an artist Paycheck Game grew up listening to.

“Sago” highlights not the events and missteps that led to the worst disaster to hit West Virginia mining in over 20 years, but the results. He takes his listeners on a first-person journey of what it would be like to be one of those miners trapped below, alone, praying for any type of rescue, yet all the while knowing what those chances are. It is an intimate and precise lens through which to observe the tragedy of placing profit margin above the safety of one’s fellow man.

“Sago” by Paycheck Game:

[Hook]: A sample repeats the words “Please. Don’t give up on me”

[1st verse]: Deep inside that rubble we runnin’ out of breath/I can’t hear anything like is there anyone left?/I’m in a small pocket, think I fractured my hip/I’ll probably get crushed if one of these beams slip/I’m just hopin’ they come quick with the rescue/My sister’s about to have my second nephew/My girl and I had a fight before I left out/My son and my daughter. Man I gotta get out/Just don’t give up, don’t lose hope/Tell my family I love ‘em I’m writin’ my last note/I’m all boxed in, oxygen is thin/I had a dream, it was about you. back then/So keep diggin, keep diggin until you find me/The last place that you look is the place that I’ma be/I’m in there, somewhere, just waitin’/Waitin on my angel to bring salvation.

[Hook]: “Please. Don’t give up on me.” Also intermittent audio clips of the celebrations that occurred when the news of the 13 miner’s survival was heard. (Later said to be a miscommunication as all were dead, save one.)

[2nd verse]:This is for the Sago Mine and folks of 9/11/Earthquake survivors, the ones alive to tell it/This is for the widows that relive/God bless all of the people who try to give/But when the ones you love is in there missin’/All we can do is pray they still livin’/Prayin’ that Katrina never happens again/What happened to the folks that never learned how to swim?/Or couldn’t stand up outta they hospital bed/Floatin out the basement, all of ‘em dead/Firefighters runnin’ up the quickest to that first tower/Makeshift memorials, pictures and flowers/The piles getting heavy, I’m feelin’ that pressure/I really do appreciate the rescue efforts/But if we wanna do somethin’, we need to do it fast/It keeps getting’ darker, I don’t know how long I’ma last.

The song begins with a mine spokesman announcing that an explosion had occurred at the Sago mine. The beat (Produced by DJ Coutz) drops in and the listener is met with arguably the most haunting effect of the song, the hook, which samples Solomon Burke crooning softly “Please. Don’t give up on me.” In the first of two verses, the artists deftly envisions the thought process of a man running out of time, and accurately recalls the miners writing their last notes and goodbyes to their family. Near the end of the first verse Paycheck says “Tell My family I love em I’m writin’ my last note/ I’m all boxed in, oxygen is thin.” A reference not only to being trapped below ground, but that the miners had just four rescue breathing apparatuses among the 13 of them.

When the second hook begins the audio clips immediately kick in. They display the pure joy of the good news. The miners had been found. All of them were alive. In the background you hear the screams of happiness emanating from the crowd gathered at the town church, desperate for any positive word. Random crowd members relay excitably to the listener the status of the miners. To this effect, the listener could almost be compelled to believe the miraculous news all over again. In doing so, one is forced to recall the actual events and become solemnly aware that the elation of the boisterous crowd is all but ill founded.

“Sago’s” second verse takes on a broader tone, acknowledging various other tragedies that have struck America this millennium, establishing the Sago 13 within the ranks of the 9/11 and Katrina victims and survivors, all otherwise preventable disasters had warnings been observed. It again depicts firsthand accounts of what may have transpired in the other events, and is brought back in the last two bars of the verse to the original miner pleading for swift rescue.

The last hook reveals what the listener is fully aware of by now. The mine spokesman has returned to inform the world that the original account of the miners’ survival was indeed miscommunication. The crowd reacts, and the pain is present in their voices. The last thing heard on the song is a flashback to yet another crowd member telling a camera crew, “We’re still hoping for that miracle. That West Virginia miracle.” Flashing back further still, we hear the church bells ringing as cheers erupt from the crowd, further highlighting the drama that occurred that day in Sago.

The Smoke Clears

In the aftermath of the disaster it was revealed that Sago had amassed 208 citations in 2005, up from a relatively smaller amount of 68 in 2004. Despite the sudden jump in citations the mine was never closed and the revelation sparked public outrage.

Robert C. Byrd asked, “Could an automobile driver or truck driver rack up 276 speeding tickets and still have a license?” He continued, “What if someone had 276 mistakes on their tax return? But here was a coal company with 276 safety violations and still operating.” Gov. Joe Manchin jumped on the disaster declaring there would be a “stand-down” at all West Virginia coalmines until each one could be inspected. When questioned at the very same press conference, Gov. Manchin added the stand-downs would take an hour. It was also noted that the stand-downs would be voluntary.

Despite the public outcry for change, the Bush administration was reluctant to impose harsher fines on the coal industry. As time wears on, the disaster falls further and further from the national conscience. But every once in a while a song like “Sago” is made. It reminds us of what happened and why. It assures us that, while the rest of the country has forgotten what greed over safety can do, West Virginia will not.

Contact Josh at letters@graffitiwv.com