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“One Day More”

Activist Songwriter Elaine Purkey

By Paul Gartner

Elaine Purkey
Elaine Purkey in an early publicity photo. Photographer and date unknown.

Call her persistent. After 20 years, community activist and songwriter Elaine Purkey is still fighting the good fight. As she puts it, "If you don't bother, it's going to get worse."

Along with her husband, Bethel, the Lincoln County resident is a veteran of the bitter UMW strike against Pittston Coal, dating back to the late 1980's. Since then, she has walked picket lines with the steelworkers union in Ravenswood, worked with West Virginians who have lost water wells to mine damage, helped to rewrite water regulations, assisted miners trying to obtain black lung benefits, and showed rural communities how to get their roads out of creek beds.

Now self-employed as a freelance organizer and activist, Elaine speaks about forging ties between unions and local communities. "I talk about getting union people and community people to work together," Elaine says. "There are things that citizens can do that unions can't do."

Elaine says she once told UMW president Cecil Roberts, "You can sign up the worker — that's one. I can follow right in your tracks and go into the house and talk to the wife and two children and sign three people up. There's the difference!"

She points to Boone County and the push to keep overweight coal trucks off state roads. "[The union] would do the technical side, and we would do the emotional side."

One weapon on the "emotional side" for Elaine is her powerful voice and her soul-stirring songs. Audiences across the nation have been moved by her mountain singing, which she delivers full throttle, and her heartfelt original songs.

None of this, the singing or community work, was planned, Elaine says. One thing is certain: It all started with the Pittston strike. “All of it,” Elaine says.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.