Mountain State of Mind

EPISODE 6: Songmakers: “The Don Blankenship Blues”

In this episode of the “Mountain State of Mind” podcast of the Charleston Gazette-Mail we begin an occasional series on “Songmakers,” about how singer-songwriters come to write the songs they do– then they perform their song. Our guest is Colleen Anderson, who has come out with a song called “The Don Blankenship Blues.” The song concerns the former Massey Energy CEO, who on May 12, 2016 began serving a one-year sentence for conspiring to violate health and safety standards at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va., where 29 miners died in April 2010 in America’s worst coal mining disaster in decades. Anderson sings the song with help form Julie Adams of the “Mountain Stage” band.

The is a companion podcast to an article titled “Former coal magnate Don Blankenship leaves mark in art, song” in the Sunday, May 29, 2016 edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail by Douglas Imbrogno. For more on the Don Blankenship trial and sentencing, see the Gazette-Mail’s special section here.

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Colored pencil illustration of Don Blankenship used courtesy of Jeff Pierson (

By Douglas Imbrogno
Charleston Gazette-Mail | May 29, 2016

The history of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s fall has been recorded in a veritable mountain of legal documents. But art and song have also begun to have a say in the saga of the once high-flying, all-powerful coal mining magnate.

On May 12, Blankenship began serving a one-year sentence in a California prison for conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, where 29 miners died in April 2010 in America’s worst coal-mining disaster in decades.

Two artists were on hand during the trial, which was closed to photography. Jeff Pierson produced illustrations for the Gazette-Mail’s coverage and Rob Cleland did likewise for WOWK-Channel 13 News.

On March 17, the Taylor Books Art Gallery in downtown Charleston featured the artists’ work in the exhibit “Drawings from the Blankenship Trial.” (The exhibit has since concluded, but a handful of works still remain on view.)

Meanwhile, well-known Charleston graphic designer, songwriter, poet and sometimes activist Colleen Anderson has been performing a new song called “The Don Blankenship Blues” as part of a long Appalachian tradition of folk music absorbing and responding to current headlines from the coal fields… | READ ON

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Here’s a memorial slideshow to the 29 miners, ages 20 to 61, who died in the April 5, 2010, explosion at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch Mine near Montcoal, West Virginia. This was originally produced for the Charleston Gazette in Charleston, W.Va., by Douglas Imbrogno. The soundtrack is “Andante Quieto,” by the New Arts Trio from the CD “Harold Hayslett: A Musical Tribute” (

EPISODE 5: Novelizing the Battle of Blair Mountain

The Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 in southern West Virginia was the largest civil insurrection since the Civil War and the largest labor rebellion in American history. Former West Virginia journalist Topper Sherwood, who now calls Berlin his home, has written a novel titled “Carla Rising,” inspired by the remarkable events of that time. Listen to “Mountain State of Mind” podcast interview with Sherwood about the inspiration for the novel.

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The podcast is a companion multimedia piece to a review of “Carla Rising” by Paul Nyden in the May 15, 2016 issue of the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Below is an excerpt from that review. Click on the link below to read the full review:

Carla Rising,” by Topper Sherwood

Martinsburg, W.Va.: Appalachian Editions, 2015

312 pages. Paperback, $16.99.


For the Charleston Gazette-Mail

“Carla Rising” is an engaging novel about labor unrest that sparked the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, one of the most famous confrontations in American labor history.

The battle was waged in company towns and across mountainsides in Logan and Boone counties. Many striking coal miners, evicted from their homes by company guards, created tent colonies and marched toward Logan, headed toward a confrontation with thousands of county sheriffs, private mine guards and strikebreakers backed by coal operators.

Topper Sherwood’s novel is filled with fascinating stories about the personal debates which undoubtedly took place. “Carla Rising” — focused on a female character of that name — delves into the intense internal conflicts on both sides of the long, often violent union-company conflict.

Between Aug. 25 and Sept. 2, 1921, more than 10,000 union coal miners battled local law enforcement officers and coal company guards along Blair Mountain Ridge. It was the largest armed conflict in American labor history.

Coal miners first gathered in the town of Marmet near the Kanawha River to start their long march to help unionize mines in Logan and Mingo counties. More than a million rounds were fired during the historic battle, which ended only after 2,500 federal troops and a squadron of bomber planes were ordered in by President Warren Harding …



Maestro Grant Cooper is retiring after 15 years as conductor of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra. In Episode 4 of “Mountain State of Mind,” a podcast of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Cooper talks about the art of conducting, how he tried to be Leonard Bernstein, the difference between conducting with a baton and your bare hands and more. The podcast is a companion piece to an article in the Friday, May 6, 2016 Charleston Gazette-Mail, excerpted below.

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Grant Cooper hit the big stage for the very first time as a very small guy.

The current maestro of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra was then age 4, growing up in Wellington, New Zealand. His mother would end up singing as a soloist with the New Zealand Opera Company, but before that she sang with a semi-professional opera outfit.

“Once, they needed a kid to come on stage,” recalled Cooper. “I had to shout, ‘The bears broke loose!’ It was before I could read obviously, so it’s a line I’ve never forgotten.”

His stage chops have come a long way since then. Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Clay Center and Sunday at 3 p.m. at Parkersburg’s Blennerhasset School, Cooper, 63, will mark 15 years of conducting the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra with a special concert dubbed “Maestro’s Fantasia.”

It’s Cooper’s swan song in leading the entire orchestra, as he announced his retirement this past fall. In the upcoming 2016-17 season, he will lead four Symphony Pops concerts, while potential new maestros of the WVSO will take turns leading the full orchestra in what amounts to live auditions.

In a wide-ranging interview at the symphony’s Wyoming Street offices last week, Gazette-Mail assistant lifestyle editor Douglas Imbrogno and freelance classical music reviewer David Williams talked with Cooper about his days as a trumpet star, just what a conductor does, the role of symphonies in the short-attention span digital age and more.



EPISODE 3: 70 Years a Nun

Sister Mary Pellicane has been a nun longer than most of us have been alive. On Good Friday 2016, she marked 70 years as a nun of the Sisters of Cenacle, 37 of those years spent in Charleston, W.Va. She’s 94 years old and has long been a spiritual icon of West Virginia. She grew up Sicilian on the streets of New York before discovering her life’s mission while on retreat in her early 20s. This is a companion podcast to the story below, published in the March 25, 2016 edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail:

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NOT A SOUND: The quiet life of a nun who can’t stop talking

By Douglas Imbrogno
Charleston Gazette-Mail

There are several distinct places you might pick up the tale of Sister Mary Pellicane’s long life and hard-scrabble roots.

Along with her 94 years of age and still nimble mind — minus the occasional, self-confessed senior moments — the numbers alone are impressive.

Today, on Good Friday, at the West Virginia Institute of Spirituality, Sister Pellicane will mark 70 years as a nun with the Congregation of Our Lady of the Retreat in the Cenacle, 39 of those years as co-founder of the former Cenacle Retreat House on Virginia Avenue.

She has been a nun longer than most of us have been alive.

You might start her tale on small farms in rural Sicily, the land from which both her parents’ families and her father hailed.

Or perhaps on two ocean liners aimed for America across the choppy Atlantic Ocean, as those Sicilian country folk landed in the New World, and in New York City, several years apart but destined to meet.

If a fellow Italian with immigrant roots, like filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, were shooting her life’s tale, the opening scene might instead start with an overhead shot of the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan.

A young, comely Italian woman strolls across the bridge toward a short, handsome Italian fellow with curly black hair.

“He was so beautiful,” Sister Pellicane recalled of her father. “She was so beautiful,” she added, of her mother.

The couple began dating in Manhattan, she said. “She would walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to save money on the bus. She’d save 5 cents, I think. And he would meet her there. Then they would walk back over the Brooklyn Bridge. They courted that way.”

Their romance soon blossomed into marriage. Along came a first child, a son, while living in a cold-water Brooklyn flat.

The second child was dark-haired Mary Pellicane, after the couple had moved into a warm-water Brooklyn flat.

Three more sons would follow as the couple undertook what Sister Pellicane dubbed the “immigration migration,” moving up and moving out of the immigrant ghetto where the family’s life began.

Her father was an ambitious, if ever stylish, man, even when young.

One day, as a boy, he’d been sent out shopping for family supplies. He came home and told his mother he’d run out of money for what he was supposed to get.

“Where did the money go?” his mother inquired.

“I bought a cane!” he said.

Sister Pellicane chuckled, as she nestled her thin, stooped frame in a chair in the meeting room of the Institute of Spirituality at 1601 Virginia Street E. Her own gray metal walking cane leaned upon her chair, a testament to the then-and-now of her long life … | READ ON

EPISODE 2: ‘In Defense of Baboons’

In the second episode of the “Mountain State of Mind” podcast of the Charleston Gazette-Mail,  host Douglas Imbrogno talks with WVU law professor and critically acclaimed poet and author Michael Blumenthal, who in another life would have liked to have been a primate zoologist. Blumenthal talks about his up close and personal encounter with “the Mother Teresa of Baboons,’ and the book he cobbled together with her help, documenting her amazing life story. Below is the first part of a companion article to the podcast, published in the Sunday, March 6, 2016 edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail:

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By Douglas Imbrogno
Charleston Gazette-Mail

It was a most unlikely encounter beside a crocodile-filled river in South Africa in 2007.

The meeting had been set in motion months before when Michael Blumenthal, a visiting professor of law at West Virginia University, saw an episode on Animal Planet about Rita Miljo, a woman dubbed “The Mother Teresa of Baboons.”

Blumenthal, a critically acclaimed poet, author and former director of Harvard University’s creative writing program, was stirred to interest.

The program depicted a tough, unsentimental woman in her 70s who had devoted much of her later adult life to adopting, caring for and releasing orphaned infant baboons back into the wild as members of functioning baboon troops.

What Blumenthal learned of Miljo and her organization — C.A.R.E. (the Center for Animal Rehabilitation and Education) — so intrigued him that he tracked her down. He asked if he could come volunteer for a month at her preserve in the South African outback, south of the copper mining town of Phalaborwa.

In short order, he was soon strolling with Miljo one day in May 2007 beside the Olifants River near Kruger National Park. (But not too close to the river because one local resident had gotten drunk, leapt into the river and was eaten by a crocodile.)

Crocodiles, as well as elephants, lions, hippos, leopards, warthogs, pythons, jackals and chacma baboons — many, many chacma baboons — were just part of Miljo’s everyday landscape.

“Baboons were kind of hated because they would break into everything and eat crops and a lot of them were shot,” Blumenthal said. “So there were a lot of orphan baboons. She decided that she was going to start this center for orphan baboons and raise them and then reintroduce them into the wild when they were old enough…” | READ ON

“Mountain State of Mind” is a new podcast of the Charleston Gazette-Mail that focuses on interesting people and intriguing developments around the state of West Virginia. This podcast is a companion broadcast to a story in the Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016 Gazette-Mail on the development of the West Virginia Activist Archive, by Michael Tierney, a longtime community activist in West Virginia with Step by Step and other efforts, and Dr. Luke Eric Lassiter, head of the Marshall University Graduate Humanities Program at Marshall’s Graduate College/South Charleston Campus. Below is the opening to the story.

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Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016
By Douglas Imbrogno
Activists tend to be active in everything but actively recording a story of the change their work leaves behind.

Enter the West Virginia Activist Archive.

“There are a lot of tremendous social change agents in West Virginia that have been doing great work for a long time, and their stories don’t tend to get captured. We wanted to catch those stories.” said Michael Tierney, himself an activist for nearly 40 years with the regional nonprofit group Step By Step and many other efforts.

Along with Luke Eric Lassiter, Tierney is co-teaching the graduate seminar “West Virginia Activists: Stories of Social Change,” through the Marshall University Graduate Humanities Program at Marshall’s Graduate College/South Charleston Campus.

As part of the seminar, Tierney and Lassiter, director of the Graduate Humanities Program and a professor of humanities and anthropology, have pulled together a series of panels open to the public (see below). The panels are intended to paint a portrait of some of the people, old and young, at the forefront of social justice, environmental activism, community empowerment, women’s rights and other frontline causes across West Virginia… | READ ON