This is a story about my big brother Billy, and why I was moved to write a song about him. Today I am feeling plaintive. Years, then decades pass so quickly between far away family. In your mind, you see their faces as you last remember them. It is sometimes shocking to witness the changes life brings to the body, mind and spirit of a long lost loved one. This is the case between my older brother Billy and myself. I was only about 5 years old when Billy dropped out of high school and jumped on the bus headed east. That was about 60 years ago! I have seen him twice in all that time. No particular reason. Life happens. Time passes. Some people travel and visit family all the time. We just never did.
Billy ended up in eastern Kentucky. He went to Harlan County to work in the coal mines. I came to understand the significance of that hard life years later. There was a TV documentary titled “Bloody Harlan”. It was all about the mine worker’s union and how they fought the company for a better life. It was called Harlan County War.
My big brother was a coal miner and a safety man. Years ago I visited him while attending a bluegrass music trade show in Louisville. He squired me around the county and introduced me to all his “old friends”. Some were quite colorful! There was one man they called “Rabbit”. He was an older gentleman who drove around town in a beat up pickup, but he had a brand new F-150 parked in the garage. Odd I thought. Rabbit was the retired secretary of the coal miner’s union. A very important person in the town. He seemed to like my brother. There were others who gave me insight into Billy’s life in those parts. He was clearly well respected.
Recently, I got word that Billy has been moved into a memory care center. He always managed to come out from under ground before, but this appears to be a different kind of cave-in. In the song, I ask “Where are you tonight brother Billy?… Are you way down in the mine?”, a reference now it seems to Alzheimer’s.
If I had the money for a professional audio engineer, I would probably buy a plane ticket for Kentucky!
December 5, 2014… Just got the word that my brother passed away. I am filled with regret that I only made one visit in all that time. If you have someone you have been missing, please consider re-connecting soon. We are all just passing through. Go rest high on that mountain William W. Ireton. Tell Dad I will be along in God’s time.
Brother Billy © 2004 George Ireton
Remember when you taught me how to whittle on the day you gave me my first knife?
That was long ago and I was very little when you started out to live your own life.
We only had a few short years together when you left home and family far behind.
They told me you were working in Kentucky down in the Blue Diamond Mine.
Where are you tonight brother Billy? Are you way down in the mine?
Do you ever think about the old times? Do I ever cross your mind?
I’ve only seen you one time in all these 40 years when you came home to say goodbye to Dad.
It was good you got to see him just before he died. He told me that it made him very glad.
I can’t imagine working in a coal mine where you can’t see the sun or blue moon.
How do you stand it down there Brother Billy?
I hope we see each other some day soon.