“Daddy won’t you take me
back to Muhlenberg County
down by the Green River
where Paradise lay.
I’m sorry my son
But you’re too late in asking
Mr. Peabody’s coal train
has hauled it away.”
These lyrics and the tune that accompanies them are familiar to nearly everyone. I have met a few younger people who thought that the song was an old traditional song from the Appalachians. As much as it has been adopted by many traditional artists, “Paradise”, of course, was written by John Prine. I suspect that all of the riders on the Bus were aware of the song’s true origin.
What many folks don’t know is the story of Paradise and the Green River. The Green River flows through the heart of the Western Coal Field Region of Kentucky. The Green River starts in Lincoln County, just about in the center of Kentucky and ends about 300 river miles away at the confluence with the Ohio River. The river flows through Mammoth Cave National Park and drains the cave and surrounding area.
Starting in 1842, a series of four locks and dams were constructed along the Green River to facilitate barge traffic to the vast lignite coal fields, petroleum coke, and aluminum ore that were mined and produced along it’s banks. Muhlenberg County was at one time the largest coal producing county in North America and the Peabody Coal Company was, and still is, the largest coal company in the world. Peabody had several operations along Kentucky’s Green River, but it wasn’t Peabody that hauled away the town of Paradise.
Notice that Paradise is capitalized in Prine’s lyrics. Yes, there was a town named Paradise along the Green River. Peabody didn’t directly haul the town away, although it is possible that their influence and political power had much more to do with it than the records indicate. No, the town of Paradise was submerged below the Green River Lake in 1969, when the Tennessee Valley Authority impounded the river behind a new dam to provide flood protection, electricity, and improved barge traffic to the coal fields.
So the story of Paradise, the Green River, and Peabody’s Coal is not a traditional song, but John Prine’s response to the further damming of the beautiful Green River and the loss of the town of Paradise. Prine grew up in Indiana, just across the Ohio River from where the Green joins the Ohio. The controversy of the new dam and the submerging of the town of Paradise would have been local news to his home region.
The Green River and Peabody Coal were once again in the news just a few years ago. Peabody Energy, same company / new name, applied for permits to construct a 1500mw coal fired power plant near Central City, Kentucky, the largest coal-fired power plant to be built in America in the last twenty years. As proposed by Peabody the plant will not have flue gas scrubbers and will return the heated water to the river untreated and at high temperatures. The proposed site is only 50 miles west of Mammoth Cave National Park. Mammoth Cave already has the worst visibility of any National Park in the United States, the proposed power plant would add to the white, sulfurous haze that hangs over the Park nearly continuously. The EPA filed its arguments against the construction of the plant as proposed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also filed an objection based on the Peabody’s plans to build a large barge unloading dock and water supply and discharge structures on the banks of the Green River. Shortly after Peabody, its subsidiaries, and principals donated over $300000 to the Republican Party, the EPA and Fish and Widlife requests for impact studies were withdrawn. Thanks to the actions of the citizens of Kentucky, the proposed power plant has yet to receive a permit for construction.
The fact that "Paradise" has been adopted by many traditional artists is a testament to the songwriting skills of John Prine and the timeless subject of his song.
Note: The Bus is still having conection troubles, but the phone and TV are working now. I suppose 2 out of 3 ain't bad.