Rising Star Quartet

The Rising Star Quartet was an ensemble of Black harmony singers, active in the late1930s, the 1940s, and early 1950s in McDowell and Raleigh counties, West Virginia.  All were union miners in and around Capels and Vivian and Slab Fork, and they were members of the Loves of Zion Baptist Church in Vivian when they formed their quartet. They had moved to Capels and were singing at the Royal Baptist Church there when Pennsylvania folklorist George Korson learned of the quartet and asked them to record for him in Welch.  The members were Timothy Dunnigan, James Williams, Manuel Walker, and Arret Harris and they sang for Korson on 30 May 1940.

Among the union songs they sang that day were Cheer the Union Travelers, which they had set to the melody of the well-known gospel song Let Us Cheer the Weary Traveler; in their song they condemn the scabs among them and praise supporters of the union, and in a spoken line they say they sing it to commemorate the men who died in the 10 January 1940 Pond Creek No. 1 mine explosion at Bartley in McDowell County, an explosion that killed ninety-one miners.  Another of their songs was Union in My Heart in which they sing proudly of their quartet and of UMWA Local 6125:

Both these songs were sung in the contemporary jubilee style of sacred singing, as was common among the many Black quartets that sang union songs in the 1930s and 1940s. In a review of the West Virginia University Press album Coal Digging Blues: Songs of West Virginia Miners, we find this assessment of them: “The United Four and the Rising Star are fine examples of the contemporary jubilee genre, and easily the equal of many of the groups that were recording commercially around this time. . . .[The Rising Star’s] two songs use some of the syncopation and swing effects that would have been known to their listeners from the popular recordings by The Golden Gate Quartet and the Heavenly Gospel Singers.  Union in My Heart works particularly well in that regard, especially the way the lead singer repeats the word ‘Union’ in the chorus - a beautiful and very effective arrangement.”

That they continued singing until the early 1950s is indicated by a notice in The Raleigh Register newspaper on 15 February 1951, and it appears that by that time they had moved to a coal town near Beckley:

“Club No. 1 of St. John Raleigh will sponsor a program Sunday at 2:30 PM at the church. . . .Music will be furnished by the Rising Star Quartet of Sprague.”  “Well if anybody asks you just who we are, just tell them that we’re the quartet called the famous The Rising Star.”


“If anybody asks you just where we’re from/

Just tell them that we’re from Capels 6125.”

Little else is known about the lives of these talented singers.

Timothy Dunnigan was born in 1908 in Jefferson County, Alabama.  When his WWII draft card was filed, he was working for the New River & Pocahontas Consolidated Coal Company in Capels.  Before he died in 1953 at the age of fifty-three in a Welch hospital, he was living and working as a miner in Capels. He is buried in the Oak Grove Cemetery at Bluewell, Mercer County.

Arret Harris was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1909 and when his WWII draft card was filed he too was living in Capels and working for the New River & Pocahontas Consolidated Coal Company.

Manuel Walker was born in Charlotte County, Virginia on 24 April 1886.  By 1920 he was already in West Virginia, working as a laborer on the railroad at Tidewater in McDowell County. In 1930 he was living in Slab Fork, Raleigh County, and working as a laborer in the mines.  On his WWII draft card he indicated that he was living in Thorpe, McDowell County, West Virginia and working for the U.S. Coal & Coke Company.  Like Mr. Dunnigan, he died in 1953 and is buried in the Oak Grove Cemetery at Bluewell in Mercer County. Before his death he had been living as a widower in Caretta, fourteen miles from Capels.

James Williams was born on 4 July 1906 in Woodstock, Alabama.  When he filed his WWII draft card, he was living in Capels and working for the New River & Pocahontas Consolidated Coal Company in that coal camp.  James is buried at Oak Grove Cemetery, Bluewell, Mercer County, WV. 

—Gloria Goodwin Raheja, February 2021, with additions of images by Chris Haddox, August 2021


  • Research of Gloria Goodwin Raheja, for her forthcoming book Logan County Blues: Frank Hutchison in the Sonic Landscape of the Appalachian Coalfields.
  • Liner notes for the West Virginia University Press album Coal Digging Blues: Songs of West Virginia Miners.
  • Templeton, Ray. 2007.  Review of Coal Digging Blues, published at the Musical Traditions website, http://www.mustrad.org.uk/reviews/coal_dig.htm.
  • Green, Archie.  1972.  Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs.  Urbana, Chicago, and London: University of Illinois Press.