Harlan Variations is named for Harlan County, KY, in the heart of southern Appalachia. Historically speaking, Harlan County is fairly significant, as it was the site of many violent labor strikes related to the coal mining industry throughout the twentieth century. Perhaps its prominence as a place of social and political unrest is at least in some part responsible for its significance in Appalachian folklore and culture, where it seems to serve as somewhat of a veritable epicenter. The famous song, Which Side Are You On?, was written by Harlan County native Florence Reece in 1931 as a response to the ongoing labor strife, and the name is mentioned again in several other songs — most notably perhaps — in the old bluegrass standard, Shady Grove.
As a native of South Carolina who spent a good part of his life in the mountains of western North Carolina and Tennessee, the songs of Appalachia occupy a fairly significant place in my heart. Although I am by no means an aficionado, I have always appreciated and enjoyed this music, filled as it is with colorful characters and stories that simultaneously suggest a darker side of life, often steeped in poverty and misfortune.
Harlan Variations is cast in a kind of a "crossfade theme and variations" form, although it was conceived as having a very "through-composed" sound and feel. It begins with a minor-mode sounding "theme" that dissolves away and ultimately transforms (over the course of several variations) into a bright harmonization of the old church hymn, When We Shall Meet. I first encountered this song on a recording, sung by a congregation from The Old Regular Baptist Church, based somewhere in eastern Kentucky (presumably), and was taken with its soulfulness.